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Thursday
May032007

on names

"With a knowledge of the name comes a more distinct recognition and knowledge of the thing."

In 1837, at the age of twenty, after having just finished his schooling at Harvard, Thoreau moved back to his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. With the encouragement of a new mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau began to keep a daily journal, and he began thinking of himself as a writer and poet. He did something else as well.

Just as he was about to begin a new chapter of his life, he decided to change the order of his two given names. Instead of David Henry, he decided to call himself Henry David.

Although it may seem like a small thing at first glance, I believe that a decision like this signifies something much deeper. A decision like this reaffirms that our names, and the language we use to describe ourselves, impact our perceptions in powerful ways. Perhaps our names, and the words that we feel define us most specifically, are more important than we realize. Or maybe we do realize it, and that's why we tend to change or amend our names at certain points in our lives. We shed one identity and grow into another. Maybe at certain crossroads, we wonder who we are and where we are going. We might even draw new conclusions about our unique purpose in life.

For whatever reason, lately, I've also been trying to dig a little deeper and uncover more clearly who I am. I've been wondering where to work, how to live, and who to spend time with. I've been examining my creative habits and mediums. In short, I've been wondering where I belong. I've also been wondering about where I came from, which has led me to do some research in order to find the meanings and origins of my own name.

So far, this is what I've learned.

My last name CREAN was originally spelled O Croidheagain. It originates from the Gaelic word "croidhe" - meaning "heart". Apparently, some of my very earliest ancestors held a family seat near Donegal, Ireland. It's also come to my attention that many CREANS have lived and continue to live in County Sligo in the northwest portion of Ireland.

The traditional Irish pronunciation of the name CREAN sounds like "crane".... similar to the Irish poet Yeats, who also lived in County Sligo. The English pronunciation of Crean sounds like "kreen". And, although both pronunciations are perfectly acceptable, my own family uses the traditional pronunciation. So, my last name is pronounced "crane".

My first given name is BRIAN and it also originates from Ireland. It is related to the old Celtic element "bre", meaning "hill" or "high". Other extended meanings of the name BRIAN are "noble" or "strong".

My second given name, or my middle name, is PATRICK. Although most people currently think of Patrick as an Irish name as well, it actually originates from ancient Rome, derived from Patricius, meaning "nobleman". In ancient Rome, citizens were considered either Patricians (noblemen) or Plebians (commoners). We only think of Patrick as an Irish name because a British missionary, named Sucat, changed his name to Patrick when he became a priest. After traveling throughout Ireland and converting the island to Christianity, he became known as St. Patrick.

When I was about 13 or 14 years old, as part of a Catholic ritual, I chose the name JOSEPH as my confirmation or spiritual name. Although I'm no longer Catholic, I suppose I still think of Joseph as one of my unofficial names. Derived from the Hebrew Yosef, it means "he will add." This meaning came about due to his life story. Apparently, Yosef was the favorite son of the biblical figure Jacob. However, Yosef's brothers became jealous and sold him into slavery - telling their father that he had died. After being enslaved in Egypt for many years, Yosef eventually rose to become a chief advisor to the Pharaoh. Eventually, the family was reconciled in Egypt, and the name Yosef came to stand for one who rises to power or aspires to great heights. The story of Yosef, in a way, is about faith and perseverance. Two things needed in order to rise above one's station in life.

Needless to say, I have been finding all of this very interesting. Although I would never be confident enough to define myself in such a way, I think it is wonderful to have a name which, literally translated, means:

"High, strong, noble, rising, heart".

It's also been wonderful to expand my research and learn some interesting things about Thoreau's name.

Obviously, the name THOREAU is French. Unfortunately, I haven't yet found a specific translation of its meaning, but I have learned that Thoreau's ancestors were from the Poitou-Charentes district of France. His grandparents immigrated to America in the 1700's. His father was French, and his mother was of Scottish decent.

The name DAVID is Hebrew and means "beloved". And, the name HENRY is derived from the German name "Heimiric" which means "home ruler".

It's truly astounding when you think about it. How incredibly fitting that the author of WALDEN, a book about building and living in a small cabin in the woods, would have a name that, literally translated, means "beloved home ruler".

Lately, my interest in names has spread from people to trees as well. While I've been walking through some of the trails near my home, I've been wondering about the different trees that I encounter while I walk. I've been noticing which trees are tall and which are short, and which trees bend more easily in the wind. I've been noticing and appreciating the beauty of their leaves and branches, and the different textures of their trunks. There are certain trees, near the waters edge, that I tend to photograph over and over.

As I've been looking so closely at these trees, I've also been thinking about doing some scientific research as well. I've been asking myself.... should I go to the library and start learning the official names of these trees? But, then something inside me says.... no, don't start down that path. The path of the scientist is a different path and doesn't really suit me. It's not the type of tree that I'm interested in. It's the individuality of specific trees that hold my attention.

If I start to learn the scientific names of the trees, I'm afraid I will start to look at them scientifically. My walks will become a series of classifications; they will not continue to be the explorations of beauty that I've come to appreciate so much.

"We are constantly invited to be who we are", wrote Thoreau.

I think I am fundamentally drawn to the beauty of my surroundings. I am not a scientist with scientific eyes that names trees and people according to their genus. The trees I see while I walk may or may not be elms or pines. But, they are certainly unique gifts to be appreciated.

There is one particular tree that I often see on my walks. I don't know what kind of tree she is, but I've still named her SOPHIA. True to the Greek origin of her name, she is indeed wise, and when the sun shines through her leaves, she glows and makes the world seem perfect just as it is. Perhaps the eyes of a "high, noble, rising heart" are simply destined to see her in this light. Like all of the trees that surround her, she is more than just another birch or maple. I believe the beauty and essence of SOPHIA is timeless and beyond such generalizations, just like the writing, poetry, and personality of our "beloved home ruler" Henry David Thoreau.