What’s in a name? And what does your name mean, both literally and to you, personally? Does your name, in your mind, tie you to a particular people or heritage, imprinting you as the recipient of a unique chain and legacy, or serve as a mark of your individuality, if you go by a name you’ve chosen for yourself?I was named Matthew by my parents for Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew (and was born on 21 September, which is the feast-day of Matthew for the Western churches – though this was serendipitous; my parents had no knowledge of it being the saint’s day when I was born). Etymologically, the name comes from the Hebrew Mattityâhu מתתיהו meaning ‘Gift of Yah’; its first bearer in the Scriptures was the priest Mattityâhu ben Yôhânân the High Priest of Israel, father of the Maccabee brothers who led the Hebrew revolt against the Seleucids which established the Hasmonean Kingdom. I kept my birth name and consciously adopted the patronage of Holy Apostle Matthew on my conversion to Orthodox Christianity. His approach to the Gospel was to stress the continuity of the Hebrew Scriptures with the life of Christ – and continuity and tradition were then something I deeply valued (and still do). I also sympathised and to some degree identified with his background as a great sinner, and admired his travels in Ethiopia and Persia to spread the Gospel.
Across all cultures, peoples the world over have sought to honor their God or gods, their notable ancestors, or their favourite relatives and friends by naming their newborn children after them. In cultures which practise formal adoption rites, the bestowal of a new name often indicates the acceptance of and granting of a new group-based community identity to the new adopted person, while the retention or discarding of one’s “old name” in this context serves as a marker of group conformity or assertion of lineal genetic individuality.
In all cultures, from the earliest examples we have of autobiographical writings down to today, great import has historically been given to the naming of newborn babies, around which entire elaborate religious rites and ceremonies exist in five of the world’s largest religions involving Scripture recitation, water, fire, honey, flowers, etc. Similarly, for any coming of age / initiation ceremonies, such as confirmation / chrismation for Christians, bar and bat mitzvah for Jews, or hafiz /Qur‘anic memorisation or tariqah initiation for Muslims, the young person will either take on a new initiatic name of a patron saint or holy person of the religion, or be told aspects of the inner meaning of his or her birth name. The hope, in all societies, is that children will grow up in the character and likeness of the names with which their parents bestowed them.
So: what’s in your names? What is the etymology of your first, or personal name, and your surname or family name? Do you have a patronymic, or a clan whose lineage you’ve been told about and kept alive? Are you named for a relative, or is your personal name the first of its kind in your family? What of any saint or holy name you yourself took on? What do these names mean to you?
Franklin was my grandfather’s name (also my father’s middle name). Franklin Cooper was: a poor South Carolina sharecropper, a navy medic in the Pacific theatre in WWII, and a professional pharmacist who put himself through school with the help of the GI Bill after WWII. My grandfather is sadly no longer with us. I miss him in some rather unexpected ways; for example, I find I wish I could have talked with him more about his life growing up and the experiences he had of the massive social changes he lived through.
Etymologically the name ‘Franklin’ has two possible meanings. It is either a diminutive of Francis, meaning ‘Frank’ or ‘Frenchman’. Or it is an occupational surname referring to a free-born (but not noble) landowner in mediaeval England – as, for example, the ‘Franklin’s Tale’ in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. More than likely, however, my grandfather was named after Philadelphia inventor and American statesman Benjamin Franklin.
A sheep pasture in Low Ellington, Yorkshire, England - ancestral home of the Coopers
Cooper is the sixty-fourth most common surname in the United States, and most commonly it is an occupational surname referring to an urban or village tradesman who made barrels. The Quaker Cooper family I descend from – the one which this blog concerns – however, is said to be Lowland Scottish in origin, even though William Cowper emigrated from Low Ellington in Yorkshire (shown above). The occupational etymology, of course, still applies to the Scottish branches of the Cooper surname, but there is another possible derivations as a topographical surname: referring to someone from Cupar in Fife.