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26 First Names That Ended up in the Dictionary

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Almost everybody’s first name means something. Adam means "man," as do Charles, Karl, and even Charlotte. Deborah and Melissa both mean "honeybee." Hilary means "hilarious." William means "desire-helmet." 

Sometimes, however, through some quirk of etymology—and sometimes entirely by coincidence—first names like these find their way into the dictionary as words in their own right, and end up ultimately taking on whole new meanings in the language.

1. ABIGAIL

In the Old Testament, Abigail is described as “a woman of good understanding and beautiful countenance.” Her husband Nabal, on the other hand, is “churlish and evil," and when he offends a group of King David’s men, Abigail tries to defuse the situation by offering her services as David’s personal handmaiden. After Nabal discovers what his wife has done, he promptly dies of a heart attack, leaving David free to marry Abigail and make her Queen of Israel. Leaving the Biblical soap opera aside, it’s Abigail’s selflessness and her willingness to offer herself into the king’s service that led to her name ending up in the dictionary as a byword for a female servant or handmaiden.

2. ANDREW

Derived from Greek, Andrew is another first name that simply means “man,” making it an etymological cousin of words like anthropology, androgeny, and philanthropy. In this literal sense, Andrew has been used since the early 18th century in English as another name for a manservant or assistant (the male equivalent of an Abigail), while a merry-andrew is an old 17th century name for a court jester or clown.

3. ANNA

Anna is an old Hindi word for a coin worth 1/16th of an Indian rupee that, during the British rule of India in the 19th century, dropped into colloquial English as a nickname for a small portion of something. Anna is also the name of a species of hummingbird native to the Pacific coast of North America, named for the wife of amateur naturalist François Massena, Duke of Rivoli (1799-1863), who discovered it in the early 19th century.

4. AVA

As well as being the name of a Polynesian liquor (in which case it’s pronounced “aah-va,” not “ay-va”), ava is also an old Scots word meaning “above all” or “in particular,” formed simply from the words “of all” running together over time. In this sense, it appears fairly regularly in 18th and 19th century Scottish literature, most notably in the works of the Scots poet Robert Burns.

5. EMMA

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, emma can be used “in telephone communications and in the oral transliteration of code” to represent the letter M. Originally used only in military contexts, after the First World War emma—along with a handful of others, like pip (P), ack (A), and toc (T)—slipped into occasional use in everyday English. So when P.G. Wodehouse wrote of “twelve pip emma” in A Pelican At Blandings (1969), he was referring to 12pm.

6. ERIC

An eric is a “blood-fine,” namely compensation paid by an attacker or murderer to his victim or victim’s family. Derived from an old Irish word, eiric, this tradition of quite literally paying for your crimes dates back into ancient history in its native Ireland but wasn’t encountered in English until the 16th century, when the English playwright Edmund Spenser explained in his Two Histories of Ireland (1599) that, “in the case of murder, the judge would compound between the murderer and the friends of the party murdered … that the malefactor shall give unto them, or to the child or wife of him that is slain, a recompense, which they call an erick.”

7. GEORGE

A George can be a loaf of bread, a one-year prison sentence, a kind of wig, an earthenware jug or bowl, an aircraft’s autopilot system, and an expression of surprise. It can also be any one of a number of coins and currencies, including a dollar bill or a quarter, both of which depict George Washington; an old English guinea, issued during the reigns of George I, George II, and George III; and a Tudor coin or “noble,” worth around 80 pence, which bore an image of St. George.

8. HARRY

As a verb, harry means to pester or attack, but it can also be used to mean to lay waste to something, to drag or pull something around roughly, and even to steal eggs from a bird’s nest. In the 18th century, it was also a nickname for a country bumpkin or “a rude boor” according to one Victorian dictionary, while in the Middle Ages it was used as a rider’s call to spur a horse forward.

9. HELENA

In Greek mythology, Helen (or Helena in Latin) was the sister of Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers who inspired the constellation Gemini and gave their names to its two brightest stars. Among sailors in Tudor England, the twins’ names came to be used of dual shooting stars or mysterious flashes of light seen at sea, while a single light or "corposant"—a glowing electrical haze seen around the mast of a ship during a thunderstorm—was nicknamed a Helena.

