Errata Literary Magazine

Bucks County Writers Workshop

Names: Three Essays
by John Scioli

First Names

Most people know the meaning of their first name. Please excuse me for any unnecessary repetition, but first names are where I have to begin to achieve my purpose. Generally first names are attributive: describing some trait of body, mind, character or attitude of the person named. The surname has four sources: a patro/matronymic (son of, daughter of), a place name, a profession or trade name, and the kinds of names people get as a first name.

Pamela means "all sweetness."

Linda means "beautiful" (Spanish) a shortened form of Belinda or Melinda. In German it means a "snake" or "serpent", an ancient symbol for wisdom. In Hebrew, the Israelites raised the snake as a means of healing during their forty years in the desert.

Jeanne means "God has favored."

Wilma is a shortened form of Wilhelmina, a Norman word meaning "will" and "helmet". She rules or leads with will and great desire.

Robert means "they will say good things about him" or "famous."

Fred is of course a shortened form of Frederick and it means "peaceful ruler." Albert means "Bright nobility."

Sylvia means "the wood or forest." She was also the mother of Romulus and Remus, the founders of the city of Rome.

David means "friend or beloved."

Marcia is the female name for Jason and it means of Mars, wielder of the war hammer.

Kurt is a contracted form of Conrad, which means "able counsel."

Marie or Maria means "sea of bitterness" or "wished for child."

Damian means "to tame."

William means "Will helmet" or "he who rules through the will."

John means "God has favored."

Don is Celtic for "rules the world."

Buhnne, I was unable to find the name in the usual sources. If I had a first name to go on and not a nickname I would have had better success.


The second essay will feature last names of the Writer's Group. A much more difficult task but interesting because of the historical connections. It is almost like a genetic marker. E.g., Scioli is an Italian plural form of the word "Chios", a Greek island just off the coast of Turkey, birthplace of Homer. Scioli are people who emigrated from the island of Chios. So as recently as two hundred years ago, when they started giving Greek and Italian peasants' last names, a large portion of my family were immigrants to Italy. The largest concentration of which is in Isernia. There are very few in the states. Most of them in Italy are priests, teachers, lawyers, writers, musicians, painters and furniture dealers. (the Isernia phone book lists professions.) As I said, it is like a genetic marker. In my research I hope to offer the writer's as much information as I have culled from sources on my name. One final reminder: the last essay is my purpose for undertaking the first two essays. So please hold on.

What a fascinating journey, but not necessarily for those that bear these surnames, but surely for some blood relative, however far removed!

Pamela Andre has her husband's last name, which is a patronymic. She is Andrew's Pamela. Andrew is a Greek word in origin in the genitive case, ander becoming andros, and it means "man." Probably no surprise to Pamela that she has married a man, whose last name is "man."

Linda Banks finds her last name on a list of emigres from France before 1643, the reign of Louis XIV. They landed either in England or in Ireland to escape persecution at the hands of the Catholics. Banks is a Huguenot name. The Huguenots were Calvinists. Some Banks made their way to Ireland where they became "Brohan."

I found a clue to Jeanne's last name on "The Denault Surname Message Board" where a Margaret Denault was born in Ireland and dies in the 1900's in England, she had two versions of her name: De Nulty or Denault. Working on the Irish side with Nulty and de as a patronymic prefix, I came up with a "person from Ulster," which, because of its proximity to England, Northern France (and Norsemen), could place Denault somewhere in that northern European space. Next I found a gruesome list of dead Denaults and then living ones, including a significant concentration in Canada, where Jeanne has told me a good number of her ancestors originated.

Desiato was the most elusive name. I contacted the "Italiani Cognomi" site and they wanted $99 for a limited genealogy, and for a major work-up, $495. I was told that all Italian names could be found in the dictionary. No such luck! They all mean something but I will defer to Wilma's superior knowledge of Italian for the answer to "Desiato." I was able to ascertain that "Desiato" is a name found in 108 communes throughout Italy, with heaviest concentrations in Northern and Central Italy.

