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11 Jul 2009

The Origin And Meaning Of Names

Yes, I love Bernie's lyrics. I am a fan of him and I'd never find a lyricist like him. Me too, I analyze his lyrics over and over, trying to find the meanings of the words, of the poetry. I always was wondering about how he chose the name of some of his characters... By chance? Really by meaning? And what about Elton's name? Hercules??? Reg, why not instead of Elton? So, I have to bring on an expert. She is an open encyclopedia on names and meanings.

So, thank you for the acceptation, really a pleasure to have you... Could you tell us, please, who are you and where are you from?

My name is Mònica Font and I'm from Barcelona (Catalonia), currently living in Ireland.

Great!!! One of Bernie’s lyrics reads: “I'll pick a star from the sky, Pull your name from a hat”... you’ll pick a lot of names from a hat... You are an expert in the origins and meanings of names. You've been writing several articles and you have a book on your desk, ready to be published... Why are you interested in names?

Well, I'm a linguist and given names are an element present in every single world language. A very special element, since, in some way, the given name is part of the subject who bears it: it singles out the bearer and, at the same time, the bearer identifies it as part of himself. That is why if someone criticizes our name or makes fun of it, we will feel outraged, criticized and mocked ourselves and will take offence.

Yes, certainly. In our case, for example... if we’re talking about two names... “Elton” and “John”... What’s the meaning and origin of those names?

Elton is a family name turned into a given name but its origins are dark. It clearly comes from a place name, but since there are several places named Elton in England, from different origins, it is not possible to attribute it a single meaning.

In some cases, the name comes from the Old English ael, "eel", and tun or ton, "town", that is, a town in an area rich in eels, but this one, despite being the most common explanation in baby names books and websites, it is not accurate for most of the places named Elton.

The second part of the name is not that complex: it is the aforesaid tun or ton, "town". In regards to the first part, it can come from the Anglo Saxon given name Elle, different from the modern feminine English Elle and originally a nickname for names beginning by Ælf- (Ælfwine, Ælfheah...), which was an Anglo Saxon element, ælf, "elf". But it can also come from the Anglo Saxon given name Æðel, originally a nickname for names beginning this way (Æðelfrid, Æðelwine...), from the element æðel, "noble". So, usually, we would have "Elle's town" or "Ethel's town", so to say.

The use of family names as given names in English appeared in 18th and 19th centuries among noble families, which used noble surnames from the feminine lineages in order to show the familial bonds in an exhibition of lineage pride. This custom, very common in Scotland, evolved and, at the end of the 19th century, the use of surnames as given names had spread out lto the ower classes without familiar relation with the surnames. Elton, for instance, has been regularly used as given name in the United States since at least the 1880s (the first decade with available data).

On the other hand, John has a clear etymology: it is an evolution, through the Greek and later the Latin, of the Biblical Hebrew Yochanan, coming from yeho, an abbreviation of Yahweh, "God", in the first spot of given names, and chanan, "he has forgiven" or "he has been merciful" (from the verb ch-n-n, "to forgive" or "to be merciful"). That is "God has forgiven" or "God is merciful".

Wow!!! Very interesting!!! You know Elton’s birthday name is Reginald Kenneth Dwight. For Elton, "Reg Dwight (name) was hopeless... it sounded like a library assistant (...) Reggie Jackson, for example, it sounds different”. Really “Reginald” and “Kenneth” are not very strong names, in artistic terms... aren’t they?

Well, Kenneth is very well represented in artistic field by the actors Kenneth Branagh and Kenneth Williams or the saxophonist Kenny G, Reginald by the actor Sir Reginald Denny and even Dwight has its well known bearers, as the actor Dwight Schultz or the singer Dwight Twilley. And if Elton John had stuck on his original name, we will have another very famous Reginald or Reg.

But if Reg Dwight sounded as a library assistant to him, it is very possible that to most of his coetaneous in England this combination suggested exactly this kind of character. So it is understable his urge to change it.

In another time or in another place, Reginald Dwight could be a cool name for a musician (for instance, in a vacuum, this combination brings me the image of a jazz musician) or an actor; I can easily see someone giving up his real name to take Reginald Dwight as stage name to honour Reginald Denny and Dwight Schultz.

Well, don’t mention Elton “Hercules” John his legal name registered in 1972. Hercules was the name of the horse in the British comedy series Steptoe and Son...

Since Hercules is a real human name, I don't have any problem with Elton John using it for himself to honour an animal. It would be very different to do that with a son or a daughter (honour an animal) or if it was a pet name, as Fluffy.

And we can consider Hercules a talisman name, because it contains the Greek root kléos, "fame, glory", and Elton John clearly has reached it.

Right. When Bernie wrote “Nikita”’s lyric, it was a controversial about a russian male’s name being in a song dedicated, so it seems, to a caucasian blond girl, for the influence of Ken Russell’s video clip. Has “Nikita” developed to a female name for that song?

The use of Nikita in the wrong gender is not that song's fault, but it certainly has played an initial and main role. I will make myself clear.

Just listening...

Outside of Russia and its influence area, Nikita was discovered by most of the population in the late 50s, early 60s, when Nikita Khrushchev was the premier of the Soviet Union. Since the main association, and probably the only one in that moment, was a man, despite to sound feminine in most of the European languages because of the a ending, Nikita was not used for girls; and, to be frank, neither for boys.

As the association with the Russian politician grew weak and the knowledge of the name remained, Nikita begun to be used for girls, notoriously in India; two of the most notable female Nikitas are Indian and were born before Elton John's song: Nikita Thukral (b. 1981) and Nikita Anand (b. 1983), both actresses and models. That is not puzzling if we bear in mind that in that country there is a trend for feminine Western names that sound Indian (Natasha, Monica, Tania, Sonia...) and that Nikita ends in A.

