Naming Names

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.






Small Pleasures

Can’t bear January. It feels twice as long as any other month, while the days don’t seem to get longer, the dark clouds sit on the rooftops, in the enormously boring  sales prices keep plummeting until in the end the shops may pay us to take away some unwanted stuff – it’s a universal UGH of heroic proportions.

But then some small pleasures hop in and the mood lightens.

Today, for instance, I bought a bag of kiwi fruit in my local shop, and when I looked at the label, I saw, “Grown by Zeus, Greece.” I almost dropped the bag. Can it be that my six kiwis had been grown by the chief God of ancient Greece, the King of Olympus, the invincible Thunderer and victor of every battle? Dare I eat them? Does their possession promote me in some small way? Will they taste…divine?

Well, it certainly gave me several minutes of glee, wondering whether Zeus’s need to grow fruit and veg for an English supermarket, instead of chasing goddesses and nymphs, was somehow connected with the current parlous state of the Greek economy. And that brought on images of the Greek sea, the scintillating light, the essence of my best-ever summers in that country …a more than small joy.

Then, still resenting January, its very name made me think again. January, of course: it’s the month of Janus, the mysterious two-faced Roman god who looks both ways, towards past and future, with equal dignity. Most of all he is the god of beginnings. The first hour of the day, the first day of the month and the first month of the year belong to him; so do doors and gateways (and, presumably, janitors, who guard the entrances of apartment blocks in America.) Beginnings. Nice idea. Qualifies as a small pleasure. Perhaps things will begin to get better. Perhaps there IS life after birth, courtesy of Janus.

If by now you wonder whether I am an addict of ancient myths, the answer is yes. My mother used to read them to me when I was a child and I’ve never recovered from those riveting stories. (Naturally they were bowdlerised tales; I didn’t find out about Zeus’s sex life and other interesting extras until much later.) And, on a deeper level, myths are also about us, without the magical bits; the tussles, jealousies, intrigues and passions of the inhabitants of Olympus are played out every day among us on a smaller scale here and now. Personally I find that quite amusing.

But back to small pleasures. My third one occurred today when I dropped in on some friends for a brief chat. There were five of us sitting together, when the house cat, a magnificent Siamese, sauntered into the room, surveyed us and then landed on my lap and made itself comfortable, showing signs of contentment. Anyone familiar with feline psychology will recognize this as a sign of approval, especially from a member of that majestic breed, and I felt accordingly accepted and promoted. Perhaps January isn’t all that dreadful.

Well, that’s all for today, and these were my small pleasures.

What would yours be?










English as she is not spoken

As you probably know, English is World Language No.2., close behind Chinese as far as the  number of speakers of either language is concerned. But behind the statistics there lies a wonderland of unofficial English – not the spoken variety, in fact belonging to those who do not speak it at all, only borrow certain words and use them in highly imaginative and often bizarre ways. And they seem to do this  because it appears to them that using an English word adds class, style and a touch of worldliness to whatever they are saying in their own tongue.

I first discovered this when I lived in Paris and found that one of the most dazzling and expensive jeweller’s shop in the super-elegant Rue de la Paix traded under the name of …Fred, hardly the name to suggest wealth and quality, unless you are a French shopper of unlimited means. As time passed, I came across more and more borrowings from English and indeed some examples of Franglais, one of which evoked  the stormy reaction of the Académie Francaise, that venerable guardian of the French language. Its equally venerable members objected  to the increasing use of “le teen-ager“. The correct term, the savants insisted, was “le décagenaire“, a word which to my mind suggested a minor official in Ancient Rome, not a lively young thing in torn jeans and a baseball cap (another hostile Anglo-Saxon infiltration). I’m afraid it never made it into spoken French.

Poor old “teenager” suffered a worse fate in Hungary: during a recent visit I found that it had first been shortened into teeny, eventually ending up as tini  (pronounced tinny). Fortunately most speakers of Hunglish, as the local version is called by its critics, don’t know that “tinny” in proper English denotes, among other things, “an unpleasantly metallic taste”. But similar  borrowings aren’t exactly new: a small notebook in Hungarian is called a “notesz”, pronounced no-tess, while biscuits are called “kex”. Both words go back to the mid-19th century, when an enlightened aristocrat imported some newfangled objects from England, including notebooks (with “NOTES” on the cover) and cake tins (with “CAKES” on the lid). Nearly 200 years later both words in their local  pronunciation are still in daily use.

However, one Hunglish habit was too much even for me. I noticed that when people meet, they greet each other with what sounds like seeya and say hellohello when they go their separate ways. This is all wrong, I said to a local friend, it should be the other way round: your seeya comes from “see ya”, the US equivalent of “au revoir”, so that’s no way to greet someone you’ve just met, you should say “hallo” then,  not when you part, which is when you should say “see ya” if you must. He found this very interesting and we spent some time discussing the eternal lure of English words woven into some alien tongue. Finally I had to move on. He politely saw me to the door of the café where we had met, smiled and, by way of goodbye, said “hellohello!”