Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

To the philosopher a name is an artificial sign consisting in a certain combination of articulate sounds, whereby a particular class of people are wont to designate one thing and distinguish it from all others. If the name conveys an idea, it is merely because of a wholly artificial relation once arbitrarily established between the name and the thing it stands for.

Primitive people, using a language as it is handed down to them without inquiring into its origin, are included to make much of names. This is true of the old Semitic peoples, especially of the Hebrews. All Hebrew names were supposed to bear a significance, as originally individual subjects were called by a name expressive of some characteristic, e.g., Edom, red; Esau, hairy; Jacob, supplanter. They were carefully and solemnly selected, especially personal names.

Leaving aside cases where the name was Divinely given (Abraham, Genesis 17:5 ; Isaac, Genesis 17:19 , Ismael, Genesis 16:11 ; John, Luke 1:13 ; Jesus, Matthew 1:21 ; etc.), the naming of a child usually devolved upon the parents, and, it appears, preferably upon the mother. The women of the family ( Ruth 4:17 ), or the neighbours ( Luke 1:59 ), talked over the name to be given. The name seems to have been given ordinarily at the time of the birth; but at a late period the day of circumcision was more usual ( Luke 1:59 , 2:21 ).

Of the customs connected with the naming of cities we know nothing, except what may be gathered from the names themselves, and what is said of a few cities named after their founders and conquerors ( Genesis 4:17 ; Numbers 32:42 ; Deuteronomy 3:14 ; Joshua 19:47 , etc.).

So intimate was the relation conceived to be between the individual and his name, that the latter came frequently to be used as an equivalent of the former: "to be called" meant "to be", the name being taken to be equal to the object, nay, identical with it. Nothing is more eloquent of this fact than the religious awe in which the Hebrews held the name of God ( see JEHOVAH ). Similar notions prevailed with regard to all proper names. Nor were the Hebrews an exception: all Semitic peoples, and, to some extent, all primitive peoples shared the same belief. This is why the study of these names is looked upon by students of history as a sort of key to the knowledge of the religious and social conditions of these peoples.

We shall here discuss only Hebrew names:

I. Divine Names
II. Personal Names
III. Place Names

I. DIVINE NAMES

Yahweh

Jehovah (q.v.), the traditional form of this name in Western languages, is based on a misunderstanding of the Massoretic vocalization. The name Yahweh, of which an abbreviated form, Yah , and a spelling, Yahw , seem to have been popular, is derived doubtlessly from the verb hayah "to be", and is best translated by "he is". 'El , which is found among all Semitic peoples (Phoen., Arab.: 'El ; Assyr.: Il, Ilu ; Aram.: 'Alah ), is in the Bible , appellative in most cases, but was certainly in the beginning a proper name (so, e.g., in Genesis 31:13 ; 33:20 ; 46:3 ). Its etymology is to the present day a much mooted question: some derive the word from a root 'wl , "to be strong", others from y'l , which might connote the idea of "being the first" others finally from 'lh , by which, at an early stage of the development of the Semitic languages the idea of mere relation ( esse ad ) was conveyed. According to the first two opinions, the name is intended primarily to express the superiority of the Divine nature, whereas, according to the third, God is 'El because He is the term of the aspirations ( finis ) of mankind. Closely related to 'El are the names 'Eloh and ' Elohim , sometimes used as appellatives, but more frequently as proper names. The plural form of the latter to some extent still puzzles grammarians and students of the religious belief of the Hebrews. We need not dwell upon the many cases where 'El and ' Elohim are used as appellatives, either by themselves, or as parts compound names such as 'El Roy (the God of the apparition ), 'El 'Olam (the Eternal God ), 'El 'Elyon (the Most High God ), 'Elohe Sebaoth ( God of Hosts), etc.

Shadday

As to the name Shadday -- which is found sometimes alone, and at oher times in connection with 'El ( 'El Shadday ) -- it was originally an adjective conveying possibly the idea of fecundity ( Genesis 17:1 ; 49:25 ) or of highness ( Psalm 91:1 ); at a later period the Prophets, in order to emphasize their threats of divine punishment, spoke as if the word were related to shadad , to "devastate"; but the people at large, unmindful of these etymological niceties, used Shadday merely as a substitute for 'El , perhaps with the special connotation of "Almighty".

