What’s in an Estonian name?

Estonians tend to keep their first names short and simple.

Here are just a few examples, off the top of my head: Epp, Evi, Anu, Reet, Eha, Aime, Ilo, Elo, Airi, Mai, Aet, Tiiu and Juta  are female names.

Short male names include Ants, Arvo,  Laur,  Koit, Kaur, Siim, Aado, Arno, Laas, Peep. Tiit, Mats, Uko, Jaan, Jaak, Agu, Leho, Ain and Timo.

I’m sure most of these names look odd to Americans.  And yet some of them are derived from names that are familiar to most of us.

It’s possible that the use of such mini-names harkens back to the centuries when most Estonians were serfs, toiling under the rule of German barons. Presumably it was much easier to yell (in German, naturally) “Hey Ants! Catch that pig before it eats the cabbages!”  than to holler “Hey, Kandotõivo!” — or Metsikö, or Pitkänen or Lembisaadu, other Estonian names from the distant pagan past.  Those names are a mouthful, not to mention tricky to pronounce, and the pig would likely have finished off a couple of cabbages before the baron’s serf manager finished his sentence.

Nimepäevad means name days

I was curious about what the short names meant, and whether they were shortened versions of longer names.  One day several years ago I was looking around on the internet and came across a website, now no longer in existence, that listed nimepäevad – Estonian names that corresponded to days of the year. This was a treasure trove of information, since it often included  several variations of a given name.  I printed out a copy to study it.

As far as I know many Americans choose baby names from family traditions or baby name books or name websites, not from name-day calendars. Roman Catholics might sometimes use their Calendar of Saints in naming. I honestly don’t know how much Estonians use the name-day calendar for choosing names.

In the Estonian name-day calendar, January 6 is the name day for Aabel, Aabi, Aabo, Aapo and Aap, all variants, and all probably related to the name Abel, as we know it in English.  Puzzled as to how the name Abel was connected to January 6, I did some more digging and learned that January 2 is a Catholic feast-day for the biblical Abel, slain by his brother Cain.  And a Finnish name-day collection showed that January 2 was their name-day for the name Aapeli, undoubtedly another form of  Abel. (The Estonian and Finnish languages share a common origin and many vocabulary words.) Abel comes from the Hebrew name Havel or Hevel, and means breath.

I started cross-checking the Estonian names with name-day lists from Finland, Sweden and Germany, as well as the Catholic calendar of saints, because I suspected there was a relationship between the saint days and the name-days. Having once had a father-in-law who was born and raised in Italy, I learned that their custom is not to celebrate one’s actual birthday, but the feast day of one’s namesake saint.

A week of name-days

Here is a weeks’ worth of Estonian name-days from their name day calendar for your edification.

Today, November 13, happens to be the Estonian  name-day for Kristjan, Krister, Kristo. Risto, Rista and Riste. I’m unsure as to whether a couple of those names are feminine; most are masculine.  In Finland, November 13 is the name-day for Kristian; in Sweden Kristian and Krister. The Catholic saint for that day is St. John Chrysostom; one wonders if the Estonian, Finnish and Swedish names from the same day were picked to be similar to the saint’s. At any rate, the Greek name Christophoros, from which the above names derived, means Christ-bearer.

November 14 is the Estonian name-day for Alviine, Alvi and Alve, all female names. Raivo Seppo, in his book Elavad Nimed (Living Names), adds the shortened form Viine. In Germany,  Alberich is the name for the day. The saint of the day is St. Alberic, so Alviine may have been selected for that day because of a resemblance to the saint’s name.

November 15 is for the names Vaike, Vaige, Vaigi, Vaiki, all feminine and from the Estonian word vaike, quiet. I couldn’t find any connection to a saint or name-days in other countries.

November 16 is the Estonian name-day for Arnold, Arno, Arne and Aarne, all male names.  The Finns have Aarne, Aarno and Aarni  – they love to double up on vowels. There is a Saint Arnulph whose feast day is October 17, a month earlier, but I don’t know if there’s any connection.  Seppo says Arnold and its variants are from the German name Arnwald and mean powerful eagle.

