Orthodox America

 What's in a Name? 

by Priest Andrew Philips

With the progressive de-Christianization of society, the use of the expression "Christian name" is becoming less and less common and is being replaced by "first name" or "forename." Not so long ago, Roman Catholics always gave their children saints' names. Even Protestants used to give their children those names that appeared in the Bible: Jonathan, David, Jeremy, Ruth, Judith, Esther, Rebecca, Rachel, Deborah, Abigail, Sarah were all once popular names in Protestant-based societies. Nowadays, it seems that Orthodox are the only ones to keep the tradition of giving their children saints' names. But many questions are posed as to what exactly a Christian name is and what names those entering the Orthodox Church should take.

First of all, it is necessary to point out that someone entering Orthodoxy should not take a new name if he has one that is already borne by a saint in the calendar. We have come across two cases where men with perfectly good Christian names changed them to exotic-sounding Vladimir and Auxentius. In both cases, the persons concerned were going through identity crises and were motivated in their choice more by a desire to change their identity than by wanting that particular saint's name. (Both men later lapsed from the Orthodox Church.) It would seem that the pastor should discourage uncalled-for changes of name.

Another question which sometimes arises is whether a person with a female form of a male saint's name, for example, Nicole, should be able to keep it. In the Russian practice, this is found only in monasticism, whereas in Greek practice it is quite common among laity. Other differences between Russian and Greek practice also occur. Greek women and girls may be called Maria or Panaghia in honor of the Mother of God. Among Russians, it is held that the name Mary is too holy to be given in honor of the Virgin. In the Russian tradition, girls called Mary are named in honor of other Marys: Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Mary Magdalene, or Saint Mary the sister of Saint Lazarus, for example. In Greece and the Balkans, names like Christos (accented on the first syllable), Sotiris (Saviour) and Kyriakos are also common. Russians tend to find such names unacceptable, for the same reason that Russian Marias are not named in honor of the Virgin. Another custom, unknown to both Greeks and Russian, is that of the Serb Slava, whereby individuals may not have individual saints' names at all, but do have a common family feastday in honor of a particular saint. As regards saints' days, there are some which fall on different days in the Greek and Russian calendars. Saint Catherine, for example, is celebrated on November 25 in the Greek Church and on November 24 in the Russian.

Some converts to Orthodoxy change names when it is not necessary simply through ignorance. They may, in fact, bear the name of a little-known saint. The following are examples of names which are perfectly valid Orthodox names, many of them being those of pre-Schism Western saints: Alan, Albert, Alphonse (Saint Ildefonse), Angus, Audrey, Aylwin, Barry, Bernard, Bertrand, Brigid, Claire (Photini or Svetlana), Dominic (equivalent to Kyriakos, Kyriaki in Greek), Duncan, Edgar, Edith, Edmund, Edward, Erasmus, Faith (Vera), Frederic (translation of Irenei), Geoffrey (Saint Ceolfrid), Gerald, Gilbert, Giles, Guy, Harvey, Helga (Olga), Herbert, Hugh, Humphrey, Kevin, Leonard, Mildred, Ottila, Owen, Richard, Robert, Ursula.

Other names, not sounding Orthodox, are often diminutives of perfectly good Orthodox saints' names. For instance:

Alexandra gives Alice and Alison
Catherine gives Karen, Kathleen, Kay, Kittie
Columba gives Malcolm
Dorothy gives Dora, Doreen and Doris
Emiliana gives Amelia, Emily and Milly
Elizabeth gives Bella, Bess, Beth, Elsa, Elsie, Isabelle, Lisa
Helen gives Eileen, Elaine, Eleanor, and Norah
John gives Evan, Sean, and Ian
Joanna gives Jacqueline, Jane, Janet, Janice, Jenny, Jessie.
Juliana gives Gillian and Jill
Mary gives Marian, Marilyn, Maureen, May, Miriam, Moira, Molly, Morag, Polly, Rosemary
Margaret (Marina) gives Greta, Maisie, Marjorie, Meg, Pearl, Peggy and Rita
Nicholas gives Colin

The lists above in no way claim to be complete, but they may be useful.

Ultimately, however, there are names which do have to be changed, since they are simply not saints' names at all. What approaches are there to this question?

Some converts change to a name which is similar to their own. An obvious example is that of those who change from Neil to Nil. Similarly, Lee can easily be changed to Leo or Leon. There are many other examples. Some people have second Christian names. Thus, someone called Pamela Mary could simply use her second, Christian name as her Orthodox name. Some people have a favorite saint and want to be called by that name. This is the simplest case of all.

Others may wish to take on the name of someone in their family. We know of one little Russian boy who was not baptized and did not have a Christian name. On baptism he took the name of his grandfather, who did have a Christian name. The result was that not only was the little boy baptized, but also that his grandfather started going to church, so bringing happiness to three generations.

There is also the question of how parents should name their children. The tradition was to look in the calendar either on the day of birth, or on the eighth day at the naming ceremony, or else on the fortieth day after the birth. These are pious customs which future parents should bear in mind. If parents choose a name simply because they like it, rather than for the saint, there is another aspect of names which is also often overlooked. This is where there are several saints of the same name. For example, there are several Saint Nicholases in the calendar, but in general only one is honored-this seems most unfortunate. The Church calls us to honor all the saints, not only our favorite few.

Of Anglo-Saxon saints in the English Tradition of Orthodoxy, there are a number whose names could be used, although unfortunately some of them are now out of fashion. For boys there are:

Adamnan, Adrian, Aidan Ailred, Alban, Aylwin, Bede, Benedict, Bernard, Bertrand, Cedd, Chad, Clement, Cuthbert, Dunstan, Edmund, Edward, Edwin, Felix, Geoffrey, Gilbert, Herbert, James, John, Kenelm, Laurence, Ninian, Oswald, Owen, Peter, Philip, Richard, Sigfrid, Theodore, Wilfrid.

For girls: Agatha, Alfreda, Audrey, Eanswythe, Edith, Elfreda, Elgiva, Ethel, Hilda, Mildred, Thecla.

Finally, we come to one other question: how we should remember non-Orthodox in prayer. It seems to be a good custom to write down the names of all those we wish to pray for in our commemoration books, but to put non-Orthodox separately in a clearly-indicated manner. In this way, the priest will be able to pray for all at the Proskomedia, but he will take particles out of the prosphora only for the Orthodox.

We hope that these considerations will be useful for all parents and those wishing to enter the Orthodox Church. May they receive the blessings of the saints through their holy names.