Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Name Post: The Secret of the Sun
A Saturday afternoon spent picking lupines and waiting for the bus.
One of the highlights of my time in Iceland so far has been making the acquaintance of a Watson Fellow who was in the class of 1981. Sarah is a poet and translator who has lived in Iceland since meeting and marrying an Icelandic man while on her Watson year (no plans to follow in her footsteps…yet). She kindly e-mailed me in March 2011 to congratulate me on the Watson and told me to look her up when I got here. Last weekend I got to be the beneficiary of a traditional Icelandic meal at her house in Hafnarfjarðar because, as she told me, Watson alums pretty unanimously agree that “you should always feed a Watson.”
I feel very lucky to have been temporarily included into her family circle for many reasons, but one of these was the opportunity to meet her 27 year-old daughter, Solrun (actually spelled Solrún), who has grown up going back and forth between Iceland and the states. (She also has two really adorable Icelandic children I got to hang out with). Solrun has had a variety of names in her transcontinental existence; going from Solrun in Iceland to Sola while at college in the states, with various nicknames and Facebook identities thrown in for good measure.
Sarah told me that Solrun was born in the summer and it's customary for parents in Iceland with children born around the solstice to use “sol” (meaning “sun”) somewhere in their names. Like many names here, the name “Solrun” is really a compound word; “sol” meaning “sun”, and “run” meaning “rune” or “secret.”
Laugavegur, downtown Reykjavik
Growing up in the U.S., Solrun took her name quite literally. She told me that as a child she spent some afternoons trying to figure out just what this secret of the sun was, a secret she assumed she was supposed to know because she wore this name. She told me that she was convinced she figured it out one summer day when she squinted at the sun and saw rainbows behind her eyelids. She eagerly told this to her aunt, who promptly informed her that this happened to everyone who squinted at the sun.
Solrun and I talked about a lot of other things, including her own children’s Icelandic/American names, which I’ll write about another time, but this story stuck with me—the image of her as a child trying to figure out the secret. It made me wonder if she had grown up in Iceland, if she would have had the same impulse to invest in the literal meaning of her name.
I think that in places where “noun names” (the title I’m giving to names that are literal translations of words), are more common, they might actually be taken less literally. Byrndis, the twenty-three year-old daughter of my landlady who has become a friend, told me the other day about her friend, Hrefna. Hrefna is apparently an old traditional Norse name, but it is also one of a few Icelandic words for “whale.” My mind immediately went to this poor girl trying to get through her teenage years, but Bryndis reassured me she took it in stride. “Now she just likes to tell tourists in bars here that her name means ‘whale’, and they never believe her.”
In a way, the relationship between names and nouns in Iceland reminds me of many traditional names in Zambia, where the meaning of names isn’t meant to reflect on the child, but more on the circumstances of birth. Even though names that follow Zambian traditions have a literal meaning (“Mabvuto” meaning “problems”, or “Tikwambenji”, “What is there to say?”), they aren’t supposed to be a direct representation of the child--an idea that's in opposition to many people’s perceptions of names in the United States, where names represent the person who wears them, first and foremost.
Bryndis explained to me that her own name is from “bryn” (“armour”) combined with “dis” (“fairy”); in other words, her name conjures the image of an “armored fairy.” I asked her if most Icelandic people would hear her name and picture this, and she said she wasn’t sure, but because they speak the language, if they thought about it, they could figure out its meaning. Because the Icelandic language has changed so little over time, names can often be deciphered from the root of their words. In my mind, it’s the difference between a name like “Rose” or “Destiny” in the U.S., where the meaning is obvious, and a name like Daniel (which literally means “he who walks with God”), where the meaning can’t be deciphered from the word alone.
Iceland has names where the meanings are less obvious as well, and mostly, these are biblical names like Jon and Adam, rather than names that come from Norse gods and goddesses. But many names here are directly formed as compound words, which means that learning names here is actually quite a good way to learn a bit of Icelandic. Guðrún, one of the most popular girl’s names, means “God” + “rune”, Steingerður means “Stone” + “garden”, Droplaug means “drop” + “pool.”
I’ve found "compound word" names like these in many of the countries I’ve visited this year. They vaguely remind me of some of the descriptive names of First Americans. They're also reminiscent of Amazigh names in Morocco (names that are often banned because they pre-date Islam and are not thought of as exemplifying a “Moroccan identity.”) Many of them have similar meanings, often based in naturalism (Ayyur meaning “moon” in Tamazight, for example, or “Sifaw” meaning “enlightened".) The fact that many of these compound word, "noun names" have Pagan roots has led quickly to their replacement in some places.
What I’m wondering about now, however, is how the meaning behind names may change when some names have more literal meanings than others. In a place where your name is a direct translation of “whale” or “sun’s secret”, how do you interpret these words in relationship to yourself? Do you actually take the meaning of your name less to a heart than you would in a place where names' meanings are more illusive and unknown? It might mean that Rose in the U.S. takes her name more literally than “stone’s garden” in Iceland or “problems” in Zambia, even though all of these names have specific and obvious definitions in their various contexts.
I believe that the literal definitions of names is only a small fraction of what they represent worldwide, but I'm also realizing that the weight we give to these definitions may vary cross-culturally.
And, of course, it also varies by person. The other day I was walking through some Reykjiavak suburbs trying to find the mall where Bryndis works to met her for lunch. I got lost and ended up asking a guy on a skateboard for help. He ended up walking me there and, in a moment of Watson-year serendipity, he turned out to be a local celebrity. I told him I was studying Icelandic names and he told me I’d see his name in the Guinness book of World Records for balancing on his skateboard for the longest amount of time. (I looked this up later and found that this is a true story, not an oddly-specific pick up line: http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/records-5000/longest-skateboard-stationary-manual/). His name is Hlynur, which means, “maple.”
As it turns out, in Iceland, most skateboards are made from the wood of maple trees. "It was meant to be," he told me.
Maybe it’s a question of destiny, or maybe it’s more of a question of psychology, of wanting to, to use a cliché, “live up to our names.” It might be an unavoidable and universal impulse to take names at least a little bit personally, whether that means trying to escape the “mabvutos” that surround our births, living up to our namesakes, or taking it on as a personal responsibility to figure out the secret of the sun.