10. HENRY

The henry is the SI unit of electrical inductance. If you’re a physicist you’ll need to know that one henry is equal to the inductance of a circuit in which an electromotive force of one volt is produced by a current changing at the rate of one ampere per second. If you’re not a physicist, all you need to know that it was named in honor of the American scientist Joseph Henry (1797-1878).

11. ISABELLA

Also called isabelline, Isabella is the name of a greyish shade of pale yellow often used to describe the color of sandy-haired horses, or else encountered in the names of creatures like the Isabelline shrike and the Isabella tiger moth. How it came to earn its name is debatable, but one popular anecdote claims that it comes from Isabella of Austria, a 17th century archduchess whose father, Philip II of Spain, besieged the Belgian city of Ostend in 1601. According to the tale, Isabella was so confident of her father’s military prowess that she jokingly announced that she intended not to change her clothes until the siege was ended. Unfortunately for her, it went on to last another three years, and ultimately her name came to be associated with the yellowish, slightly off-white color of dirty underwear. Sadly, this tale has since been proven entirely untrue as the Oxford English Dictionary have now traced the earliest record of Isabella to one year before the siege even took place, when a “rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten set with silver spangles” was listed in an inventory of the contents of Queen Elizabeth I’s wardrobe in 1600.

12. JACOB

The Biblical tale of Jacob’s ladder—a vast staircase to Heaven, dreamt of by Jacob in the Book of Genesis (28:10-19)—led to criminals who used ladders to break into houses being nicknamed jacobs in 19th century slang.

13. JAMES

Gim or jimp is an old Tudor word variously used to mean "smart," "elegant," or "befitting." In the 18th century, gim became gimmy or jemmy, which was used to describe anything particularly dextrous or well-designed for its purpose. Based on this, in the early 19th century, criminals began nicknaming their housebreaking tools jemmies, and because "Jemmy" is an old pet form of James, james came to be used as another name for a crowbar in Victorian English. (It’s also an old name for a boiled sheep’s head served as a meal, but where that association came from is anyone’s guess.)

14. JESSE

In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah predicts that “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots, and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (11:1-2). His words are usually interpreted as prophesizing that one of Jesse’s descendants will one day become a divinely ordained ruler, and true enough the New Testament Gospel of Matthew lists Jesse as the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Jesus. Based on Isaiah’s prophecy, in the Middle Ages, the name Jesse became another word for a family tree or a genealogical diagram, while his line that “there shall come forth a rod out of Jesse” apparently inspired the Victorian schoolyard phrase to catch Jesse or to give someone Jesse, which meant to be caned.

15. JOHN

Of all first names to have found their way into the dictionary, John is probably the most fruitful. It can refer to a policeman, a butler or a manservant, a priest, an Englishman, a toilet, a signature, a plant, an unknown or otherwise unnamed person, a cuckold or hen-pecked husband, and even the client of a prostitute. The vast majority of all these meanings are probably derived from nothing more than the fact that John is such a common name, but its use as another name for a policeman is based on an English corruption of the French gendarme, while as a signature it’s famously derived from John Hancock, the Governor of Massachusetts whose elaborately written name dwarfs all of the others on the Declaration of Independence.

16. LUKE

Luke is a 13th century word essentially meaning "moderately" or "half-heartedly." So as well as being lukewarm, you can be luke-hot and luke-heartedLukeness is an old 15th century word for indifference or apathy.

17. MATILDA

The Australian folksong Waltzing Matilda tells the story of an itinerant “swagman” (traveller) who sets up camp “by a billabong,” “under the shade of a coolabah tree.” There he steals and kills a “jumbuck” (sheep), before drowning himself when the “squatter” (sheep-farmer) and three “troopers” (policemen) confront him. It ends with the famous line, “and his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong: ‘Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?’” The song is renowned for its use of traditional Australian vocabulary, including the two words in its title: Here waltzing doesn’t mean dancing, but rather wandering or journeying, and Matilda isn’t the name of the swagman’s sweetheart, but his backpack.

18. MOLLY

A molly can be a fruit-picker’s basket, an Irishwoman, a prostitute or working class woman, a weak or effeminate man (the molly in mollycoddle, incidentally), and, in 18th century slang at least, a man who “concerns himself with women’s affairs.” It’s also a nickname for the northern fulmar, a seabird of the Arctic, Atlantic, and North Pacific Oceans, in which case it probably derives from an old Dutch word, mallemok, meaning “foolish gull.”

