Sunday, January 20, 2008

ORIGINS: What’s In a Name?

"And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved."
Acts 4:12
John Lang, writing in The Washington Times, says,
“Names are going through some strange transformations … powerful … trends are at play as parents [exercise] their occasionally inspired but often lamented power of naming names into the next millennium.” He adds, “Plain Jane is apt to be … Jeyn or Janne. Today’s Tyrones and Terrells are more likely to have a name like Jamarcus or Jevonte … .”
[November 1-7, 1999, p. 2.]
But Lang is speaking of first names; however, surnames (or last names) have also been affected by trends. My surname (Gillmartin; also Gilmartin, Guilmartin and Kilmartin) is of Scotch-Irish origin and they are pros when it comes to names, both logical and illogical. Up to the tenth century AD, surnames in Ireland were not hereditary.

Those, like mine, beginning with “Gil-“ or “Kil-” (an anglicized version of the Irish Giolla, meaning follower or devotee) reveal the influence of the church: Gillmartin (in Irish Mac Giolla Mhairtin; the prefix Mac meaning “son of”) means “son of a follower of Martin” (in this case St. Martin).

Similarly, the church is the origin of those names starting with “Mul-“, a version of the Irish Maol, meaning bald, applying to monks due to their distinctive hair styling, as well as many others.

The earliest names appear to be those incorporating “Ó” or its earlier form Ua, meaning “descendant of.” So O’Mulrennan (Ó Maoilbhreanainn) means “descendant of a bald-follower of Brendan,” probably a son or grandson of a monk in an order of St. Brendan.

While many of the names appearing in accounts of the time appear similar to modern Irish names, incorporating the prefix “Mac” or “O,” were in fact not hereditary, lasting only one generation. Hence Turlough mac Airt, was Turlough, son of Art; his son would be Conor mac Turlough, Conor son of Turlough.

Although the making of “fixed” hereditary surnames began early, the process was slow, continuing for over six hundred years. As the population grew and new families were formed, each sought to consolidate its identity by adopting hereditary surnames, usually by simply adding “Mac-“ to the first name of the founding ancestor. In the course of this process, then, many surnames were created which are in fact offshoots of more common names.

For example, the MacMahons and the McConsidines are descended from the O'Brien family, the former from Mahon O'Brien, who died in 1129, the latter from Constantine O'Brien, who died in 1193. This continuing division and sub-division of the most powerful Gaelic families almost certainly explains the great proliferation of Gaelic surnames.

[Adapted from “The Origins of Irish Surnames” from on the Internet]

I’m glad the old ways have given way to more reasonable conventions. Today, under the old system, I might be known as Jion Ua Giolla Mhairtin Giolla Jesu Mac Gaud, or John O’Gillmartin Giljesus MacGod; literally, John a descendant of a follower of Martin, a follower of Jesus, Son of God.

But as names and naming processes go, I much prefer God’s way; for under His eternal system, I am Jion O’Gaud … simply John, child of God. For He has made me His child and written my name in the Book of Life, using the precious blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Son of God.

And I know, “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved." [Acts 4:12]

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