Most people have checked out what their name means.  I’m not talking about surnames and family histories, but your “given” first name.  The study of names is called onomastics. It can lead you into linguistics, history, anthropology, sociology and philology.

When people ask what is the meaning of a name, they are really asking for the etymology – the origin of the name. This etymology, as with most words, is a kind of history of the language(s) where the name was first used, the ways it has changed over the years, and the meaning of the words or roots that are contained within the name.

I know that my mom chose Kenneth as my name because it was the name of a boy she had a crush on in high school. But she claimed that she had also looked in a book of baby names and liked that it meant, in its origin, “handsome.”

I discovered that ken is from Scottish meaning “to know” which goes back to the Norse “kenna“, also meaning “to know.” The word cennan “make known, declare, acknowledge.”

The name developed from the convergence of two Irish Gaelic names – Cinaed (”fire born”) and Cainnech (meaning ”Good-looking”). Scots Gaels are descendants of the Irish. The two cultures developed distinct cultures, but it explains how Kenneth, from two Irish Gaelic names, became identified with Scotland. The Scots surname MacKenzie mean “son of Kenneth.”

The noun ken means “range of sight” and goes back to the late 1500s and is a nautical abbreviation of kenning. Today the word ken usually means cognizance or the range of what one can know or understand, as in the usage “beyond my ken.” I like this attachment to my name of the idea of the range of vision.

The kèn is also an instrument used in traditional Vietnamese music. It it similar to an oboe with a double reed and a conical wooden body.

A ken (“bay” in English) in Japanese architecture is both a term for the distance between pillars and a unit of measurement. Ken is also a Japanese name which can have many different meanings depending on the kanji used. (Kanji are the Chinese characters used in the modern Japanese logographic writing system.)

But, my favorite discovery in looking at my name was following its use in two Japanese traditions.

First, is its use in the I Ching (a form of divinatory practice used for predicting the future taken from the ancient Chinese The I Ching or Book of Changes) which uses 64 hexagrams.

Hexagrams are patterns of 6 broken and unbroken lines. The hexagram for Ken means the mountain spirit.

It’s representations include:
Family: Youngest Son
Body Part: Hand
Compass Point: Northeast
Element: Wood
Season: Late Winter/Early Spring
Natural Element: Mountain

This hexagram comprises one unbroken Yang line above two broken Yin lines. It signifies stillness, waiting and solitude.  It is symbolic of the youngest son, who is quiet, still and stubborn and who is the limit and end of the family.

It is suggestive of the Palace of the Immortals, never-ending images that start and finish everything. It also symbolizes closure and a finishing of things, for example a rounding off. However the endings are all with new beginnings in mind. It is also symbolic of the power to put into words one’s achievements that have now come to a close.

Another Japanese usage that I like is  kenshō (見性) which is a Japanese term for an enlightenment experience. It is usually used within the study of Zen Buddhism.  Literally it means “seeing one’s nature” or “true self.”

Kenshō experiences are tiered and escalate from initial glimpses into the nature of mind, on to an experience of emptiness, and then perhaps on to Buddhahood. They are a briefer experience than satori.

I mix all these together and envision a solitary figure on the mountaintop in early spring seeking enlightenment.

Do you think we grow into our names or become more like our names? Or, are we somehow named with some mystical process involved so that our names are cosmically chosen for us?

Or is it because your mom had a crush on a kid in high school with that name?

Want to start some searching on your name?