II. PERSONAL NAMES

Personal names are either purely Hebrew or hebraicized. To the latter category belong not only (passing over foreign names as Teglathphalasar, Assuerus, etc.) Babylonian (Daniel-Balthassar) and Persian (Hadassa-Esther) names assumed by some persons of Hebrew origin living in far-away countries, and the Greek and Latin names in use among Jews of later times conjointly with their Hebrew or Aramaic names (John/Mark; Saul /Paul, etc.,) but also certain very old names which were handed down by tradition, such as Cain, Abel, Noah, Abraham, etc., and treated by the sacred writers as Hebrew words. There is scarcely any doubt but that in passing from one language to the other these names were altered to some extent; and as the etymological explanation pretends to interpret the Hebrew form, the meaning arrived at can hardly be more than fanciful. It is from the original language of these names that their meaning should be sought (so Abram and Abraham may be explained from the Assyr. Abi-ramu , or Abi-rame , "my father loveth"; Sarai and Sara from Sharat , "the great princess"; Lot from Latu , or La'itu , "the consumer"; from the Egyptian might be explained likewise a few names, e.g., Moses, "the child", etc.). Of the pure Hebrew names some are simple and others compound. Simple names appear to have been more frequent in early times, but some are in reality hypocoristic, i.e., abbreviated forms of compound names as Saul (asked), David (beloved) Nathan (he gave), etc., which were probably combined with a Divine name, Yah or 'El .

Simple Names

Of the simple names a few seem to have been suggested by particular circumstances attending the child's birth: e.g, Jacob (the supplanter), Joseph (possibly an hypocoristic name: "Whom God added" -- Eliasaph was at one time a favourite name for the youngest son in a family ). A large class of proper names for men and women is made up of adjectives denoting personal characteristics. Here are a few instances: Acan (afflicting), Achaz (possessor), Agar (wanderer), Amos (strong), Amri (eloquent), Aod (praising), Asaph (gatherer), Aser (happy), Asir (captive), Ather (bound), Azbai (dwarf), Balac (vain), Baruch (blessed), Cetura (sweet-smelling), Dalila (yearning), Doeg (anxious), Edom (red), Esthon (women-like), Gaddel, Geddel (tall), Gedeon (destroyer), Heled (fat), Job (ruthlessly treated), Laban (white), Manahem (consoler), Nabal (fool), Nachor (panting or snoring), Nahum (comforter), Noemi (pretty), Omri (tiro, awkward), Ornan (nimble), Ozni (long-eared), Phesse (lame), Ruth (friend), Sepho (bald-headed), etc.

Names of animals and plants were at the same period not infrequently given to persons both by the Hebrews and by their neighbours, the Chanaanites and others. Among the names of animals assumed as proper names, we may mention: Achbor (mouse), Aia (vulture), Aran (wild goat) Caleb (dog), Debora (bee), Eglon (calf), Gaal (beetle) Hagaba, in N.T. Agabus (locust), Hulda (weasel) Jahel (chamois), Jonas (dove), Nahas (snake), Ozi (goose-like), Rachel (ewe), Saphan (coney), Sebia (gazelle), Sephora (little bird ), Sual (jackal) Tabitha (Aram., gazelle), Tola (worm), Zeb (wolf).

Of the names of plants, apparently less frequently used than those of animals, here are a few instances: Asena (bush), Cassia (a kind of balsam tree), Cos (thorn), Elas (oak), Elon (terebinth), Hadassa (myrtle), Oren (pine), Susan (lily), etc. Some modern scholars explain the relatively frequent recurrence of these two kinds of names among Palestinian populations as remnants of totemism which, these scholars maintain, prevailed in early times. This is hardly the place to discuss such a question. It is illogical to extend to all primitive peoples religious conceptions observed in some few; were we to yield to the fascination for totems which prevails among some writers, we might consider as traces of totemism such English names as Fox, Wolf, Hawthorne, and the like. Granting even that the names mentioned above are unmistakable signs of totemism among the early populations of Palestine, it would by no means necessarily follow that these names manifest the prevalence of the same religious ideas among the Hebrews. Hebrew was not the primitive language of the descendants of Abraham, they having adopted it from the natives of the land of Chanaan ; naturally along with the language they adopted certain of their modes of speech.

