On my bookshelf: Dictionary of Patron Saints’ Names

A friend of mine recently shared this quote from St. John Chrysostom:

“So let the name of the saints enter our homes through the naming of our children, to train not only the child but the father, when he reflects that he is the father of John or Elijah or James; for, if the name be given with forethought to pay honor to those that have departed, and we grasp at our kinship with the righteous rather than with our forebears, this too will greatly help us and our children. Do not because it is a small thing regard it as small; its purpose is to succour us.” (An Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children)

On the one hand, I totally love and agree with the idea that naming our children after the saints will keep those saints top of mind and therefore immediately accessible as intercessors for our children and ourselves and indeed the whole family–a succor indeed. On the other hand, I’m not a huge fan of the wording, which makes it seem like if a child’s name, being a saint’s name, wasn’t given with the intention to pay honor to that saint, that it “doesn’t count”; nor that it seems St. John is saying we should choose saints’ names instead of family names, that we should value our connection to the saints more than to our own ancestors (which is not a requirement of the Catholic namer–remember that the Church only requires that parents choose a name for their children that isn’t “foreign to Christian sensibility”). We know God can work in any way He wants, that sometimes He “writes straight with crooked lines,” and I can totally see the situation where a name was lovingly chosen for a child without any sense of saintliness, perhaps in innocence on the part of the parent, but then later that very name’s connection to a saint was realized and found to be such a help to the parents who previously didn’t have a sense of such things. I also think naming a child after his or her relatives is a lovely way to thank God for the gift of one’s family. In many many cases, it needn’t be either/or–either a saint’s name or a family name–as so many traditional names that pepper family trees ARE saints’ names. Regardless, I believe St. John Chrysostom’s point is to encourage parents to use saints’ names for their children in order to increase awareness of the saints and their intercession, so that we can find help and comfort, and that is indeed a wonderful goal.

In any event, this is a perfect intro to another of the books on my bookshelf that I wanted to share with you: Dictionary of Patron Saints’ Names, by Thomas W. Sheehan, M. Div.

Fr. Sheehan has attempted a mighty task with this book. His intention was to provide patron saints for “English and Irish surnames, nicknames, place names, and occupation names that are now first, or given, names … African-American alternate spellings and inventions … Hispanic names and nicknames.” Basically, he wants to help retrofit a patron saint into a name that was chosen without regard to whether or not it was a saint’s name.

The negatives first: I have to be honest that I don’t agree with a lot of the entries. For example, Keisha is said to be an “African-American double from Hebrew” meaning “The Handsome+The Woman.” Further, “Keisha seems to be constructed out of Ke and Isha. Ke is probably from Kendra [from which he extracts the meaning “The Handsome One” by regarding Kendra as a feminine form of Kenneth]. It also helps to know that in the Book of Genesis Adam gives the name Isha to Eve, which means ‘the woman.'” He therefore lists as patron saints Adam and Eve (feast day Dec. 24) or St. Kennera (Oct. 29). But according to Behind the Name, which I’ve found to be quite trustworthy, Keisha is a “[r]ecent coinage, possibly invented, possibly based on Keziah,” who’s a daughter of Job in the Bible. Not a Ke/Kendra or Isha to be seen.

But then the positives: It’s quite a nice idea to find patron saints for each person, related to his or her name. Drake, for example, is explained as coming from the Middle English for “The Sign of the Dragon.” While Behind the Name has a slightly different take on its origin, it does connect the name Drake with the word dragon, and so Drake’s entry in Fr. Sheehan’s book is helpful: “It is helpful to know that Drake means ‘dragon.’ This leads to a number of patrons whose names contain the word ‘dragon.’ They are Sts. Dracona, Dracontius, Draguttin, Dragen, and Drogo. St. Dracona, a native of ancient Greece, died a martyr [feast day Nov. 11].” I think this is especially nice for some of the names today that are very popular but whose origin is murky or lost or very recent and/or with no obvious saintly connection. Names like Braedan, Jayden, Ava, Madison, and even names like “Studs,” which Fr. Sheehan describes as being Old English for “The One with Nail-Headed Ornaments”; he lists for his patron saint St. Studius, who was martyred in ancient Constantinople and has December 30 for his feast day. (Take note, all you Studs.)

To sum up, perhaps it’s best to describe Fr. Sheehan’s book as being like the Wikipedia of saints’ names books — it gives you a good starting place and may lead you down the right path, but be a little wary and double check the information against more reliable sources.

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