Finkel was not difficult to figure out. It means the bird, "Finch," a little one at that. The interesting thing about Jewish names is that Jews were forbidden by law to chose the names of professions and were more or less limited to nature: Goldberg, Vogel, Stein, Silber, and Mandelbaum, meaning, respectively, Golden mountain, Bird, Stone or Rock, Silver, and Almond Tree.

Fred's name Gornick is Polish/Slavic in origin and it means "someone who mines coal."

The Honig's were extremely easy to decipher. One year of high school German could tell you that their name means "honey."

Dejarret was deconstructed into a patronymic "de" and "Jarret", not found in any French sources but in Anglo-Irish Garrett. Garrett is a form of Gerard, Gerald, which means "brave sword." I suspect another forced emigration caused by religious persecution, for someone in the family line.

Kroll or "Krolle" is Rhineland German for "curly" as in "curly" hair. It is also related to braid, as in crullers, braided dough. If I am not mistaken, Marsha recently told me that she has curly hair, probably an ancient family genetic characteristic on her father's side, which she has inherited. Upon discussing this with Marsha it appears that the name is a married one.

I might add, at times many of the sites I visited linked genealogy, surnames and genetics. It fascinates me that we have always had some kind of a handle on genetics, even in our ignorance, through our surnames.

Krumpholz was worse to research than Denault. I think I got a listing of every Krumpholz, whoever lived, died, emigrated and settled in any part of this continent along with their phone number and age. It shows one how private a name can be. I felt like a voyeur. Therefore, I only looked long enough to embarrass myself intensely then I quickly clicked off the site.

For Krumpholz I came up almost empty. "Wood crimper," that is all I could discern, someone who bent and shaped wood for barrels and wheels.

Damian McNicholl has the encouraging name: "son of victory people." He can bank that name for lifetime use.

William O'Toole has an equally triumphant name. It belongs to one of the great Leinster septs. It is a patronymic, "Of the mighty people."

Don Swaim has a Viking last name, or, a name from the far end of Indo-European, a Northern Indian name. The English name is derived from the Norse word "swein" meaning "servant, or herdsman" and, strangely enough, from Germanic (which includes Norse, Swedish, etc.) swainaz, and old Sanskrit swami which both mean, "one's own master."

Again, because of the cost, I could not locate Tramutola. The dictionary did however reveal the words "Tramuto - I transform, la - her." I was able to ascertain that only one hundred and sixty families have the name Tramutola in Italy. They are mostly located in Basilicata, the instep of the boot of Italy.

This is the end of the second part of the essay. The third part will develop the various interpretations thinkers have given the meanings of names. Some say they are conventional, historically significant and existentially determining, and some say they reveal deep truths about the individuals who carry them. You will be surprised at what Plato held, Cratylus and the ancients. I hope you stick around for the third essay. It is the most interesting, controversial and possibly a great revelation.


According to Cratylus, meaning was accidental or convention. They have no more inherent significance than calling a chair a chair, or a sedia in Italian. That is the response I get when I try to share my more essentialist philosophical interpretations of names with friends or colleagues.

Other believe names have historical significance: where you've been, what ethnic historical experiences you may have shared in, what geography you and your own may have covered, professions they may have had, or descriptive characteristics which may be part of your inheritance, but nothing more essential than being someplace at the wrong or right time, have curly hair or dark skin, having been Jewish in Eastern Europe, or Irish before the Anglo-Norman conflict. This is a middle view held by Plato himself.

Some names, since they are sounds, do not sound well and some psychologists believe this can have a deleterious effect on the bearers of such names. Some parents really seem to have been thinking of other things than their child's welfare when naming their children some of the strange names you have come across in life.

"The Language of Names" by Kaplan and Bernays (1999) articulates a more mystical view of which my interpretation is an example. "...names penetrate the core of our being and are a form of poetry, storytelling, magic, and compressed history."