It is possible that the memory of Khrushchev was more vivid in Western countries that in India and that is why the Indian use of Nikita in feminine predates the Western one, generally speaking, but it looks more or less clear that by the early 80s all countries but Russia were ready to use Nikita as a feminine name because the new generation of parents-to-be didn't remember the Soviet leader, the name sounded feminine to their ears and it seemed as a refreshing replacement for some feminine names, as Nicole.

Just in that moment, the song "Nikita" (1985) appeared and spread the name in its feminine use all around the world. But the major boost was because of the French film "Nikita" (1990), by Luc Besson, and the TV series "La Femme Nikita" (1997-2001), based on Besson's film: they reached a large majority of the population, people who knew John's song and video and people who didn't.

It is possible that John (born in 1947) or Taupin (born in 1950) didn't know that Nikita was a masculine name, because during Khrushchev's term of office they were very young. But, honestly, it is hard to believe that Russell, who is twenty years older that John, didn't remember the historical character and the shoe-banging incident at the UN General Assembly in 1960, for example.

In any case, after the song, the film, and the TV series, Nikita grew in its feminine use and I would say that right now it is a unisex name, mainly feminine, for Western countries.

On Elton’s songs, there also very significative names... Could you analize briefly some of that names, please, for us, eltonites, Mònica?

So, if I tell you... for example... “Daniel”... the man Bernie saw as a dissillusioned Vietnam veteran and was inspired by an article he had read in Newsweek magazine...

Daniel is a Biblical name, coming from the Hebrew noun d-n, "judge" or "justice", and the suffix el, abbreviation of Elohim, "God"; that is: "God judges", "God is my judge" or even "God's justice".

The differences in naming taste between the United States and the United Kingdom are notables (Bernard Shaw said that England and America are two countries separated by a common language), but in the case of Daniel, it has been one of the favourites in both sides of the Atlantic ocean across the entire 20th century: it has been in the top 100 without interruption since 1900, which means that it is a traditional and solid choice for boys, but, more important, since the 80s it has been in the top 10 also in both countries, which means that it still is attractive for the parents.

So, not only Daniel is an absolutely accurate and plausible name for an American Vietnam veteran but it allows that both American and British of all ages can bond with the song: Daniel, the main character, can be them, or a school friend, a sibling, the neighbour next door...

“Emily”? The old and lonely woman who “(comes) and go(es)”. Some of the lines reads: “But Emily don't be afraid, When the weight of angels weighs you down. Emily prays to a faded hero, In a little frame clutched to her gown, Hears the voice of promise in his memory, Tonight's the night they let the ladder down”

Emily comes from the Latin Aemilia, feminine form of Aemilius, name of an ancient Roman gens (a kind of clan or caste) and, as many of the old Roman names, its origins are dark, probably Etruscan, a dead language not related to Latin. Since Etruscan was already an obscure language in Roman times, the folk etymologies linking it with one well known language were not unusual: from the Latin aemulus, "rival", or the Greek aimydios, "flattering, polite".

These explanations have remained until our time and some others have appeared, for instance a derivation from the Sabine given name Aemidius (related to the Latin aemidus, "swollen"), and until now it is not possible to point a clear origin or meaning.

What is important about Emily is that since the late 90s it is not only one of the most popular names for girls but its popularity is so huge that in some moments it seems that is THE name.

“Alice”? A teen year old yo-yo “raised to be a lady by the golden rule, Alice was the spawn of a public school, With a double barrel name in the back of her brain, And a simple case of Mummy-doesn't-love-me blues”...

Alice is a Germanic name. In fact, it is an English adaptation from a French name (Aalis or Alis), coming from a Germanic one (Adalhaid or Adelheid), compound of adal, "noble" and a second element hard to identify; maybe haid or heid, "wasteland", or maybe *heid, "class, condition, lineage, quality".

It was a very popular name among the Medieval French nobility, who introduced it in England after the Norman Conquest (1066). By the 17th c., in England Alice was seen as rustic and old-fashioned and it was not until the 19th c. that it was revived along with other medieval names. The name was chosen by Queen Victoria for one of her daughters, Princess Alice (1943-1876), making Alice a royal name, fashionable among nobility and high classes, who attend public schools and have double barrelled names, two particular identifying elements of the highest classes in the English social scale.

Of course the name was also popular among other classes, popularized by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), by Lewis Carroll, but it still has a regal flavour and easily brings up the picture of a high class member.

Finally, “Chloe”? “How you handle what you live through, I can never hope to learn, Taking all the pain I give you, Loving blindly in return”...

Chloe is a Greek name meaning "green grass, green shoot". It was very unusual until the 90s (not making it to the 100 more common names), but has been growing up in popularity since then and now it is in the top 10.

It is curious that in these questions the four main sources of English given names are represented: the Biblical (Daniel), the Latin (Emily), the Greek (Chloe) and the Germanic (Alice).

Yes, I knew. Just documentation... Thank you very much, Mònica. I know it’s an effort to be concrete because that could be so extensive...

My pleasure, absolutely

Oh, could you tell me your favourite Elton's songs, for my AllSongsList, basically?

"Candle in the Wind".

Marylin Monroe's tribute. Yes. I am absolutely impress!!! Although I knew that you were the expert I needed, you fullfill all of my expectations. I am sure we eltonites loved and enjoyed to read those explanations about names. Oh, I just write to Bernie to notice him about this interview and how appropiated he searched the names of the characters of his songs. Not for Chloe, I mean, because that's a Gary Osborne song. Ok, I will tell him that too!!!

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