News - October 27, 2016

What’s in a name?

My nephew was just born, a really cute boy. My aunt asked me whether I could propose some names for the little newcomer.

I started searching for some possible names, when a staff member walked in and asked what I was doing. I showed him the picture of my nephew and told him I was looking for a name with a good meaning for him. He asked with a big surprise: ‘How can you give his life a meaning when you do not know how it is going to be?’ He then added: ‘You do not even know what the boy wants to be, so how can you place such a burden on him?’

‘Well’, I explained, ‘the name does not stand for what we want him to be, but it expresses good wishes we have for him. For example, we could give him a name that expresses the wish that he should have a happy life.’ This convinced him somewhat, but he replied: ‘We do not have names with meanings in the Netherlands.’

Interestingly, a week later I read a story about Dutch family names, which date back to the Napoleonic period. The French ruler forced people without a surname to take one for taxation purpose, but he let people choose their surname freely. That is why we see some funny names, like Jan Jan Pieter Cornelis de Haen (Jan son of Jan, son of Pieter, son of Cornelis, surname De Haen, which means The Cock). It also resulted in some embarrassing family names that are still being used, such as Hondendorst (Dog’s Thirst), Kloot (Testicle), Eikel (Penis), Naaktgeboren (Born naked).

Well, what I can say? I do appreciate the sense of humour, but I will not use these names.

Yue Han, PhD candidate in the Laboratory of Virology, from China

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