I stumbled upon my interpretation of the meaning of names from a variety of sources: Indo-European word roots, ancient Hebrew reticence about giving one's true name for fear that the person would have power over you as a result of such knowledge, that fact that in ancient times a Jew had two names, one public and a private one for intimates, the discovery in studying ancient peoples that they all felt this guardedly about their names. I also recalled the rites of exorcism where the only power over the evil spirit was a proper articulation of its name, which it had to confess to he exorcist. In the Christian scriptures there are many accounts of Jesus changing someone's name to fit a new ministry and of Jesus demanding the name of possessing demons.

I discussed these bits of anthropology with a priest friend of mine and he helped me formulate the following ideas, which we have been testing empirically for over fifteen years. When I meet a person I take their name very seriously. There are several things I know immediately about the person. The knowledge is potential and must be tested.

1. I know the calling of the person, the trait, attribute, functional orientation of that individual.

2. I know that the trait, attributes etc. might not be immediately manifested. They are deep structure traits, which may or may not have manifested themselves into the manifest personality of the individual.

3. I can tell by the difference between the manifest trait and the name or calling the approximate distance the person is from redeeming his or her charism, trait or attribute.

4. The only one capable of redeeming or accepting a request for redemption of a trait is God. God is conceived of in many cultural forms. There is no attempt to be confessional. I have to assume we have some common notion of what we mean when we say God.

5. God is the ultimate author of the name working always through people, parents, and circumstances. All the ways God has revealed His will since the Hebrews began listening closely to His voice.

6. When the name is redeemed through prayer, or daily communication with God, the attribute operates freely, without hindrance, as a gift, as a seven-year light bulb, as an eternal flame. The gift once given and received or redeemed will never burn out as long as that covenant remains functioning.

7. The gift is primarily a charism, a gift, and a contribution of the individual to the community to build it up and to make it a safe receptacle for its human components. 8. The gift is secondarily a ministry of the person who possesses it.

9. God is like "Q" in the James Bond pictures. Like "Q" gives Bond gadgets which we pay no attention to, but after the first three movies, we know that at some key time in the movie, these little do dads will save Bond from doom. So too our name is the answer to our heart's deepest and often unspoken but nevertheless, felt prayer. It is the answer to the riddle of all of our needs, wants, deficiencies, temptations and darkness and despair. If someone presents themselves to me as John I expect someone who is gracious, generous, kind and helpful because he has been favored by God's graciousness. That eternal energy and love which keeps us afloat is given him or her as a gift for others and lastly as a gift to himself or herself. I want to stress that the name is both a communal and a personal charism. It is something for others and you. I would also like to add that the exercise of this charism is easy and almost comes of itself. It is not hard for John's to be generous, forgiving, gracious and viewed favorably by others. If I do not see these gifts emanating from someone called John I assume that the person has never fully redeemed the charism. One can only redeem something with the giver of the name, namely, God. It is the belief of myself and many theologians and philosophers through the ages that the name you receive is in the majority of cases willed and given by God.

That is the most difficult tenet of this philosophy for the contemporary mind to accept. They see only chance and cannot imagine how God could control each individual parent to come up with names ordained by God. According to W.H. Auden, when God's will is thwarted nicknames develop. When Jesus had a disciple whose name was not suited to Jesus' mission for that disciple, he changed the name. But in living out this name philosophy, that a wrong name has been given is the last place we should look.

