April 21, 2006

Adventures in celebrity onomastics

When Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes announced the birth of their daughter on Tuesday, celebrity-watchers were eager to find out what to call TomKat's offspring (besides TomKitten, of course). The couple's publicist revealed that the baby's name is Suri, further explaining that the name means 'princess' in Hebrew and 'red rose' in Persian. Given the immense scrutiny the couple has gotten, it was no surprise that even this offhand comment stirred up some controversy.

Actually, the Persian derivation is relatively uncontroversial. Various websites on Persian names list Souri/Suri (transliterations of سوری) with the gloss 'red rose.' And a check of the 1892 Steingass Persian-English Dictionary does indeed find an entry for sūrī, defined as "a beautiful red rose of an odoriferous and exhilarating flavour." It's apparently a shortened form of guli sūrī or gol-e suri (transliterations of گل سوری), where suri modifies the noun gul (or gol) meaning 'rose' in particular or 'flower' more generally. An article in Encyclopedia Iranica explains that gol-e suri is one of several names for the red rose in Persian poetic usage:

The rose has had a predominant place in classical Persian poetry ... where it is sometimes called gol-e sork or sork -gol "red flower," and gol-e suri (suri "red"; cf. Kurd. sō/ur, Pashto sur, Baluchi so/uhr, etc., cognates of Mid. Pers. suxr > Pers. sork, Av. suxra-, all meaning "red"), probably to avoid confusion with gol "flower" in general or to stress redness (because not all roses are red).

(As a side note, the Persian term for 'rose-water' is gul-āb, which was extended to various drinks sweetened with syrup or sugar. The word was borrowed into Arabic as julāb, eventually becoming julep in English via Spanish and French. So, as the American Heritage Dictionary note for rose helpfully explains, "it is etymologically correct to drink a julep while watching the Run for the Roses.")

If TomKat had just offered the Persian 'red rose' derivation via their publicist, they would have been in the clear. But the purported meaning of 'princess' in Hebrew has led to much debate among speakers of the language. One news report claims that Suri only had two possible meanings, neither of which is anything like 'princess':

According to Hebrew linguists, Suri has only two meanings — one is a person from Syria and the other "go away" when addressed to a female.

Hebrew expert Jonathan Went says, "I think it's fair to say they have made a mistake here. There are variations of the way the Hebrew name for princess is spelled but I have never seen it this way."

The AP reports that "bemused Israeli TV and radio presenters have debated the word's origins" since the announcement of Suri's birth, but they quote an expert who provides a plausible explanation for the publicist's comment:

"Nobody here has ever really heard of it," an announcer on Israel's Army Radio said during a discussion Thursday. The Yediot Ahronot newspaper agreed in its half-page splash on the celebrity birth.
"We seem to have learned a new Hebrew word — and from Tom Cruise, no less," said a Channel 2 TV anchorman.
Avshalom Koor, who has for years presented TV and radio spots on the intricacies of Hebrew, said Suri was a derivation of Sarah — the name of Biblical patriarch Abraham's wife — as pronounced by some Central European Jews.
Suri is a pet name for Sarah," Koor told Army Radio. "The Ashkenazi (Jews) of Poland and Hungary pronounce it Suri."
In ancient Hebrew, Sarah is the feminine form of "Sar," or lord. In modern Hebrew, the word means a Cabinet Minister.

Roger Friedman of Fox News put forth another explanation for how Suri might have been derived from Sarah:

To get the name Suri, you actually have to subscribe to Kabbalah, a very distant offshoot of Judaism.
Suri would really be Sarah, except Kabbalah — as it is now taught to celebrities — is all about taking letters and making new words out of them. ... Suri is derived from Sarah mathematically.

Friedman gives no source for this theory, and it seems a little improbable that a Scientologist couple would go the Kabbalistic route. In any case, Suri does seem to be some sort of alteration of Sarah, usually defined as 'noblewoman' or 'princess.' The happy couple could very well have consulted a book like The Comprehensive Dictionary of English & Hebrew First Names, which gives Suri as one of many variants of Sarah, all glossed as 'princess.' That hasn't stopped journalists and bloggers from finding alternate meanings for the word in various languages: 'pickpocket' in Japanese (Times of London), 'pointy nose' in the southern Indian language of Todas (AP), an epithet for Lord Krishna (Gawker), a breed of alpaca (Tabloidbaby), and so on and so forth.

This should keep people occupied until the child of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie is born. Word has it they're going to pick a Namibian name. That should be interesting, since according to this article, "in the Namibian context every name should have a meaning or convey a certain message." Names from Namibian languages include Gadoes ("a name given by the Nama to a baby girl born during a drought situation when people were moving in search of grazing for their livestock") Axarob (a baby who was "very thin at birth"), and !Khaeb-Khoeb (a baby "born when there was a stranger in the village"). If they have a girl, they could give her a name much like her mother's: Angaleni, "a name given to a girl to tell the people to be on the alert." I think the people are already on the alert with this baby, though.

[Update, 4/23/06: A Reuters article suggests some Israelis are still a bit hung up on the polysemy of suri in Hebrew, particularly the sense of 'go away' noted above:

"I really don't know what they were thinking when they chose this name. It's a term that denotes expulsion, like 'Get out of here'," said Gideon Goldenberg, a linguistics professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "It's pretty blunt."
Yaron London, a cultural commentator for Israel's Channel 10 television, had this rhetorical question for Suri's proud parents: "Why didn't you just go back to your ancestors' language, and call the kid 'Scram Cruise'?"

The article does note that Suri as a nickname for Sarah, though "all but unknown in Israel," is still attested. For instance, there's Jerusalem journalist Surie Ackerman, whose given name is "a formalized version of a nickname given by fellow ultra-Orthodox Jews in her native United States."

Reuters also gives some further alternative meanings for Suri, such as the name of a Nubian tribe and 'sun' in Sanskrit. Languagehat pitches in with Hausa 'anthill,' Pushtu 'large sack,' and Hindi (from Sanskrit) 'wise, learned.' (Commenters on the LH post have been adding examples from other languages.) As Steve from Languagehat writes, "When she gets old enough, she can take her pick."]

[Update, 4/27/06: Mississippi Fred MacDowell of On the Main Line debunks Roger Friedman's Kabbalistic explanation, clarifying that Suri is indeed an unremarkable Yiddish diminutivization of Sarah.]

[Update, 4/30/06: Further light on the origins of Suri as a diminutivized form of Sarah is shed by Ben Sadock at Positive Anymore:

There is an isogloss that runs roughly along the Ukraine/Belarus border, north of which the name is Sore and south of which it is Sure, but who says 'Suri'? The answer? Americans and Israelis, who have adopted the English and Israeli Hebrew custom of making diminutive forms of names ending in /i/. Among Hasidim, in fact (most of whom speak a southern dialect of Yiddish, this new diminutive ending has almost entirely replaced the older Yiddish diminutive suffix /-l/ with names. Thus Suri joins a large group of Suris in Brooklyn and Bnei Brak. I find this funny. ]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 21, 2006 10:45 PM