Visit Homepage
Skip to content

What’s in a name?*

*As someone who’s been working on onomastics –
That’s a fancy word that means that I study names. Sometimes we have to use fancy words such as onomastics in writing, or they just won’t take us seriously. It’s kind of sad actually: academia would be so much more fun (not that it isn’t fun now, whoa! The times I’ve wet myself laughing… You’d think I’d have learnt my lesson by now and be running around with Tena’s, but I can be stubborn sometimes. But so there’s no limit to fun, in my opinion, and I can also be greedy, so yeah, academia could be so much more fun) if they’d let you pop in a joke or two or add some drama. What’s wrong with putting a smile on a person’s face while sharing groundbreaking, earth-core-shaking, life-as-we-know-it-transforming results? (see, that’s the drama I’m talking about. Yes, of course, what we do here in our cold and drab whitewashed office won’t change the world, but wasn’t that much more exciting to read than ‘while sharing our results’ period? *snore*) Once you finally get tenure, probably somewhere around your fifties, with almost translucent skin since you haven’t seen actual daylight for the past 15 years, and those odd tufts of grey hair sticking out at strange angles, you can do and say whatever the hell you want. But what are the odds? I mean, that we get tenure. The hair will probably take just another couple of months judging by my end-of-the-year to-do list. WHY CAN’T LEARNING BE FUN?! Luckily we’ve got our blog here to make sure it can!

– I just have to get off my chest that that is the most uninspired title EVER in the history of titles. I can’t even begin to start listing all the papers I’ve read headed by that quote. So to all of you out there writing something on names and contemplating those five words: STOP. In the name of love, cherubs and all the archangels. You’re reading this blog, so I presume you’ve got some brains in that head of yours somewhere. If you’ve followed the customary steps of embryonic evolution, they should be divided into left and right. And even if that left side, your center of logic reasoning, is underdeveloped for some reason (say, your mom loved to bungee jump while she was pregnant, whatever), it’s still there; USE IT. Please. We onomasticians (it would also be fun if we’d be allowed to invent words from time to time) will be forever grateful.

Now we’ve got that ‘onomastics thing’ out of the way, I can tell you something about a network I whipped up some time ago while preparing for the Sunbelt conference in Florida earlier this year. You know, the one with the sandy white beaches, near the Harry Potter park, ladida ladida …

As you may have guessed by now, it’s about names/onomastics. You see, the project I’m working on right now focuses on the local elite in Roman Egypt, and I wanted to take a look at how they define themselves: as Greeks? As Egyptians? Wizards or muggles…? Ever since Alexander the Great waltzed through Memphis and annexed Egypt to his empire, Greeks had been pouring in, lured by the promise of privileged status, ancient wonders and sandy beaches (which turned out to be just sand). Now, these guys had needs, just like anyone else, so they each plucked a bundle of papyrus and cited some Sappho and those Egyptian babes came swarming like bees.

onomastics network 1385757_555602587860782_573205825_n.jpgThey made babies, lots of babies, and after a while being Greek or being Egyptian was something you could play around with. So after Caesar and Mark Antony had fooled around with Cleopatra and Octavian finally outsmarted them all and confiscated Egypt and his Roman administrators arrived to collect taxes and arrange grain shipments to Rome, they were pretty confused. Romans don’t like things to be messy, so they set up some pretty strict rules on who got privileged status (and therefore had to pay much less taxes) and who didn’t. But as I said, these people weren’t actual Greeks anymore, although they did seem to want to think they were. And one of things in which this really shows, is their names.

(So to answer Shakespeare’s question: there’s a lot in a name actually. Just read my PhD. It’s awesome and all on onomastics. Available soon at your not-so-local bookstore)

onomastics network hermopolis 1.png
Fig. 1: Hermopolis

As a case study, I constructed a network of the names known from Hermopolis, a metropolis somewhere in the middle of Egypt (fig. 1), between AD 100 and 130 (fig. 2). This is a directed network, and there’s a link from name A to name B if a person with name A chose name B for his/her child. The network is also weighted, since it’s perfectly possible that different guys called Horion named a son Hermaios for example. The size of the nodes is determined by their indegree: a high indegree is an indication of a name’s popularity, and in figure 2 you can see the top 10 names for this period highlighted in red. Hermaios, for example, comes as no surprise, since the god Hermes was the patron deity of the metropolis.

onomastics network hermopolis 2.png
Fig. 2: Names in Hermopolis
onomastics network hermopolis 3.png
Fig. 3: Egyptian vs Greek names

