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As I understand it, in the original bible passage, Jesus says to Peter "And I tell you that you are Petros, and on this petra I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it"

And in the original Aramaic, the word used is also a noun which translates as "Rock" or "Stone".

According to wikipedia Petros had not previously been used as a name, but in the Greek-speaking world it became a popular Christian name, after the tradition of Peter's prominence in the early Christian church had been established.

In many Latin languages, Petros is rendered as a the word for rock/stone in that language. For example, French Pierre is both the name of the saint and a word for stone. In others, the gender changes (a rock is female and inflects at the end differently to the male name) but the relationship between the words is transparent.

So how did stone come to be rendered in English as the opaque Peter when referring to person, Peter. It's obviously a cognate with the greek and latin words, but how did it enter the language and end up with its current spelling and pronunciation?

My best guess is that is travelled as a given name across the channel before the bible was commonly read in English, as an Anglicised form of the Romance language name, and when the Bible was translated, it made sense to the translators to use the existing English name. But this is just my guess.

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    There is no "original Aramaic". The New Testament was composed in Greek. – fdb Sep 8 '15 at 9:36
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    @sumelic: I see now that he wrote "Amharic". That makes it even worse. – fdb Sep 8 '15 at 11:52
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    Because people's names are usually rendered by their phonetic value, not for their underlaying meaning. This is why we have Mary, but not "Bitterness" or "Wished-For Child". The original word may spread in parallel, just like the word petroleum, literally "rock oil", which is borrowed to other languages where "petr-" has nothing to do with "stone". – bytebuster Sep 8 '15 at 12:20
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    @fdb, This is disputable. – Alain Pannetier Sep 8 '15 at 14:52
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    Yes, but this is about what Jesus said to Peter. No matter what language this quote was written in when it became scriptural canon, it's extremely likely that Jesus spoke to Peter in Aramaic, not in Greek. – Dawood says reinstate Monica Dec 22 '17 at 7:32
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I agree with fdb, but I think the question still has a point:

Apparently, Shemayon Keppa (the original [Simon] Petrus) received the Aramaic byname Keppa (rock) at a time when this was not in common use for names in any relevant language. When things were written down in Greek, the name Simon was just transcribed (not translated), but Keppa was translated as Petros ('male Rock') because at the time the original meaning outweighed its then almost non-existent character as a proper name.

The masculine ending -os had to be used because otherwise it would have been a female name. [Fdb says this issue didn't exist in Aramaic, where the word is masculine. Also many languages such as French and German aren't as picky about endings and wrong genders as Latin and Greek.] So this is probably where the word for rock and the word for Simon's byname first diverged. The translation to Latin essentially preserved the situation that already existed in Greek.

The byname became a frequently used first name - not surprising, given Simon's importance and the fact that Petrus must have connoted something like 'rock guy'. First names obviously tend to undergo completely different developments than other common nouns. Example:

Nous avons nommé notre fille Désirée parce qu'elle était désirée.

In this French sentence, the name and its explanation differ only in capitalisation. There is no perfect way to translate such sentences because the established practices turn a clear allusion into an opaque one:

We named our daughter Désirée because she was planned.

Some alternatives that are worse for various reasons:

We named our daughter Désirée because she was desired. [In English this is not the correct technical term, so the meaning is obscure.]

We named our daughter Désirée because she was désirée. [Not an English word. This way the allusion is even harder to understand.]

We named our daughter Planned because she was planned. [Ridiculous name, and it's simply not her name.]

  • Aramaic kēphā “rock” is grammatically masculine. – fdb Sep 12 '15 at 11:50
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    @fdb: Then things are even simpler. Feminine is what I quickly gathered from random internet discussions after the only reasonable source I found didn't work. – user4938 Sep 12 '15 at 11:54
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    The Nordic languages did actually translate the name, though not for St Peter himself. Icelandic Steinn, Danish/Swedish Ste(e)n, Norwegian Stein(n/ar) are all male given names and all, possible archaic orthography aside, entirely identical with the common word for ‘stone’. But St Peter is called Peter, not any of the translated names. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 20 '15 at 11:45
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What you are saying about the "Latin languages" is not correct. In French the masculine proper name Pierre is not the same word as the feminine common noun pierre, nor are they identical etymologically: the former comes from Latin Petrus, but the latter from petra. Likewise Italian Pietro vs pietra. Or Spanish Pedro vs piedra. So to answer your question: English handles this translation issue in exactly the same way as the Romance languages. The proper name is borrowed as "Peter", but the common noun is translated as "rock".

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    Exactly. Names and common nouns occupy different 'namespaces'. And both can enter the language multiple times, on different occasions, and be subject to subsequent sound changes. – StoneyB Sep 8 '15 at 15:43

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