Nomen Est Omen
Linguist Fieke Van der Gucht investigated the way the old Germanic people chose their first names. As for her own name? Turns out her parents weren’t very good at German.
Nowadays, parents can choose anything as a first name, as long as that choice doesn’t embarrass their child. (Sometimes this happens literally. In 2013, parents from the Province of Antwerp called their daughter Alles (Anything)! Lol!).
This almost unlimited freedom of choice hasn’t been recognised in Belgium for very long. It was only in 1987 that the first name legislation adopted an anything, but-attitude. Before that, the Belgian law prescribed exactly the opposite: nothing is allowed, except for first names that appear on the usual calendars, and first names of famous historical figures.
Germans always welcomed my name on first acquaintance with a shy grin or uncontrollable laugh
I’m from the nothing is allowed, except-era, yet no civil servant saw any objection to the name Fieke back then apparently. I could live with it myself, although it was always a bit of an eye-rolling moment when teachers asked me for my identity card to prove it. They wanted to see with their own eyes that this first name was not only unusual, but also official.
Later it became clear to me that neither my parents nor the civil registry official mastered the German language. Germans always welcomed my name on first acquaintance with a shy grin or uncontrollable laugh: ‘Und bumsen ist dein Hobby?’
Strong as a wild boar
A sense of impending doom was confirmed by a red-coloured German fencer – my then-boyfriend was into sabre fencing and I was invited to his tournament. He explained that ficking was the equivalent of Dutch fucking. From now on, I would always introduce myself as Sophie in Germany.
No, before the twelfth century the Germanic people were thinking a lot more thoroughly than my non-German parents. Imagine that Hildebrand and Gertrud had a child on the 24th of November 878. That child would have to have a (first) name: surnames were not an issue yet. Helpful first name books also didn’t exist, but fortunately the Germanic names inventory was a lot smaller than it is now. They would have a few choices, but it was most likely that Hildebrand and Gertrud, like most Germanic people, would decide to come up with a composite, two-part first name themselves. Such a first name would the be composed of two words referring to fame, to honour and general virtues, to family and kinship, to religion and mythology, or to animals.
If Hildebrand and Gertrud believed in the saying nomen est omen, they would select word parts whose combination of meanings would be closely linked to their wish for their daughter or sun. Son Dankwin, a combination of the two nouns dank + win or ‘thoughts, spirit’ + ‘friend’; they would have wanted him to grow into a ‘thoughtful friend’.
If they would value their son’s emotional IQ less and if they would go for the cliché of the ‘strong wild boar man’, they would combine the noun ever (‘wild boar’) with the adjective hard (‘strong’). Daughter Radelind, a mix and match of the noun raad (‘advice’) and the adjective lind (‘gentle’), they would wish a life as a ‘gentle adviser’ upon her. If the daughter was allowed to be more of a vigorous girl, they would go for the combination of the two adjectives neer + zwind or ‘masculine, brave’ + ‘strong’: Nerswind would then become as strong as a man.
Although I would like to think the objective of good wishes was true, I secretly already know: those meaningful Germanic first names need to be seen in a nuanced light. Linguists assume that the Germans, at least from the seventh to the eighth century onwards, did not always rely on the meaning of a given name. They suspected that after they came across absurd combinations of meanings of composite names such as Fredegonde. After all, this girl’s name connects the opposite meanings of frithu
(‘peace’) with gund (‘war’) – still that is a perfect name for a volatile woman who changes her underwear as quickly as she changes her mood.
Fredegonde is a perfect name for a volatile woman who changes her underwear as quickly as she changes her mood
I carefully checked with my parents whether they were nomen est omen-kind of people. They weren’t aware of the German confusion, but they thought it was funny. And no, that Fieke would be an abbreviation of Sofie, goddess of wisdom, they hadn’t had that in mind either. Sorry, Sofieke! It turned out I was simply named after my aunt Fieke, the sister of my Dutch grandmother on my mother’s side. And that was the end of it.
If my first name still had an unintended omen? I would like to leave it at that.