Why Greek names?
Because they are embedded with layers of information and meaning. Take Lysistrate (Λυσιστράτη), the heroine of Aristophanes (Ἀριστοφάνης) who convinced her peers to deny any intimate liaison with their husbands so long as they continued fighting a bloody civil war. Lysistrate was a post-modern heroine well before it was cool!
Now consider her name: it is derived from the verb λύω meaning “to disband” and στρατός meaning “army.” Her very name summarizes the plot of Aristophanes’ play.
Greek names are listed in three ways: Hellenic polytonic script, English transliteration and, whenever relevant, common English spelling (for example, Heracles becomes Hercules). An interpretation of every name is first proposed, followed by the underlying etymology.
All proposed interpretations are, to quote the French, littéraire rather than littéral. Consider the name Ἂλκιππος (Alkippos). Its etymology is fairly unambiguous: it is derived from alke (strength) and hippos (horse). Any interpretation, however, would be subjective. It could mean “strong as a horse.” Or perhaps, “stout equestrian.” Or maybe, “brave cavalry fighter.”
So please do not take any interpretation provided literally; consider the name’s etymology, and put your creativity and imagination at work. And please provide your critical feedback should I occasionally lapse into spurious Portokalisms.
This site will hopefully grow into a comprehensive, accurate, and authoritative reference on the meaning and etymology behind Greek names – without taking itself too seriously.
The evolution of Greek names from ancient to modern times
A paradigm shift occured when the Roman Emperor Theodosius (Θεοδόσιος) adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Greco-Roman world. Archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom incited parents to baptize their children exclusively after saints and martyrs and to ditch the names of their pagan ancestors. This drastically narrowed the pool of names parents could choose for their children. Some Greek names (such as Alexander and Helen) survived due to namesake saints; the vast majority however went the way of the dinosaur in the Greek-speaking world, but thankfully survived and flourished elsewhere. The Greek Orthodox Church recentlly did the right thing and now condones the baptism of children with non-religious names. As a result, names such as Telemachos and Nephele (incidentally, names of my children) are now making a comeback in Greek schoolyards.
As at May 2017, this site lists 3,415 names with an Hellenic etymology.
Although Etymologica focuses primarily on names of a Greek linguistic pedigree, we have not shunned the wealth of biblical and Latin names what were “Hellenized” over the ages: staple names such as Μαρία (Maria) and Γιάννης (Yiannis), as well as some wonderful oddities such as Βύρων (Byron).
As at November 30, 2015, this site lists 654 Hellenized names.
On the most popular Greek names
- 75% of names currently used in Greece are of Greek etymology, e.g. George (c. 10% of Greek men) and Helen (c. 6% of Greek women).
- 18% of names currently used in Greece are of of Biblical origin (Hebrew, Aramaic,etc.), e.g. Maria (c. 10% of Greek women) and John (c. 7% of Greek men).
- 7% of names currently used in Greece are of “western” (Latin, Gallic, Germanic, etc.) e.g. Constantine (c. 8% of Greek men), Marina.
It is fascinating that Δημήτριος (Demetrios) appears to be the second most frequently used male name in both ancient (c. 4.4% of men) and modern times (c. 7.4% of men). Moreover, variations of Δήμητρα (Demeter), Εἰρήνη (Irene), Ἀθηνᾶ (Athena), and Θεοδώρα (Theodora) are among the thirty most popular names used by Greeks in both eras.
A note on polytonic script
The old-school polytonic (multi-accented) script, complete with complex rules for accents and breathing marks, carries rich layers of linguistic and etymological information that are completely absent in the simplified monotonic script. As this site delves in etymology, it will obviously render all Greek names in their original polytonic form.
After centuries of use, an ill-advised Greek government abolished the polytonic script in a post-midnight parliamentary session in 1982 attended by only a handful of drowsy, bedandruffed, turtleneck-clad MPs. This act sadly uprooted eons of linguistic heritage. Today’s younger generations can no longer observe the punctuation of Odysseas Elytis (1979 Nobel laureate in Literature).
Even if you own a 15 year old computer, you should have no problem enjoying polytonic Greek on your screens. I also strongly suggest you download Keyman Greek and support Polytonic Project: they render polytonic intuitive and idiot-proof.
Notes, sources and inspirations
- This site was originally etymologica.com, but was sadly hijacked by unscrupulous cyber raiders in 2011 who demanded a couple of thousand Euros in ransom to release the domain. I obviously suggested that they administer it where the sun don’t shine, and the project fell dormant. After a 3-year hiatus, I came around to revive the site as etymologica.org. Etymologica remains in its (prolonged) infancy stage, and as of today features c. 3,200 names.
- The best and most authoritative on-line source for the etymology of names is Behind the Name. I cannot help but draw inspiration from Mike C’s magnum opus! The site’s name fact forum is the place to ask any name-related etymological question. A wonderful community of volunteers world-wide will almost instantly help you out even with the most obscure of names!
- The most complete compilation of Greek names is The Lexicon of Greek Names, an Oxford University project. I am drawing heavily from this incredible site.
- Greek-English Lexicon, Lidell & Scott, 9th Edition (ISBN: 0-19-864226-1). An online version of this venerable lexicon on is available at Perseus. An etymologist’s dream comes true!
- Τό Ὀνομά Σου (“Your Name”), a booklet published by an unknown schoolteacher, Konstantinos Mantzouranis, in 1951. I was lucky to unearth this gem at a flea market in Athens. It is the only book I have found that deals exclusively with the meaning and origin of Greek names.
- Λεξικὸ Κυρίων Ὀνομάτων, Ἀνέστης Κωνσταντινίδης. This excellent compendium of Greek names was first published in 1900, and thankfully republished in 1999 (ISBN: 960-7437-37-3), and Θησαυρὸς Ἑλληνικῶν Όνομάτων, Ἂρης Διαμάντης (ISBN: 96-7931-65-3). Both books contain rich and detailed biographical information on Greek names.
- People who have given me practical advice and suggested corrections: Mike C., Kyriakos T., তন্ময় ভট, Γιάννης Χ. and many, many other friends.
Dedicated to my beautiful wife Κυριακή and my children Νεφέλη-Δήμητρα and Κωνσταντῖνος-Τηλέμαχος.
© Paul Pan