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Subject: CALEB and the “meaning” of names.
Author: Andy ;—)   (guest, 67.142.130.23)
Date: February 4, 2007 at 12:49:58 PM
A couple of days ago, there was an interesting conversation about CALEB, and I regret that I wasn’t able to join in earlier.
This might be a longish contribution, so I want to put my thesis in front:

a) CALEB seems indeed to be related to “dog” in Hebrew, but we have to ask: why?

b) The “meaning” of a name is far more than its original etymology or what we think, this is. Name giving motives and reinterpretations (even linguistically groundless ones) are part of the history of a name. Hermeneutically spoken, only this whole story can tell the full “meaning” of a name.


The Hebrew word for “dog” is indeed “kelev,” not “kalev,” so Hanks & Hodges (1990) more carefully state, that the name “is related to word for ‘dog’ in Hebrew.” Martin Noth (Die israelitischen Personennamen im Rahmen der gemeinsemitischen Namengebung, Stuttgart 1929) makes the same distinction and derives CALEB from the Arabic “kalibun” for “rabid” (p. 230, fn 5; I can’t verify this, as I don’t know Arabic). Hanks & Hodges seem to follow that line saying that the name “is said in some traditions to symbolize his rabid devotion to God.”

I first suspected, these “traditions” would be the Jewish Aggdah, but the Encyclopedia Judaica gives no hint in that direction. Instead it refers to the Hebrew word “lev” (heart), but not as “whole hearted” (which would indeed be difficult; “voice of the heart” is impossible), but rather as “in his heart” (“kelev,” don’t worry about the vowels here): “His name Caleb ben Jephunneh is interpreted to mean that ‘he spoke what he felt in his heart (kelev) (Mid. Ag. to Num. 13:6) and turned aside (pana) from the advice of the rest of the spies’ (Tem. 16a; Sot. 11b)” (entry CALEB).

I know too little about the rabbinic interpretations of the biblical names, but I would assume that they may preserve some linguistic knowledge as well as add some “meaningful” interpretations to point out a specific understanding of a biblical passage. I don’t think they were specifically interested in our modern understanding of etymology.

Noth also has an interesting passage about the origin of some biblical names (p. 10 f.). Some names, he claims (or rather: suspects) were made up by the biblical authors to characterize the figures. He applies this to names like RACHEL and LEAH, who, according to his opinion, represent a group of sheep breeders and cow breeders. An interesting example he gives, are some names in the book of Ruth: MAHLON (“weakness”) and CHILION (“consumption”) die at young age. ORPAH (“stubbornness, persistance” or else “who turns his back”) indeed turns her back on Ruth. (The meaning of RUTH itself is not clear, it may be “refreshment, relief.”)

So the interpretation of CALEB as someone with a “rabid devotion to God” would well fit into this pattern. This would imply though, that the stories were either made up along with the names, or else the names were added to the tradition later (maybe replacing earlier names). If some of these names were indeed made up to characterize their bearers, we should well consider the intention of these authors or editors, when we talk about the “meaning” of a name.

In other cases, in the Bible, obviously existing names were reinterpreted, in some cases even more than once (and I guess this may be one example the sages followed when they were talking about names and their meanings). JACOB e.g. originally means “God protects” (this is what Noth says, and many seem to follow), but is interpreted as “heelholder” as well as “cheat.” Both interpretations are linguistically possible.

This brings us to the name giving motives. Usually it would not be authors or editors, but the parents who at one point make up a name. In most cases, I guess, we have no idea as to when or where this happened.

It could well be, that CALEB was made up at a literary level (see above). I don’t know of any person by that name prior to the biblical character. But let’s assume, it existed before and was invented by some parents. Why would they give their boy a name related to the word for “dog”? Maybe they had a dog’s loyalty in mind, or its courage. In that case, “loyalty” and “courage” would well be part of the “meaning” of CALEB, even more as the name obviously does not mean “dog.” (Of course it would be rather misleading, though not completely wrong, to claim the name meant “faithful” or “bold.”)

Another possibility could be, that CALEB started off as a byname, and in this case it could also once have had a negative connotation (which we usually associate with “dog”): biting, vicious. This may later have been eclipsed with some positive associations that made parents choose CALEB as a given name.

All of this is mere speculation, I just wanted to show how complex the process of the creation of a name can be, and thus, how complex its “meaning.” Name giving motives are certainly part of this, even if they are not part of the literal meaning of a vocabulary word the name is based on. This also applies secondary (later) name giving motives such as the “whole heart” story, which is just beautiful and may have inspired countless parents to bestow that name on their child. Even though in a way they were “wrong.”

I would like to extend the term “meaning of a name” even further. Take KATHERINE. Obviously no-one knows the original meaning of the name. But at a rather early stage it was (erroneously) associated with the Greek “katharos” (pure), and this even changed the spelling in a lot of cases. Contributors this site in the past have vigorously (and of course with a certain right) denied, that Katherine means “pure.” Still, in a wider sense, I would say, yes, the name has adopted that meaning, because for a long time it has widely been understood that way. Only this “misunderstanding” can explain the remarkable success of the name. (This should not stop us from trying to dig as deep as possible.)

Hermeneuticly spoken, the “meaning” of a word, a name, a phrase, a poem, a biblical text, or whatever is not just its “original meaning” (whatever this may be), but it also includes the long way on which this word or text has come into our time and culture. It includes the questions, What did people back then hear along with that word? (a lot of times a hard question to answer), Why would a word or phrase be used as a name in the first place?, as well as the question, What happened to it on its way to the present? Because only on this way it could ever reach our understanding. There is no way to skip 2000 years or even 200, just by referring to the “original” meaning.

Maybe, if the term “meaning” is really taken by something purely original, we should find a new term. Maybe there is one already. But I think this concept should be well considered when we talk about the “meaning” of a name.

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