I’ve just been invited to the name-giving party of my friends’ new baby daughter and I’ll be delighted to attend. My only quibble is with the name chosen for that innocent infant. It’s Delilah. Granted, it’s a pretty name with a pleasant lilt, easily abbreviated to Lilah (not to Deli, though – that’s a specialist food shop selling ripe Camembert and Slovene salami), but the story attached to it should make it a non-starter.
It’s a good example – with apologies to my friends – of the careless way parents choose certain historical names for their children without checking out the history first. So here goes: Delilah was the last great love of Samson, the hero of super-human strength. Described by one source as being voluptuous and treacherous, Delilah accepted a bribe to discover Samson’s secret, namely that his strength was derived from his hair, and passed it on to his opponents. Then she lulled him to sleep, ordered her servant to cut his hair, and turned him over to his enemies. What a ghastly, nasty creature, betraying a man’s loving trust for money – if it were up to me, I’d ban her name for ever instead of giving it a new lease of life. But all the same I’ll go to the name-giving party and keep my misgivings to myself.
I’m good at that: had plenty of practice years ago when Jason suddenly became the most fashionable name for boys, including at least three children of people I know. Ouch. Would I name a child of mine after a classical fall guy who came to a sad end? I would not, once I’d discovered the tragic story behind the name. The original Jason was an ancient Greek hero, leader of the Argonauts who sailed the seas in the great ship Argo in quest of the Golden Fleece; he was brave, splendid and successful and married the powerful sorceress Medea who used her ruthless magic to help him achieve his victories. What Jason lacked was common sense. He didn’t know that Hell had no fury like a woman scorned, so when he had reigned for years as king of a Greek state, having produced several children with Medea, he coveted another crown and married the daughter of a fellow king. That folly sealed his fate. Medea promptly murdered his new bride, together with her and Jason’s children, and departed in a chariot drawn by flying dragons. (Other considerations apart, the woman had style.) Jason declined into lonely old age, frequently sitting in the shade of the rotting hulk of the great ship Argo, until the top deck fell on him and crushed him to death. Perhaps it’s best if the Jasons of today don’t read this account.
“Nomen est omen”, claims the Latin adage, an omen being an event regarded as a portent of good or evil. I hope it’s not true, so that a name in itself doesn’t decide what kind of experiences, good or bad, its owner should expect. This, of course, refers full of hope to all the Delilahs and Jasons of today’s world. But in this instance I’m thinking of the many males of all ages called Jeremy. Their name comes from that of the 7th century CE prophet Jeremiah, AKA the weeping prophet, who spent much of his time on dramatic lamentation. He kept telling off his people, likening them to unfaithful wives and rebellious children; according to the dry remark of a modern commentator, he had “little good news for his audience.” If this reminds you of some public figure, say a politician of today, you may be spot on.
There are plenty of odd names in other countries, regarded there as normal but surprising elsewhere. My favourite is “Attila”, the name of the 5th C ruler of the Hun empire, known and dreaded as “the scourge of God”, destroyer and temporary conqueror of much of Europe, a ruthless barbarian by all accounts. The only good thing he ever achieved, although unwittingly, was the foundation of Venice. The Huns, who practically lived on horseback, were only stopped by water, which is why the people of Veneto, when threatened by Attila’s warriors, quickly established a new settlement in the sea. Great – but it doesn’t change the fact that Attila was an unmitigated disaster for Christian Europe. And yet in Hungary, a Christian country, Attila is a popular name for men. Even streets and boulevards in Budapest are named after him. For some reason in that country he is seen as a positive figure, a bit of a no-good-boyo, but on the whole acceptable. Just shows you how adaptable names can be.
My own first name, Beata (pronounced as Bay-ah-tah, not Beta), is Latin and means happy or blessed. My mother meant well when she chose it, but it’s almost impossible to live up to it even half the time. Moreover, it’s linked to beatification, the first step in the Catholic Church ( once you’re dead) towards becoming a saint, and nothing could be further from my career so far. So I just have to smile (no, not grin) and bear it.
Anyhow, this name of mine is only for this lifetime. If there is a next incarnation lurking round the corner, I may end up with something even trickier. But I can wait.