November 17 is for the Estonian male names Heinar, Einar, Einari, Eino, Egon, Egil. The corresponding Finnish names for the day are Eino and Einari.  St. Arianus and St. Hugh are saints for this day, and you can probably see how close Arianus sounds to Einar.   Seppo said Einar comes from the Scandinavian name Aginhard or Eginhard, though most web sites say Einar comes from Norwegian Einarr (one warrior).

November 18 gives us the female Estonian names Ilo and Ilu, which mean beauty, but also joy. Seppo says the names come from Finnish, although the Finns have entirely different names assigned to Nov. 18. There is a St. Alphaeus linked to this day. Perhaps Ilo and Ilu were chosen for this day because they slightly resemble Alphaeus?

November 19 is the Estonian name-day for Eliisabet, Eliise, Elis, Els, Elsa, Else, Liis, Liisa, Liisu. Ilse and Betti, all akin to the name Elizabeth, which comes from the Hebrew Elisheba or Elisheva, meaning oath of God.  The Finns and Swedes also have variations of Elizabeth for this day, and it is the feast day of St. Elizabeth of Hungary.

I will try to go through the entire Estonian name-day calendar in future posts, as time permits.

Confession: I’m a name freak

I love names, and not just Estonian ones. I like to collect them, study them, look for their meanings and origins. For example, I used to think my first name, Anita, was solely Spanish in origin, meaning little Ann, the way Juanita is a feminine form of  little Juan.  Ann derives from the Hebrew name Channah, and means grace. That’s what the name books say, but I’ve never met an Anita who is Hispanic. My parents picked it because it seemed an “international” name. It’s certainly not Estonian, though it might have been used there occasionally.

In recent years I’ve met a couple of Indian women named Anita, and was surprised to discover that it is  a well-known female name in India, said to be Persian in origin and meaning myrtle, the plant. The Namepedia says Anita means myrtle in Zand, an Old Persian language.  http://namepedia.org/en/firstname/Anita_%28208719%29/

The Dekhone Persian Dictionary online says Anita means kindly and glad. Wikipedia says Anita is the short form of Anahita, an Iranian water goddess in the Avestan cosmology, and means kindness and being personable.  Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anita_%28given_name%29.  The goddess Anahita is called “the immaculate one”, and is linked to the planet Venus and the goddess Ishtar, whose sacred plant happens to be the myrtle.

Nahid, a present-day Persian girls’ name according to ourbabynames.com, means star or planet Venus, and likely stems from Anahita. And now I wonder whether the Hebrew name Channah (source of the names Ann, Anita) has any kind of connection to the Persian Anahita.  The website http://www.meaning-of-names.com/israeli-names/channah.asp says Channah means “goddess of life” in Israeli, and Anahita is the “goddess of the waters”, so maybe there is one.

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6 comments on “What’s in an Estonian name?

  1. Alexandre says:

    Hello
    Do the Estonian surnames have declension?

  2. Aet says:

    I must be the only Aet in the US – how strange & wonderful to see my name in your article.
    Thanks!
    Aet

  3. Dan Eha says:

    My last name is Eha. I traced my family as far back as the 1500’s to Germany. It’s strongly suspicioned that my family originated in Estonia but I Haven’t been able to trace them to that country. Do you know of any families in Estonia with the last name of Eha?

    Regards,

    • Hello Dan,
      I don’t personally know of anybody with the surname Eha, but took a quick look in the Estonian archives website and found there are people with that name in the old EELK (Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church) parish registers; also people with the surname Ehha. I am not a professional genealogy researcher, but you can go to the website at http://www.ra.ee/vau/index.php/en which is the English version. I had to apply and register to use the archives. You may be able to do that, or request research assistance. As you probably know, the word eha means dusk or sundown. Most Estonians did not receive surnames until the early 1800s after they were freed from serfdom. Note also that most of these parish registers were written in German, although some are in Russian.
      Good luck in your research
      Anita

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