At the Wording Desk

Increase your understanding of English and French given names and surnames by tracing the exotic source of "Louis"

Many, many French given names like Édouard,  Gérard, Guillaume, Louis and Richard are pure German in origin. Equally Germanic are thousands of French surnames like Baudin, Géroux, Lambert and Roget.

Many uneducated French citizens explode into chauvinist rage when told that indisputable historical fact. Mais non! Ce n’ est pas possible! One must remind these persons that the Franks were German. Ohé, you know, the people after whom your country is named. Get it? Franks. Les francs. La France. Français.

Here’s how Wikipedia explains the Frankish diaspora: “The Franks (Latin: Franci or gens Francorum) were a confederation of Germanic tribes first attested in the third century AD as occupying land on the Lower and Middle Rhine. In the 3rd century some Franks raided Roman territory, while others joined the Roman troops in Gaul. The Salian Franks formed a kingdom on Roman-held soil that was acknowledged by the Romans after 357. After the collapse of imperial authority in the West, the Frankish tribes were united under the Merovingians. During the 6th century they succeeded in conquering most of Gaul. They were active in spreading Christianity over western Europe and had created one of the strongest and most stable post-roman kingdoms.”

The name Frank itself probably stems from a Germanic word for javelin. Compare Old English franca and the Vikings’ word, Old Norse frakka.

Before we reveal the origin of Louis, it is worthwhile explaining compound warrior names in the history of Europe and India.

Compound Warrior Names of the West
The two-part nature of Proto-Indo-European male warrior names is widespread in languages from Sanskrit to the earliest German and includes some Greek given names for males like Thrasyboulos ‘he who is bold in planning.’ Many Greek given male names did make sense, like Astuanax ‘prince of the town.’ Sometimes the two morphemes which made up the word created a compound name compelling to reason, as with Nicolas ‘victory of the people.’ But, more often, compound PIE warrior names were simply macho braggadocio, being simply boastful glory words strung together to provide a studly sound. Remember that the two roots in each Germanic binomial name never HAD to make clear sense; they merely had to be taken from an agreed-upon list of manly “name” roots.

One thinks of the literal meaning of Teutonic trumpet-blast names like Gerhart (Germanic gar ‘spear’ + Germanic hardt ‘hard’ or my given name William from Wilhelm ‘helmet of strong will.’

In the given male name Oscar, the root is hidden. Its Old English original was Osgar made up of OE os ‘any god’ + OE gar ‘spear.’ Before the Norman conquest of England in 1066 CE, even the Viking version of the name was in use, that is, the Old Norse form Asgeirr.

There are a number of Portuguese, Spanish and Italian surnames like Berengár and Beranger derived from the Teutonic name Beringar ‘bear-spear.’

King Hrothgar is a character in the poem “Beowulf.” His name is composed of the Anglo-Saxon elements hroth ‘fame’ + gar ‘spear. By means of a French form introduced into England after the Norman Conquest in 1066, this evolved into our familiar modern given name, Roger and its derived surname, Rogers.

The Germanic adjective –hart or –hard was an extremely frequent component of two-part Teutonic warrior names like Richard. Remember that the two name-making roots merely had to be taken from an agreed-upon list of “name” roots:

Everett or Everard = Ebur Germanic ‘wild boar’ + -hardt.

Leonard means ‘brave as a lion’ from German Leonhard = leo, leonis Latin ‘lion’ + -hard.

Nicholas is one of the most popular male given names in the West. Nicholas began as an ancient Greek warrior name compounded of two parts. Νικόλαος Nikolas = Greek νίκη nike ‘victory’ + λαός laos ‘people,’ hence ‘victory of the people.’ The *lao- root is found in our English words laity, layman, and lay person. Lay, meaning ‘of the people and not of the clergy,’ comes from older French lai < ecclesiastical Latin lāicus < Greek adjective λᾱϊκός laikos ‘civilian, common, unofficial,’ but literally laikos meant ‘of the men, of the soldiers, of the people ruled by a prince.’ Cognate words appear in Dutch leek and modern German Laie ‘layman.’

Randolph , from Anglo-Saxon rand ‘shield’ + Anglo-Saxon wulf ‘wolf.’

Reinhart can be construed as rein + -hart, the German word for pure rein + the German word for hard or tough hart.’ Sometimes the two roots in the name made a kind of sense; for example, it isn’t too odd to dub a boy child whom you wish to grow into a warrior with a moniker that means ‘pure and tough.’

Richard = Reich Germanic ‘kingdom’ + -hardt Germanic ‘enduring, tough, hardy.’ Some modern English and French surnames began as Germanic binomials, for example, Richard has ancestors like Ricohard and Reichart, comprised of Ric, Reich ‘power’ + -hard,- hart ‘strong.’ Another male warrior name with different roots stems from Old English and became the name Randolph from Anglo-Saxon rand ‘shield’ + Anglo-Saxon wulf ‘wolf.’

Wolfgang originally meant swift-of-foot or literally ‘ran like a wolf,’ Gang being part of the German verb gehen ‘to go.’ Another way to interpret Wolfgang is ‘wolf path,’ habitual track through the woods taken by wolves.

Louis as Name
Whether pronounced loo-EE in French or LOO-is in English, Louis is what’s left after longer Germanic names like Ludwig and its Latinized form Ludovicus have been put through the laundromat of Old French and Norman French, in which process consonants get dropped and vowels get spin-dried. Louis began then as Hlut-wig (Ludwig) = Old High German hlut ‘fame, renown’ but literally ‘heard’ or in its modern descendant English form ‘loud.’ The second part of the compound is Germanic wig ‘warrior,’ so renowned warrior is its import, but remember these old warrior names did not have to make literal sense; they just had to sound ferocious or pompous. I would not want some gnarly dude named Hlutwig following me in a dank alleyway. A Normanized form, Lewis, became a popular spelling in Wales and England. Louisa is feminine and a German diminutive Lulu became quite popular in North America among nineteenth-century, German-speaking immigrants.

The first French king Clovis’ name is also a form of Louis, and eighteen subsequent French kings bore the name and a few saints as well. King Louis IX was canonized as Saint Louis for all his good work slaying heathens in two crusades.

Famous Louises have included Louis Pasteur, French scientist, Louis Riel, Métis leader who led a rebellion against Canada , Robert Louis Stevenson, Louis Armstrong, Louis B. Mayer of MGM movie fame who began life as Eliezer Mayer and Lou Costello film comedian. Louis-forms sprout in non-Indo-European languages too; in Hungarian Louis is Lajos; in Italian Luigi, in Portuguese Luis, in Swedish Ludde, in Polish Ludwik, in Provençal Aloysius.

Not everyone likes the names glued on at birth. Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan disliked his own names intensely and said, in his 1964 book Understanding Media, “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”

Fervently do I hope you have recovered from your baptismal moniker --- should it have discountenanced in any way your onomastic composure.

Bill Casselman, February 27, 2017

Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman


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