Sometimes names of things, also of natural phenomena, even (though rarely) abstractions, and words referring to trades or avocations were taken as proper names. Of the latter class we have for instance: Abdon, Obed (servant), Amon (architect), Berzellai (blacksmith), Charmi (vine-dresser), Somer (watch-man), Zamri (singer); of the former: Agag (fire), Ahod (union), Amos (burden) Anna (grace), Barac (lighting), Bezec (thunderbolt), Cis (straw), Core (frost), Ephron (dust), Hon (strength), Mary (stubbornness, disobedience, see Numbers 12 ), Naboth (fruit), Ur (light), Samson (sun), etc.

Compound Names

Compound personal names are so numerous that only a few main points concerning them can be touched on here. First comes the question of the exact meaning of these names. Although the sense of each part separately is usually clear enough, yet that of the compound is not. The difficulty is to decide whether these parts are in genitive relation, or in relation of subject to predicate (the verb in the latter case being understood). In certain names, no matter which view is taken, the meaning remains practically the same; it is immaterial whether "Eliezer" be interpreted " God of help" or " God is help"; but with names like Abinadab, the difference in both constructions becomes marked, for "Father of generosity" is by no means equivalent to "my father is generous". Since no rule for all cases is available, for the sake of clearness it will be well to divide compound names into three classes:


(1) Names having as one of their component parts a term connoting either kindred (father, son, etc.) or accidental relations (e.g., servant);
(2) Names (known as theophorous names) containing a Divine element;
(3) Names including terms both of kindred and Divinity.

(1) There is no doubt but that only a genitive relation will explain names having as their first element Ben (son) Bath (daughter), Ebed or Obed (servant). Thus Benjamin is to be interpreted "son of the right hand"; Bethsabee, "daugter of the oath "; Obededom, "servant of Edom ". Names in which the element is Ab (father), Ah (brother), Amm (uncle by the father's side) are to be considered sentences, for such names are applied equally to men and women -- names such as Abigail, Abisag, etc., if they meant "father of joy ", "father of error ", would be most unsuitable for women. The name Achab some regard as a possible exception to this rule (it might then be interpreted "as the brother of the father"--uncle); whether this exception is warranted remains problematical. As to the letters i and u frequently introduced after thet first element of this class of names (Abi, Achi, Ammi) it seems rather a connecting vowel than a personal suffix.

(2) Theophorous names were at all times widely used among Semitic peoples. To limit ourselves to names found in the Bible , although names including the Divine element Yah , or Yaho , are by far the more numerous, yet they were not in use as early as those formed with 'El . These names have for their other component element either a verb or a noun. In the former case, the Divine name is the subject of the verb (Elisama, " God heard"; Jonathan, " Yahweh gave"); in the latter the Divine name may be regarded again as the subject, and the noun as the predicate (Elisua, " God is salvation "). Not only the name of the true God, but also names of some of foreign deities, especially Adon, Baal, Melek , entered into the composition of names taken by Hebrews at a period when the relations of God's people with their neighbours were most intimate. Naturally such names are to be interpreted in the same manner as those including Yah or 'El . Hence Adonizedec shall be understood "Adon is justice ", etc.; but Esbaal can hardly mean anything else than "man of Baal ". In this connection it is noticeable that at a later period abhorrence of these foreign deities prompted first the reading, and soon afterwards the writing of Bosheth (shame) in places where originally the text had Baal (lsboseth, for Isbaal). Moreover, it matters not, in theophorous names, whether the Divine element stands in the first or in the last place (theophorous names have among western Semitic peoples only two component parts, contrary to the Assyrian and Babylonian use): for Nathan-El is equivalent to El-Nathan, Josue to Isaias, etc.

