The Meaning Construction Zone
When people talk about a name's "meaning," they typically mean its linguistic origin or derivation. In some cases the origin is essential to the name's current cultural meaning, as in contemporary word and place names like Destiny and Paris or literary/mythological names like Romeo and Athena. More often, though, the original root has been utterly transformed, or is simply unknown. Even word-based names can quickly take on lives of their own, unmoored from their source words.
In most cases, then, what we call a "meaning" doesn't actually help us understand what the name means to a person who hears it today. Parents may occasionally go hunting for a name with a particular linguistic root. But usually, the "meaning" serves a different purpose. It lets us construct a story -- often after the fact -- to imbue the name with richer connotations.
Here's a lovely example from a recent celebrity baby name report:
NCIS star Michael Weatherly and Bojana Jankovic welcomed their daughter Olivia on Tuesday, but it wasn’t until after they chose her name (Mom picked it out!) that they realized its deeper significance.
“My wife Bojana is Serbian and her name means war or warrior,” Weatherly, 43, tells PEOPLE.
“And when you give someone an olive branch, that’s an offering of peace so Olivia is peace. I think we have a Tolstoy novel going on now: Mother and daughter, war and peace!”
There's the meaning of "meanings" in a nutshell. First, the parents picked an attractive name they liked, based on style. Then after the choice was made, they researched the name's origin and constructed a "deeper significance" that made them love it even more. When their daughter is old enough, they can share with her this charming story of how her name and her mother's are connected.
OK, if you want to get etymologically finicky, Olivia might not actually come from "olive." The name was created by Shakespeare, and while he might have taken it from the Latin for olive, it's also quite likely to be a feminine form of Oliver. And Oliver's ultimate source is unknown, but it's most likely something Germanic like Olaf ("ancestor's descendent") or Alfher ("elf warrior").
But what does it matter? The Weatherly-Jankovic family has settled on what the name means to them. Just like parents who invent creative names then go hunting for meaningful origins, they recognized that the names they give their children are more profound than just strings of letters. They're using etymology as a scaffolding on which to build a meaning that lives up to the name.