A note on names

Most modern names come from the Bible, a book which had yet to be written when my hero Nico walked the mean streets of Classical Athens. Quite a few people have asked me what's the "right" way to say the ancient names. I'll be getting hate mail from classical linguists for this, but the truth is, there is no right way. I hope you'll pick whatever sounds happiest to you, and have fun reading the story.

For those who'd like a little more guidance, try this.

The Greeks had only a single name each, which we would think of as a first name. Greek names were usually two everyday words stuck together to form a meaning. A lot of the trick to saying them is to spot the word boundary, then say and think of them as two words.

Let me use as an example someone you've heard of: Cleopatra.

Cleopatra may have been Queen of Egypt, but her name was very typically Greek. If you can cope with Cleopatra, you can cope with any Greek name. Cleopatra is cleo + patra. Cleo means glory, and patra means of the father. Glory of the father. The ending in –a makes it a feminine name.

Boy names end in –os, –us, –es, –is, or –on. Girl names end in –a, –ia, or –ache. You can switch the sex of any name by switching the ending.

With that in mind, here are two of my major characters with interesting names:

Nicolaos is nico + laos. Nico is a variant of Nike, which means victory. Laos is of the people. Victory of the people. Nicolaos is a common name in Greece to this day, and is quite obviously the origin of the western Nicholas. There was a St Nicolaos who is better known as Santa Claus. The Claus part comes from the –colaos of Nicolaos. Nico is our modern Nick.

Diotima is dios + tima. The Greek Dios is the Latin Deus, which if you've ever heard a Latin prayer in church you will know means God. Tima means honored. Diotima is honored by God. A suitable name for any priestess.

As a graduation exercise, here's a random name that looks tough but is amazingly simple:

Archeptolis. Archeptolis is almost the same as Architect, a very common English word. Say Architect. Now take off the tect and add on a tolis. Done!

The pt in Greek always sounds like a plain old English t. Every modern child knows the flying reptile called a pterodactyl. It's the same thing.

The Greek ch can always be said like an Engish k (as in architect). But if you want to go for slightly more authenticity, try saying it like the ch in Scottish or German, which is to say like a k while choking on a fishbone.

27 comments:

Lexi said...

Terrific, Gary, thanks - I'll do better when rereading Mary Renault henceforth.

C. N. Nevets said...

So what are the two words in Archeptolis? :)

Gary Corby said...

I knew someone would ask that...

Arch is the beginning of archon. A leader. As in, the city executives were called archons. The ptol is the beginning of the word for war.

Archeptolis is "leader in war".

Architect btw is Archon + Tekton. Tekton is builder. So architect is "leader in building".

C. N. Nevets said...

Cool, thanks, Gary. I had suspected the archon but I wasn't sure about the rest of it. My Greek is Koine and was geared toward towards Biblical study, so the vocab that still pops to mind is not always helpful for these things, even when it's the same as the Classic.

Gary Corby said...

Wow Nevets, then I'm quite sure your ancient Greek is a whole lot better than mine. I should be asking you the questions. Koine is (sort of) a trading language descendant of the Attic that my guys spoke.

C. N. Nevets said...

Yeah, it's rougher around the edges and less polished but I do think a lot of the basic vocab is pretty equivalent between the two, if I remember from overviews.

In a past life I was a history major attempting a Biblical languages minor, but then all that turned into archaeology in the new world, and then *that* turned into, "Oh, wait, I can actually pay my bills if I work in IT."

One of the things I love about your blog is that it revives some of the good ol' days for me. :)

Gary Corby said...

That sounds so much like what happened to me. After I finished my honours degree I went off to work for a year to save enough to do a PhD, and I suddenly discovered, "Hold on...you mean people will pay me $28,000 to do what I was doing at uni for free?" Greed set in and I never went back.

Might I point out there's a gap in the historical books market for the late 300s, when the Library of Alexandria was still running, but Christianity was ascendant? That would cover both your interests!

C. N. Nevets said...

hahaha Foul tempter.

Actually, should I ever reach a point where I can make a living off my writing and not have to essentially work two jobs at once (IT + writer), I wouldn't mind giving another stab at historical.

I've scratched a few here and there, but have to be careful lest the research suck me completely in.