19. REBECCA

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the girl’s name Rebecca can be used as a verb to mean “to demolish a gate.” In this sense it derives from the Rebecca Riots, a series of demonstrations in southwest Wales in the early 1840s in which groups of so-called “Rebecca gangs” attacked and demolished a series of tollgates in protest at the high charges being imposed. The gangs took their name from the Old Testament's Rebecca, who is blessed with the words “let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them” in the Book of Genesis (24:60).

20. ROBERT

Robert is an old English nickname for the European robin or “robin redbreast,” probably derived from a corruption of the Dutch nickname rode-baard, meaning “red-beard.” It’s also an early 20th century nickname for a restaurant waiter, in which case it comes from a series of comic tales published in Punch magazine in the late 1800s written by the Victorian writer J.T. Bedford (1812-1900) under the pseudonym “Robert, A City Waiter.”

21. SAM

No one quite knows why, but in 19th century American slang, to stand Sam meant to settle a bill, or to pay for someone else’s food or drink. As a verb, sam is also an old English dialect word meaning to clot or thicken, or to come together as a group.

22. SARAH

Sarah is 1950s military slang for a portable radio used by pilots who have been forced to crash-land to transmit their position to rescue ships and other aircraft. It’s an acronym of “search and rescue and homing.”

23. STEVEN

Steven is an old English dialect word for your voice, ultimately derived from the Old English word for a command or order, stefn. It can also be used to mean a great outcry or raucous argument, while to do something in one steven means to do it in absolute agreement with everyone else.

24. TOBY

For some unknown reason, toby is an old 17th century slang name for the buttocks. It’s also the name of a type of pottery jug bearing a grotesque caricature, a cheap cigar, a machine used to print designs on textiles, and a type of pleated collar popular in the 19th century. Among Victorian criminals toby was also a slang name for a road—highway robbery was nicknamed the toby concern, while to ply the toby meant to rob coaches or travellers on horseback.

25. TONY

Tony was a reddish-brown color popular amongst fashion designers and dressmakers in the 1920s and '30s. Before that, in the late 19th century it was used an adjective to mean “stylish” or “smart,” presumably in the sense of something striking a good “tone.”

26. VICTORIA

Victoria is the Latin word for victory, which in the Middle Ages was “employed as a shout of triumph,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The name has since also been applied to a golden sovereign minted in the 19th century, a species of domestic pigeon, a type of water lily, a woollen fabric, a type of plum, and a two-seater horse-drawn carriage with a collapsible roof, all of which are named in honor of Queen Victoria.

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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Why Are Small, Fancy Hats Called Fascinators?
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Chris Jackson, Getty Images

Even if you aren't invested in the lives of British royals, it will be worth tuning in to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding on May 19 for a glimpse at all the elaborate headgear. Fascinators—tiny, elaborate hats that are clipped to the wearer's head—are a popular fashion choice among the women of the royal family today. The name may seem like a perfect fit for the eye-catching accessory, but as Co.Design explains, the hat was called something entirely different until the 1960s.

The term fascinator first surfaced in the fashion world in 17th-century Europe. Back then, it referred to a lacy scarf women wrapped around their heads (or "fastened," hence the name). Rather than attracting stares from across the room, this version of the hat was meant to give women an alluring air of mystery. By the mid 20th-century, a slew of new hat styles hit the scene, leaving both the term fascinator and the garment it described to fall out of fashion.

In the 1960s, a New York milliner named John P. John decided it was time for the fascinator to make a comeback. Instead of thinking about the headpiece in its original sense, however, he used the name to rebrand the petite cocktail hats that were known at the time as clip-hats or half-hats. The sexy new name helped the already-popular design become even trendier.

Fascinators aren't that common in the U.S., but they're a staple of high-profile royal events in the UK. Princess Beatrice realized the accessory's full potential when she debuted her now-iconic fascinator at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. (She eventually auctioned it off on eBay for charity, where it sold for a cool $130,000.) As a result, her head will be the one to watch when she arrives at her cousin Harry's wedding this Saturday.

[h/t Co.Design]

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