Nowadays, prospective parents usually go out and buy a baby name book to examine possible names for their future child. These books generally contain a long list of names, along with the "meanings" and original languages of these names. Nowadays you don't even have to buy a book, since there are lots of Web sites with similar information.

Practically without exception, all of the "meanings" in these books are crap. It's true that the components of most names can be traced back to words that had a meaning in some language, but in most cases the "meanings" were either added on to the name after the fact, or were lost shortly after the name was created.

Historically, children's names were most often taken from some other person--either famous figures from the past (such as saints) or after ancestors. In periods similar to today when parents liked to give their children unusual names, the names seem to have been chosen more for their sound than their meaning (and this is still true today). The real "meaning" of a name has a lot more to do with the people who have born the name in the past than with some etymology.

Disclaimer: This applies primarily to European languages. Middle Eastern cultures historically combined names from namesakes with names that actually meant something. Ichiro2K3 tells me that Japanese names can have a bunch of meanings of varying coherence depending on which characters you use to write them. I have been told that all Chinese names are given with an explicit meaning in mind, but I don't know if this is true.

For more information, you could look at the origin of modern American names and the related baby name books are crap.

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