John is a very personal name for me and one I have lived with all my life and it has been a great burden. I have enjoyed immeasurable success with teenagers in over three decades of teaching. I have enjoyed miserable relations with most of my teacher peers. Sometimes in the home I have acted more like a devil than God's gracious gift. Causing misery for loved ones that shame me to think of them and yet my name remains an ever-faithful presence in my life of the hand of God. For example, my success with students, which came easily to myself, I took credit for that achievement making me proud and haughty to my colleagues. My name says that God is gracious, not John Scioli. Had I been closer in prayer to the giver of the name I would have been humbler about my achievements and won the respect of the faculty which rightly rejected me. The interesting thing is that there were always a few out of the hundred who knew me on a deeper level and accepted me, warts and all. Again, I can see in retrospect that God was indeed being gracious to his would be usurper. And the mischief and trouble I had caused in my own home, in the rearing of my own children, the meanness, irritability, the emotional harm, the injustices to a faithful spouse, now bring me to the brink of despair. Then in that state I think of my name, God is gracious, rich in mercy and kindness. I think there is hope for me. No need to despair, just draw upon God's graciousness, which would flow from me like a spring in the desert, if I would get out of God's way. Johns are spared the deadliest of sins: pride, despair, and vainglory. It has been both liberating and a humiliating experience being called John. I can only be truly redeemed by praying my name. My personal gift prayer is "God is gracious, rich in mercy and kindness."

To go any further with someone else's first name I would need your permission. It gets very personal. I know Marsha well enough not to betray her sensibilities if I analyzed her name to a small degree. Marsha means of the god of war. To me she has the charism of justice and struggle for what is right and fair. In fact I would guess when she was younger there were many times when she couldn't even voice opposition to injustice. As she grew spiritually, she found in herself an inner strength, which comes to her as a gift, without struggle, with the clarity of pure, fresh and clean water. I believe of the god of war is a charism of justice and courage, a sense of fair play, the ability to overturn the established order when it is corrupt. That justice of God, the way that God struggles in human communities for what is right and god-like, that is as important a charism as God's grace and mercy.

So much for Marsha being a gift to the community. But to her it is also a gift. When Marsha feels defeated and down and out her name is her prayer of deliverance. "God is my shield and breast plate in war. I cannot be defeated with such a captain." This is what she brings to any community to which she belongs. Will she always struggle, maybe, but not necessarily, but if a struggle comes, she will lead for sure. Let me use one final example to demonstrate the philosophy. My wife's name is Kathleen, which means "the pure one." Purity has to be understood in the Greek sense of wanting one thing at a time, of achieving one goal well with concentration and full dedication. Her purity has caused me no small amount of distraction throughout our life together. She refuses to rush home from work when, for the good order of the practice, her paper work has to be done. She cannot think or act otherwise. When she is home she doesn't want to talk about work; she wants to be with the children, and me whoever happens to be around at the time. If I bring up extraneous concerns or wish to ruminate, she has no tolerance for that. You are home with your family, that is what you should be doing, everything else is unwished for and a noisome distraction. I could never get her to make love when the children were awake. She felt her duty was to see them safely and comfortably to sleep. All of this prioritizing reality had to do with the way she was living her gift. It really isn't right to be making love with children banging on the door for a glass of water. So against my ill will I was forced to a kind of purity and chastity to which I never aspired and by was I ungracious.

A synonym for this purity was simplicity. She would ask simple questions like, "Why would you even want to spend more money than you bring in, or could reasonably pay off within a reasonable amount of time." She was difficult for those of us who didn't wish to be so good. When I criticized, badgered, nagged and she felt like such a failure and wanted to give up, her name was her prayer, "Lord, you have made me the way I am, I can only be this way and no other. I trust that you are as strong as you are because your heart is pure. If you called me to purity, call me to that strength." And she would say things like, "I don't want you to leave, Jack. I'll be very sad, but I know I will manage. I have no choice. Someone has to take care of the kids." And she would go to work after a fight in perfect peace because, as she would say, "If I keep thinking about the cruel things you say to me, I won't be able to work, then where would we be?" She could put extraneous conflicts out of her head to parent, to love, to enjoy her family, to work with concentration, to care for her patience. Yes purity is her gift.

When you put us all together we will conflict, but it is reassuring to know that a shikenah of God is present in each one of us and, in community, we bring to perfection God's face in human affairs. Oh what an awesome force for good we would be if we understood just what we have been given and held onto it with the commitment and certainty of a prophet. As Moses said, "Would that the entire nation of Israel were prophets."

Bucks County Writers Workshop