The 'meanings' of names


Within the broad rules of formation outlined above, the Greeks showed almost limitless inventiveness in creating names.

The following are just a few examples of the range of terms used:

Parts of the body:
κεφαλη ‘head’,
Kephalos, Kephal-ion etc.

λεων ‘lion’ λεαινα ‘lioness’
Leon, Leaina, Leontiskos, Leontas, Leonides, Niko-leon, Aristo-leon;
ιππος ‘horse’
Hippo-stratos, Strat-ippos, Hippo-krates, Krat-ippos, Fil-ippos,

αμπελος ‘vine’
Ampelos, Ampelides, Ampelion, Ampelis.

Political institutions:
δημος ‘sovereign people’
Dem-archos, Arche-demos, Aristo-demos, Demo-kritos, Demo-krates etc.

Military prowess:
the verb αλεξω‘defend’
Alexis, Alexion, Alex-andros, Alexi-demos, Alexi-polis, Alexi-krates etc.
The noun αναξ heroic word for ‘lord’, ‘master’:
Anax-archos Anax-andros Amfi-anax Kalli-anax Nik-anax etc.


While the natural tendency was to choose desirable attributes, it was not always the case, and it remains a matter of psychological curiosity to us why some forms were chosen, and even handed down within families: thus,
αισχρος `ugly' forming Aischros, Aischra, Aischrion;
κοπρος `dung' forming Kopria, Kopris, Koprilla etc.

Similarly, among compound names we find some where the two elements, intelligible enough individually, do not make sense to us in combination: for example, Andrippos, ‘Man-horse’, Xen-ippos ‘Stranger/horse’.

In general, while it is fair to say that the concepts embraced in a society’s names are a clue to the history and values of that society, it is only rarely that we have the opportunity to assess how conscious of meaning individual Greek parents were when making a choice of name.


Theophoric names

A distinct and important category of names was those based on the names of gods, ‘theophoric’ names. This group provides the most common of all Greek names, the simple adjectival forms based on the gods Apollo (Apollonius), Dionysos (Dionysios) and Demeter (Demetrios). But the full range embraces compound names, in which the name of the god was followed (never preceded) by such terms as
-γενης fem. -γενεια (‘birth’), -δοτος fem. -δοτα and -δωρος fem. -δωρα (‘giving/gift’), -φιλος fem. -φιλα (‘loved/loving’),
-κλης fem. -κλεια (‘renown’), -φανης fem. φανεια (‘manifestation’) etc.

So, from the god Zeus, root Dio-:
Dio-genes, Dio-geneia, Dio-dotos, Dio-doros, Dio-philos, Dio-kles, Dio-kleia etc.
from the god Apollo:
Apollo-genes, Apollo-dotos, Apollo-doros, Apollo-fanes.

Theophoric names could also be formed from cult titles of gods, and from lesser deities such as nymphs and river gods. The latter provide many distinctly localised names: the river Asopos in Boeotia, for example, gave rise to names such as Asop-ios and Asopo-doros, which are found almost exclusively in Boeotia and Athens. There was also the ‘neutral’ theophoric type based on the word for god, ‘theos’ rather than any particular deity: Theo-genes, Theo-dotos, Theo-doros, Theo-kles etc. The arrival of new divinities was duly marked in nomenclature; thus, from the late fourth century BC, worship in Greece of the Egyptian goddess Isis gave rise to names such as Isi-doros, Isi-dotos, Isi-genes etc.