When looking at the linguistic origins of these names, we can see that the network is almost neatly divided into two sections: an Egyptian and a Greek part (fig. 3). An occasional Latin name pops up here and there, but then Romans didn’t really venture outside of Alexandria (personally, I think they were just scared of the hippos; and right they were: you’re as flat as a pancake in a heartbeat if one of those sits on you), and there are some names of which we simply do not know the meaning and origin, those are the small grey nodes. It’s already clear from this graph that, although the Egyptian component is larger, the Greek component seems more connected.

onomastics network hermopolis 4.png
Fig. 4: Density

And yup, when comparing the density of the two, the Greek component has a density that is almost twice as high as the Egyptian one (fig. 4).

onomastics network hermopolis 5.png
Fig. 5: Father-son combo’s

I’ve also factored in the edge weight (fig. 5), and in the Egyptian part there’s actually only one father-son combo that appears frequently: there are several fathers called Petosiris who named their son Orsenouphis. In the Greek component there are six combo’s that appear several times: Achillion – Hermaios, Horion – Hermaios, Hermaios – Eudaimon, Apollonios – Eudiamon, Ammonios – Totoes and Ammonios – Horion.

onomastics network hermopolis
Fig. 6: Reciprocal ties

Reciprocal ties are also more common in the Greek component, indicating that names were sometimes passed down from grandfather to grandson, e.g. Dioskoros, son of Harpochration, grandson of Dioskoros (fig. 6). These are all indications that families that used Greek names were more traditional when it came to name giving, choosing from a more limited pool of names.

onomastics network hermopolis 7.png
Fig. 7: Elite names

As a next step in this onomastics adventure, I took a look at the relation between names and status. When a name was used by a member of the local elite, I colored it red. As you can see in figure 7, most of those names are situated in the Greek portion of the graph (39 vs 16). So by choosing a Greek name they are making a clear statement that they considered themselves to be Greeks and therefore culturally superior to Egyptians, even though there was no actual connection with the Greeks living in Greece anymore. The higher density observed among the Greek names can also be explained from this social point of view: decent was really important in this society where elite membership was strictly hereditary, and by limiting themselves to a specific collection of names was a way of expressing family and community ties (they didn’t have family names in Egypt. Or Greece. Or anywhere else at that time, except those brilliant Romans).

So I was pretty psyched when these results turned up, because they proved my point, which is always a bonus in our line of work. But then I showed the graph to our department pater familias, who’s also a big fan of ancient names, and he immediately noticed that something fishy was going on. Too many Egyptian names, he said. Too many popular Egyptian names for a metropolis like Hermopolis. Turns out, that when looking up ‘Hermopolis’ in our database as provenance to get the names I was interested in, I forgot to distinguish between texts that were actually written in Hermopolis, and therefore actually deal with people that lived there, and those texts that were merely found in Hermopolis, but originated elsewhere. Actually quite a rookie mistake that I’m not supposed to make anymore, so I was pretty embarrassed. So that neat dichotomy you see in the graph with a Greek vs an Egyptian portion is not the result of naming practices of the elite vs those Egyptian nincompoops, but of texts written in Hermopolis (with lots of Greek names), and texts written in the Heptakomia district, during Apollonios’ term as district governor there, which he afterwards brought back home to… Hermopolis (and so have nothing to do with naming traditions in that metropolis).

Naturally, I was a *little* bummed when I found out (there’s a sign hanging next to my desk now reading “written is not the same as found, you dumbass’). But as our Trismegistos overlord pointed out in all his techy-specy wisdom, this onomastics network still proves that there were significant differences in naming trends in the district capitals compared to the countryside. Yay!

onomastics network hermopolis 8.png
Fig. 8: Uncertain names

What this onomastics network can perhaps also help solve, are some unexplained names (fig. 8): although the meaning of names such as Anek and Koulo will probably forever remain a mystery, their position in the Egyptian component makes it likely that they were Egyptian in origin. This network can also be used in a similar way to evaluate the linguistic affiliationof names (fig. 8): Isis and Esoeris are Egyptian in origin, but we know they were accepted by the elite population, and their position in the Greek component confirms this. It would be interesting to examine how other names situated in the “wrong” component or in the “grey area” between the two components, such as Totoes and Horos, were perceived by contemporaries.

So there you have it. Even we, your beloved, breathtaking and brainy Data Ninjas, make mistakes. Whatever your mom tells you, nobody’s perfect.

onomastics network hermopolis 1013539_920735934622527_8929096937744708622_n.jpg


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *