On the hunt for violent names


I’m not the only person fascinated by names, their meanings and origins. A session on Jewish surnames at last weekend’s Routes conference was so well-attended that they had to turn people away. Now some folks have found this fascination with names can be a clever way to bash Muslims.

“Would we name our children Warrior, Conqueror, Sword, or Holy War?” Harold Rhode asks in the article “Would You Name Your Kid ‘Sword’?” published on the Gatestone Institute’s website. “These are the meanings of personal names commonly used in the Muslim world, and may give some insight into Muslim values, especially regarding violence.”

Ah, Muslims. Violence. And their names apparently explain it. Or are a symptom of it. Or something. And if that highly suspicious insight doesn’t serve to convict The Muslims, maybe the following equally general and likely irrelevant statement will:

“Western societies almost never give their children names which denote violence.”


And while Rhode grants that some Muslims do give their kids beautiful, pacific names, he says in the next breath that “many Muslims do not,” choosing instead aggressive, warlike names like Jihad and Sayf (sword).

The problem, Rhode says, is that unlike the West, by which he means Christians, the Muslim world didn’t go through a “reformation.” Hands up if anyone wants to go through that blood-soaked period again. But the end of the Christian religious wars did, Rhode writes, lead to the popularity of the names Felicity, Charity, Prudence, Hope, Faith, Joy and Chastity. (And Chaz.)

Rhode’s essay drips contempt and seems to betray any deep knowledge of Muslim and Arabic culture, despite the fact that he holds “a Ph.D. in Ottoman History and later served as the Turkish Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of Defense.”

The Gatestone Institute describes itself as “a non-partisan, not-for-profit international policy council and think tank [that] is dedicated to educating the public about what the mainstream media fails to report.” Much of what the mainstream media fails to report seems to be negative things about Muslims, like their names.

Since I have no real knowledge of Muslim or Arabic culture either, I’ll just point out that the name Martin means “warrior of Mars,” that Nicholas means “victorious” or “conquerer,” that Dustin means “warrior” and Brando means “firebrand” or “sword.” Dirk means “knife”; William, “will helmet” (it’s complicated); Gary, “spear”; Kelli, “warrior/defender”; Louise, “famous warrior.”

In our ancient Hebrew tradition, Gideon means “great warrior” as does Mordechai.

You get the idea. But wait, there’s more!

In 2011, New Zealand banned the name Lucifer from the National Register. What does it say about a culture, we might wonder, in which enough people want to name their children for the Architect of Evil that the authorities have to put a stop to it?

Closer to home, let’s not forget parents Heath and Deborah Campbell, whose neighborhood supermarket in 2009 refused to make a personalized birthday cake for their son, Adolf Hitler.

And then there’s the case of Hunter Spanjer of Nebraska, who is deaf and whose school complained to his parents that Hunter’s sign language name looked too much like a gun. Hunter. Gun. The connection is ironclad.

But I’ve gone so far afield that I’ve nearly forgotten about the Muslims. When I was in 6th grade, our teacher asked the class what was the most popular name in the world. I guessed, but I guessed right.

It’s Muhammad (and its variants), given to more than 150 million men and boys.

Muhammad means “praised” or “praiseworthy.” Too violent for you?

dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com Twitter: @davidholzel

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