There are a few new world ancient mystery shorts that may someday see the light of day, as well. I remember specifically being inspired by some of Saylor's bits in Ellery Queen when I crafted those.

Elizabeth said...

Interesting. I would've guessed that the two words were "arche" and "ptol," with "arche" meaning "first" or "original." As in "archetype."

But I know nothing about ancient Greek. I'm just a total nerd who reads the (English) dictionary for fun. :)

C. N. Nevets said...

Elizabeth, Gary may be able to correct me, but my understanding is that archon as leader had the sense of, "first," as in "first citizen" or "first among equals" or "first elder," etc. In other words, I think it's the same etymological core.

RWMG said...

The first meaning the big LSJ Greek dictionary gives for arche and associated words is 'beginning, source', then 'chief', 'ruler', 'government'. Think of archaic.

The LSJ does also list archetypos, glossed as an adjective meaning "first-moulded as a pattern or model".

Trisha Leigh said...

Thanks for the lesson, Gary. I love learning these things.

Just finishing up the "archaic" period in class and study Draco - the guy who wanted to preserve the old way of life, where the best bloodlines ruled Athens. Wow, JK Rowling. I keep finding so many ancient references in her books and I wonder how many more I'm missing.

L. T. Host said...

Fascinating. I kind of wish my name meant something, haha. But since it's made up (by an author of all people), no such luck.

I suppose I will just have to pick something that it means and stick to that from now on. :)

Meghan said...

I love learning the meaning behind names. I didn't know that about Cleopatra. Fun! Here's another one:

Themistocles = Glory of The Law.

Gary Corby said...

Nevets and Robert have it right on the arche, as far as I know. I'm dead sure their Greek is better than mine, so we're all better off trusting them!

The -ptol part is more open to doubt, IMHO, but I believe it matches the Ptol- of Ptolemy or Ptolemaios, which means warlike for sure. Because of that, interpreting arche as leader makes more sense. (I hope)

Gary Corby said...

Lessa, I happen to know your name is of ancient African origin and means, "One who is trampled by stampeding giraffes."

Gary Corby said...

Yes, Draco was a bit unpleasant, wasn't he?

So I have to ask, Trisha, what do you think of the Greek history?

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Meghan, I had a feeling you might know that one!

How's the book coming?

Trisha Leigh said...

Honestly I'd like to be enjoying it more than I am, but struggling with the professor a bit. He's Italian and his very thick accent and difficulty understanding and responding to questions and discussion is frustrating.

I'm looking forward to entering the later "classical" periods, Alexander, all of that. We get to choose our final paper topics and I'll probably cheat a bit and choose something like the influence of the Greeks on Roman culture - specifically the Roman distrust of eastern women.

The most interesting pieces (to me) are the myriad of ways the Greeks influenced ALL culture, even to this day. I like it. I'm quite disappointed not to have a better professor.

Meghan said...

The book is coming along OK (if a bit slow). Luckily more and more things are solidifying--the Muses kicked me in the head last night with an idea that will better define one of the characters.

I can't WAIT to read your book, btw. I'm super excited because it's obviously weeeeeeelll researched and it should be a great mystery (I have to know who did it now!)

L. T. Host said...

I just saw your response. I have one acronym to say:

LOL.

Also, apropos.

Gary Corby said...

That's a pity Trisha. Teachers do make such a difference.

Maybe try a distance learning course?

Gary Corby said...

At least it's moving forward, Meghan!

Amalia T. said...

This post is most excellently helpful and I wish I'd had it at my disposal while writing Helen! Naming people was the hardest part of that book, once I got out of the characters who were already named FOR me. I'm going to be bookmarking this.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Amalia,

Yes, picking names can be slightly traumatic. You want something that sounds right to the modern ear, but also is genuine. Don't know if it will help, but Charles Hillier let me know in email about a new book called "A Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, Vol. V.A Coastal Asia Minor: Pontos to Ionia" edited by T. Corsten.

Gary Corby said...

I should have added, the problem's even trickier for you Amalia because name trends changed over time.

Amalia T. said...

That book sounds like an excellent resource, I will definitely be looking it up.

I think in that regard, I'm going to have to settle for the best I can do-- thankfully the characters are very few, and all secondary or tertiary, so they can afford to be a little odd if I can't find something 100% accurate.