Name definitions vs. name meanings


Catholic author/blogger/speaker Brandon Vogt recently discussed the idea of name meanings in an article called “Why the Meaning of Your Baby’s Name Is More Important Than Its Sound,” lamenting that today it seems names “are valued by what they sound like, not what they mean … The sound indeed matters, but the meaning moreso. Ideally, the name would be melodious *and* carry deep meaning. Yet the latter is more significant.” This ties into something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, because I agree that a name’s meaning is important—but also that there are many who confuse name definitions and name meanings.

Name definitions

Some people are really into the definitions of names, and more power to them—they’re the kind of parents who come up with amazingly meaningful combos like Cora Regina (a spin on the Latin for “heart” [cor] + “queen,” i.e., a nod to the Immaculate Heart of Mary) and Charles Dominic (“man” + “of the Lord”).

Saint_Cecilia_(Florence_17th_century) (3)

St. Cecilia (Florence, 17th century). Attributed to Onorio Marinari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

But with a heightened awareness of meaning comes a heightened awareness of meaning, if you know what I mean. All of a sudden your lifelong favorite name, which is also your mother’s maiden name, Cameron, might no longer seem usable to you because it has the potentially unfortunate meaning of “crooked nose.” Or you just can’t go along with your husband’s dearest hope for a little girl named Addison, because you know that it means “Adam’s son” and you’re not about to do that to your daughter.

Lest you think sticking to saints’ names will preserve you (saints preserve us!) from wonky or unsavory meanings, consider this list of Catholicky Catholic favorites:

Bernadette: “bear” + “strong, hard”
Cecilia: blind
Francis: Frenchman
Mary: “of uncertain origin. It is often derived from the root מר ‘to be bitter’, but others have suggested it derives from the root מרי’mutiny, rebellion, disobedience’”
Thomas: twin
Xavier: the new house

(source, source)

Going by definitions alone, these aren’t really the kinds of names that make parents think Aha! I MUST give my child a name that means “blind”! I know some who would shy away from the beautiful Cecilia because of its definition, despite the fact that St. Cecilia is a great patron (she’s even in the Canon of the Mass!) And based on this, should Thomas ever be given to a boy who’s not a twin?

An added consideration when it comes to name definitions is that not every source is trustworthy. There are scads of books and web sites that claim to tell you what a name means, but are they accurate? One name book lists the name Jude as “form of Judas; disloyal.” Now, it’s correct on the former, but not on the latter. If Jude is a form of Judas, which is the Greek form of Judah, then its meaning would be the same as Judah—“praised”—at least according to one of the sources I consider to be reliable from an etymological standpoint (where etymology is the study of the history and origin of words), as recommended by various linguists I’ve come across in the name world: Behind the Name. (Another great academic source is the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources; I also give a listing of good books on my blog.) While the author was no doubt inspired by the fact that Judas Iscariot was disloyal by betraying Jesus, “disloyal” isn’t the name’s definition.

Bottom line: When considering a name’s definition, I would encourage you not to put too much weight on it, and always choose a trustworthy source.

Name meanings

Name meanings, on the other hand, are more than their etymological origins—more than their definitions. Abby at the extensively researched and trustworthy name web site Appellation Mountain brilliantly summed up this idea when she said,

“Mallory doesn’t mean sorrowful if your parents met in Mallory, Indiana. Then it means ‘small town where my parents met.’ And if your parents happened to meet there because it was a dark and stormy night, and your mom had a flat tire and the repair shop was closed and your dad just happened to be in town for a meeting and suddenly, there they were nursing coffee at the Mallory Diner just one seat apart … well, then your name means ‘serendipity, twist of fate.’”


Don Bosco by Molkol (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Isn’t this mindset the one we employ all the time as Catholic namers? Teresa isn’t chosen for our sweet baby girls because it might mean “Greek θερος (theros) “summer”, from Greek θεριζω (therizo) “to harvest”, or from the name of the Greek island of Therasia (the western island of Santorini)” (source) but because it recalls a holy woman who’s revered as one of the four female Doctors of the Church.Bosco isn’t given to our boys because it means “one who works in a wood” but because of our beloved St. John Bosco, who worked with and is a patron saint of young people (especially boys). And in both Teresa’s and Bosco’s cases, it was also because of the parents’ aesthetic sensibilities—Teresa was more pleasing than Therese or Avila to those parents, and Bosco more pleasing than John or Giovanni. Such decisions can be because of sound (Teresa “sounds prettier” than Therese to certain parents), or perceptions of freshness (the use of Bosco as a first name is more unexpected than the historically popular John), or family connections (Grandma’s name was spelled Teresa-without-an-h), or giving a child a saint’s place name isn’t really one’s taste, or a whole host of other reasons.

Indeed, I think parents’ aesthetic sensibilities play as large a role in the “meaning” of their children’s names as any other consideration, and those sensibilities are sensitive to influence by faith, family, culture, and time period. Brandon Vogt gave the funny example of the actual historical figure with the actual name Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye Lothbrok, which certainly sounds “strange and dissonant” to us today, but was likely handsome and certainly meaningful by the standards of his day.

In regards to Catholic naming, though some aren’t a fan of choosing names based on how they sound, I’ve always thought that choosing saints’ names for such reasons is one of the ways that certain saints might be choosing us, by working with the tastes and inclinations God has given us. If nothing else, I think beauty is as good a reason as any to choose a name for our beloved babies—what a gift, to be given a name associated with beauty and joy, which then becomes part of the name’s meaning for both the parents and the child.

What do you think of the idea that name meanings are different than name definitions? Why did you choose the names you chose for your child(ren)? Were your primary concerns definition, sound, popularity, saintly connection, or some combination of these? 

Copyright 2016 Katherine Morna Towne
Photos: St. Cecilia (Florence, 17th century). Attributed to Onorio Marinari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Don Bosco by Molkol (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Featured image: St. Cecilia (Florence, 17th century). Attributed to Onorio Marinari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


About Author

Kate is a writer, lifelong lover of names, wife to a really good man, and mama to their six boys ages 2 to 11. She shares her thoughts on Catholic baby naming at Sancta Nomina.

1 Comment

  1. Hi,
    The Abarim publications website has a much nicer meaning for Mary – and they justify it from the original Hebrew. Hope this is useful,


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