Not unfrequently two Divine names are united to form a compound, as in Joel, Elimelech, etc. In these cases it is clear that we should see a sentence expressing an act of faith in the divinity of the god the subject of the sentence. Accordingly Joel will be interpreted " Yahweh is God ", and Elimelech "Melech is God ". 0n the other hand, Adonias and Malachias cannot mean "Adon is Yahweh " or "Melek is Yahweh ", because, unlike 'El, Yah is never appellative; in these words, Adon , and Melek are common nouns, and the compounds are equivalent respectively to " Yahweh is master" and "Yahwveh is king".

(3) The rules for interpreting the above classes of compound names are equally applicable to those made up of a word denoting relationship and a word denoting divinity. If the first part of these names be Ben, Bath, Bar (Aram., son), Ebed, Ish (man), a genitive relation may be understood to exist between it and the second part, thus Benadad or Barhadad stands for "son of Hadad"; Abdeel for "servant of God "; Esbaal for "man of Baal ". On the Other hand, if the first element be Ab, Ah, Amm or the like it seems that the relation to the Divine name should be regarded rather as one of predicate to subject. It is clear that the interpretation indicated here is the right one, for otherwise some names would convey absurd meanings: surely Abia, Abiel, Abbaal, Ammiel, cannot mean "father", "uncle", "of Yahweh ", "of God ", "of Baal." There might be no objection, absolutely speaking, in words like Achiel, Achia, being undershoud "brother of God ", "of Yahveh"; but it is hard to believe the sense could be, as it is, different when the elements appear in the reverse order, as in Joahe.

From this rapid survey, it appears that students of the history of religions may find in Hebrew proper names ample material for deductions concerning religious belief and the theology of God's people. Not to mention what has been hinted at concerning the influence of Channanite idolatry, and passing over the preference given to the Divine name 'El in earlier times, a fairly complete knowledge of the attributes of God may be gathered from divine and theophorous names. Yahweh "He whose essence is to be", is God, that is to say, the term of every being's aspirations ('El); He is Most High ('El 'EIyon), eternal (El Olam), perfect (Joatham), and worthy of all praise (El-uzai) and glory (Jochabed). His eyes behold everything ('El Roy); His knowledge comprehends all things (Eliada, Joiada), and all things are ever present to His memory (Zacharias). He is all-powerful ('El Shadday), and in Him all things acknowledge their founder (Eliacim, Joiakim, Joakin) and their upholder (Joram); to Him they are indebted for their increase (Eliasaph), their beauty (Elnaim, Joada) and their strength (Eliphaz, Eliel). His generosity (Jonadab) prompts Him to communicate His gifts (Joas, Jonathan, Jozabad, Johanan, John) to creatures. To men in particular He is a father (Abias, Abiel, Joab), and a brother (Achias, Achiel): He loves them (Elidad). Being merciful (Jerahmeel), He lends a willing ear to their prayers (Elisama); He is their master (Adonias), their king (Malachias), their defender (Jorib), their help (Eleazar, Eliezer), their savior (Josue, Jesus, Isaias ), their protector in distress (Elisaphan, Elisur, Eliaba); from him proceeds all justice and justification (Josedec); in the end, He shall be their judge (Josaphat); from Him also shall they receive their reward (EIiphaal, Eliasub, Elihoreph).

III. PLACE NAMES

When we speak of Hebrew names of places in Palestine, it should be borne in mind that many of these names, like the towns and villages they designated, were in existence long before the Hebrews settled there, and even before any records mentioning places in Palestine were written (Inscr. of Thotmes III, about I600 B.C.; El-Amarna letters, about 1450 B.C.). Nevertheless we are justified in considering these names as Hebrew, since Hebrew is the Chanaanite language of the early inhabitants of Palestine, adopted by the Israelite conquerors.

