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What’s in a name?

Posted: August 31, 2017 8:09 a.m.
Updated: September 1, 2017 1:00 a.m.

Martin -- From the Roman name Martinus, which was derived from Martis, the genitive case of the name of the Roman god Mars. Saint Martin of Tours was a 4th century bishop who is the patron saint of France. An influential bearer of the name was Martin Luther (1483-1546), the theologian who began the Protestant Reformation. The name was also borne by five popes (two of them more commonly knonwn as Marinus). Other more recent bearers include ... the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King...

--taken from, edited for brevity.

I have many names.

My full name is Martin Lawrence Cahn. Lawrence is a long-standing middle name in my family, having been part of my father’s, grandfather’s and a great-great-grandfather’s names. I’ve also bestowed it on my eldest son, who has a second middle name.

The family name of Cahn is actually not the original family name. Family legend goes that when one of my other great-great-grandfather’s came to the U.S. in the late 1800s, his last name was something along the lines of “Truschinski,” even though he was from England. Supposedly, the immigration folks couldn’t pronounce and declared that he and his family were now “Kohn.” However, my ancestors realized this would align them with the Levite tribe of the 12 Tribes of Israel, which -- although they were Jewish -- they’d never claimed. So, they changed it two more letters to Cahn, to fit in with the Dutch families living in New York.

Or so I’ve heard.

My first name is a little easier to figure out. I was named Martin for several reasons. Family legend time again: supposedly a Martin bird was outside my mother’s hospital window when I was born. This doesn’t appear to actually be true, but it sounds nice, doesn’t it?

However -- and as my mother confirmed for me this week -- having been born in 1965 during the fight for civil rights, she named me after Martin Luther King.

I’ve also heard that “Martin” was a way of honoring a female member of my father’s family, whose name was Matilda, or whose Hebrew name was something similar.

That brings me to another of my names.

My Hebrew name is Yehuda Lev ben David.

Yehuda is the Hebrew form of Judah, who was the fourth son of Jacob and founder of another of the 12 Tribes. Judah’s meaning is often translated as “praised” or “he who is praised.”

Lev -- pronounced “lave” (with a long “a”) -- means “heart” or “lion” in Hebrew.

A slight variation of this is written as Yehuda-Leib, which, according to at least one rabbi, was a Hebrew-Yiddish pairing representing the lion-bedecked flag of the Judah tribe.

The “ben” before my father’s name is, simply, “son” or “son of.” So -- Judah Lion/Heart, son of David. My goodness!

Then there are the various ways my name can be translated in other languages.

I lived in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1972. There, I would have been Martín (pronounced “Mar-teen”) Lorenzo Cahn.

My name would be spelled the same in French as it is in English, but pronounced sort of like “Mahk-ten.”

In Scottish Gaelic, it’s Màrtainn. In Hindi, Maartin. In Polish, Marcin. Zulus would add a “U” to make it “UMartin.”

Believe it or not, it’s “Babil” in Albanian, “Bregunica” in Croatian, “Räystäspääsky” in Finnish and “Chelidóni” in Greek, although these might be the words for the Martin bird, rather than my given name. Interesting, though.

Of course, there are some people who get away with calling me “Marty.” Not too many, though. I truly prefer Martin.

Then there’re other names, like “Son,” “Father,” “Brother,” “Nephew,” “Uncle” and “Cousin” Those, of course, are very special.

We all have far more names than the three or four we were given at birth.

There are the meanings behind the names; their origins and history.

There are nicknames -- some endearing, some not -- we earn from our family, friends and others.

And there are the myriad ways our names can be translated, pronounced and modified around the world, which I think, ironically, shows how much more alike we are than different.

That’s always a good lesson to learn, in my book. So, someone in Uganda has a name that doesn’t exactly roll off the American tongue. Yours probably doesn’t exactly roll off theirs. Big deal. Take the time to learn the stories behind those names and you gain insight into them as individual people as well as their cultures.

Do that, and we realize we are more alike than not; that we are all human and deserving of respect and joy rather than spite and mistrust.

When that happens, the world seems like a better place, don’t you think.

What’s in a name? If you listen carefully and read between the lines, you might just find the world.


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