In all countries, many names of places have been suggested by the topogaphy. The Palestinians named certain towns Rama, Ramath, Ramatha, Ramathaim for the same reason we would name them "Height"; they said Gabaa, Geba, Cabaon, as we would say "Hill", their Sela (Petra) would be our "Cliff", what we might style our "Hollow" they called Horen or Horonaim. They had their Lebanon as we have our "White Mountains"; and where we would say "Blackrock", they said Hauran; the names of some of their rivers: Jordan, Cedron, Sichor, resemble our "Rapids", "Dusky", "Blackwater". Argob means a lay of rich soil, Horeb or Jabes, dry lands; Accaron, "Bad Lands". "Spring" and "Well" were then as now a prominent element in compound names of places (hence, Endor, Engaddi, etc., ; Beroth, Bersabee, etc.,) to a native of the Holy Land, Hammath, Hamman sounded like "Hot Springs" to us. A large proportion of compound names are made up of Hasor (enclosed settlement), Cariath, Ir, Qir (city) Beth (house), and another element the origin of which is not always obvious (Carinth-Arbe, Bethlehem). Sometimes also the locality derived its name from some vegetable product: Abel (meadow), Atad (some kind of Rhamnus), Baca (mulberry-tree), Abel-keramim, Bethacarem, Escol, Sorec (vine), Dilan (cucumber); Ela, Elath, Elim, Eloth, Elon (oak and terebinth); Gamzo (sycamore); Luz (almond-tree); Mount Olivet ; Remmon (pomegranate); Rithma (broom); Samir, Bethsetta (acacia); Bettaffua (apple tree); Thamar (palm-tree).

Places named after animals are not rare in Palestine: Acrabim (scorpion) Aialon (stag), Arad (wild ass); Eg!on, Eglairn (calf); Ephron, Ophra (gazelle); En-gaddi (kid); Etam (hawk); Bethhagla (partridge); Humta (lizard); Lais, Lebaoth (lion); Irahas (snake), Beth-nemra (leopard); Para (cow); Seboin (hyena); Hasar-sual (jackaI); Hasar-susa, -susim (horse); Telaim, Bethear (lamb); Zora (hornet); etc.

An important and interesting class of topographical names have reference to the religious practices of the early inhabitants of Chanaan. Such cities as Bethsames, Ensemes, the various Hares clearly owed their names to their being given up to sun-worship; likewise such names as Sin, Sinai (Babyl. Sin , i.e., Moongod), and Jericho, tell us of places consecrated to the cult of the moon. Many were the cities and mountains dedicated by the Chanaanites to the various Baals. Even Babylonian gods possessed shrines in Palestine: the names of Mt. Nebo, Nebo of Moab, Nebo of Juda ( Ezra 2:29 ), are of thernselves very suggestive; Anath, the female companion of Anu, gave her name to Beth-Anath, Beth-Anoth, Anathoth ; Bel was honoured in Ribla (Ar-bela); Ishtar in Astaroth, Astaroth-carnaim, Beestera; the name Beth-Dagon needs no comment.

Finally a certain number of distinctly Hebrew names, which either superseded older ones, or were given to localities before unnamed, have a special interest because they took their origin from events enshrined in the memory of the Hebrews. Bersabee recalls the league of Abraham and Abimelech (Gen. xix, 20); Eseq, the quarrel of the herdsmen of Gerara with those of Isaac ( Genesis 26:20 ); Bethel, the vision of Jacob ( Genesis 28:17 ); likerwise the names Abel-Misraim ( Genesis 1:11 ), Mara ( Exodus 15:23 ), Massa, Meriba ( Exodus 17:7 ), Thabeera ( Numbers 11:3 ), Horma ( Numbers 21:3 ), Galgala ( Joshua 5:9 ), Bokim ( Judges 2:5 ), Abenezer ( 1 Kings 7:12 ), Pherez Oza ( 2 Samuel 6:8 ), etc., were for the Hebrew people so many records of the memorable past. And this custom of renaming places in commemoration of momentous facts persisted until the times of the New Testament, as we gather from the (Aramaic) name Haceldama ( Matthew 27:18 ; Acts 1:19 ) given to the potter's field bought with blood-money.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Isaiah 7:10-14
10 Yahweh spoke to Ahaz again and said:11 ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
1 [Psalm Of David] To Yahweh belong the earth and all ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 1:26-38
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for December 20th, 2014 Image

St. Dominic of Silos
December 20: Benedictine abbot and defender of the faith. Born in Canas, ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter