As someone born in Britain whose first language is English, but with origins in Pakistan and an understanding of both Punjabi and Arabic, it's always seemed to me that most modern Arabic names are easily understandable by those who understand Arabic.

For example, Wikipedia says this about the name Muhammad:

Muhammad (Arabic: محمد‎) is the primary transliteration of the Arabic given name مُحَمَّد‎ that comes from the passive participle of the Arabic verb ḥammada (حَمَّدَ), praise, which comes from the triconsonantal Semitic root Ḥ-M-D. The word can therefore be translated as "praised, commendable, laudable". It is thought to be the most popular name in the world, being given to an estimated 150 million men and boys.

This means that anyone who understands Arabic would know that Muhammad means "one who is praised" based on the root of "praise", or that 'Ali means "one who is exalted/elevated" based on the root of "elevation".

Comparing this with my first language of English, a native English person called Harry or Alfred wouldn't immediately understand the meaning of their name. Perhaps this is because the roots of those names don't originate in English, but the question is: why didn't the same thing happen to Arabic? How is it that a language so much older than English still retains (most of) the original meanings of its names?

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    Arabic isn’t ‘older’ than English – all languages are ultimately the same age. Arabic has a classical written standard form that hasn’t been allowed to change significantly for over a millennium, and it happens to have remained phonologically stable enough that that’s worked reasonably well. English spelling was fixed much later, after English had gone through some very fundamental changes in pronunciation, grammar and not least vocabulary. That alone helps make virtually anything from 800 CE unrecognisable in English, much less so in Arabic. Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 22:10
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    Worth noting that the vast majority of Japanese names also retain a meaning (in written form; the connection to spoken forms is not always as clear) due to the fact that they are written with meaning-carrying characters. There are probably more examples and I would wager that European names whose origins are opaque to most speakers might represent the exception rather than the rule.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 10:10
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    In Arabic, can you use "muhammad" as a regular noun? Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 16:50
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    “What is your name?” “Butch.” “What does it mean?” “I'm American, honey. Our names don't mean shit.” — Pulp Fiction (English/American is actually the exception.) Commented Dec 3, 2020 at 21:27
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Even though all biological species have also evolved as just points along a complex web of gradual developments we do speak of older and more recent species, e.g. humans are only a few hundred thousand years old, and cockroaches many million years old. I don't see why we cannot say the same about language, e.g. that English is only a few hundred years old. Of course boundaries are not clear, and one can't point to a time when “English” came into existence, but surely we can say that “English” didn't exist in say 200 CE; only its ancestors/precursors did that led to English. Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 18:17

5 Answers 5


Cross-culturally, names having transparent meanings is the norm. Europe, and the non-Arabic-speaking Muslim world are notable exceptions and in those cases religion is one of the big motivating factors

When you have large religions with a strong scriptural tradition, people will often choose names from that scripture. If the language of that scripture is not spoken by the followers of that faith, these names will seem to have no particular meaning

Christianity gave Europe a whole host of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin names; Islam spread Arabic names well beyond the area where Arabic is spoken. Depending on how long the chain of borrowings is, speakers of the original language may still be able to easily see the meaning in the name (e.g. English "Joshua" is fairly easily interpreted as Hebrew יְהוֹשֻׁעַ Yĕhošúʿa "G-d is salvation", but English "Isobel" is not so easy to identify as from Hebrew אֱלִישֶׁבַע ʾEliševaʿ "my god is an oath")

I'm not sure about the Indian Subcontinent, but it wouldn't surprise me if Hinduism and Buddhism had served a slightly related role preserving Sanskrit and Pali names after the development of the modern Indo-Aryan languages rendered these etymologies opaque

In the case of Arabic in particular, Classical Arabic (the source of these names) dates back to a time depth of less than 1500 years, and due to the emphasis Islam places on reading the Qur'an in the original language, has retained a position of relevancy even as the vernaculars have continued to evolve. As such, even if a vernacular does lose certain words or forms, they may well be reborrowed from the classical standard (compare the way many Romance languages show doublets of a word inherited directly from Latin, and a later reborrowing)

Meanwhile, whilst the names Harry & Alfred do originate from Old English, which actually has a slightly greater time depth than Classical Arabic, it lost cultural relevancy following the Norman Conquest which also resulted in the displacement of much of the vocabulary including common name elements such as ric "realm: (ultimately the last element in Henry) and read "counsel" (the last element of Alfred)

  • Re. Buddhism: Does Buddhist scripture have characters that one would name children after? And more generally, is it not more about overall cultural influence (e.g. people naming their children after actors or movie characters) rather than specifically about religion?
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 11:15
  • I'm not sure about Buddhism, like I said, it wouldn't surprise me if it were the case, but I don't have evidence that it is the case. My point with religion is that it's the main cause of names spreading outside of their source language, and/or being reborrowed in the original form after the source language has evolved into disparate forms
    – Tristan
    Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 11:39
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    Almost all Indian names have a definite meaning, and everyone readily recognizes their meaning. Some names are also frequently used as adjectives and nouns. Also, the names mean the same across different Indian languages. I study at an institute where one meets people from all over India. My friends have told me that (almost always) these names convey the same meaning to them (mostly because the names are taken from Sanskrit, but they are still in use in modern Indian languages), although we don't understand each other's native languages. Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 17:13
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    Since you mention Latin names, I'll remark in passing that many Roman names (including mine) are opaque in Latin; perhaps they come from Etruscan. Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 3:46

First, it is not just black and white. Not all English names are opaque, there are transparent names like Hope, Faith, or Grace but also Rose that are current in English and American naming. And there are also some Arabic names like Ammar or Zaynab that are opaque. But it is true that the majority of English names are opaque and speakers of English are used to that style of names. This includes all the names from the Bible (OT and NT) and many names of early Saints. The inherited Germanic names have also mostly lost the connection to their roots and became opaque.

On the other side, Arabic naming tradition is very open to words of the everyday language used as names as long as they have a positive meaning. The names essentially never lost the connection to the everyday language there.

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    Ok, but this does not touch on the actual question of "why".
    – user31182
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 11:33
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    I think it does, the word "tradition" is the key here. Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 12:26
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    "Hope", "Gratuity" and "Moon Unit" ;-) Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 14:52
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    @Servaes It does point out that a significant number of names, being from the Bible or Saints, have their roots in non-English languages. For example, "Emmanuel" is going to be a lot more transparent if you speak Hebrew... Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 16:21
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    @KevinKeane There are a lot more of them. For boys names like Hunter , Legend, Sage, Forrest, Justice, or Sincere are currently in use. Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 18:17

Part of the reason is that people with Muslim names tend to have a better knowledge of Arabic. But most people have very little knowledge of Old English, and don't know what "Harold" or "Alfred" derive from (owing to the much more substantial change in English over versus Arabic). There is no constant source of re-connection with the precursors of modern English. The set of Muslim names is relatively constrained, whereas even the more standard "English" names come etymologically from many languages (French, Italian, Greek, Welsh...). It is very difficult for the average English speaker to discover the common origin of Sean, Ian, John, Juan, Evan, Ivan, Jack, Johannes. It also helps that there are a number of names based on a common root like ħmd, slm, ħsn (Hamid, Mahmud, Muhammed, Ahmad...).

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    Correction, Jack does not belong to the John sequence. Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 7:41
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    As @bytebuster said, Jack would be akin to Jacques, James, Iago, Jacob, Santiago, Xacobe, Diego, Thiago, Jaime, Xaume...
    – walen
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 8:43
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    @bytebuster That is not a correction. Jack originated as a nickname for John (passing via Jankin or Jenkin, the origin of the surname Jenkins). Other names that are commonly unknown to be nicknames are "Harry" for "Henry" (awareness of this is mostly kept alive by Shakespeare), and "Robin" for "Robert". Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 10:44
  • Jack can also trace back to James via the French Jacques. In Canada it's not unusual to see Jacques anglicized to Jack
    – Flydog57
    Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 18:02
  • My parents always referred to the U.S. President "John F. Kennedy" as "Jack Kennedy". But I didn't know that's what they meant until I read this just now. Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 18:50

As with many words in English, also a lot of proper names come from the Romans, which in turn served as a vector for Hebrew ("Michael"), Aramaic ("Thomas") and Greek ("Peter") names. Names like "Peter" probably are recognizable in the region of their origin, but not in England.

There still are original English names as well, like "Albert". But English has changed too much so that the old English roots for "noble" and "shining" have become unrecognizable. Arabic didn't change that much because, as wikipedia says, "by the 8th century, knowledge of Classical Arabic had become an essential prerequisite for rising into the higher classes throughout the Islamic world." Spoken and written Arabic was used throughout the Arab world, while in the Christian countries first Latin and then French were the dominating languages of nobility and scholars, especially in writing.

English, for example, would not be the written language of choice for another 600 or 700 years. The stabilization through written canonical texts, like the Qur'an, was missing. By the time the King James Bible was written England had been conquered, the Magna Carta had been written (in Latin, all versions of it), the vowels had shifted, inflection was not what it used to be, Reformation had happened, book printing discovered, and that is why today nobody can see that "Albert" means "Noblebright".

  • I guess a lot of modern readers get the reference when Jesus says "I will make you the rock on which I build the church" to Peter. Commented Dec 3, 2020 at 20:53
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    @Acccumulation but this is only because we got other words like "petroleum" which have the same root. Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 1:13
  • @PaŭloEbermann I had never realized that... stone oil! But I suppose that many Christians are aware of Mathew's "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church" (the guy's name was actually Simon, and "Peter" is "πέτρος", stone or rock). In English the name for St, Peter isn't latinized like in German, St. Petrus; I suspect that many people in Germany aren't even aware that "Peter" is from "Petrus". Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 8:12

It’s largely an artifact of the evolution of the language itself, and to some extent the culture of the people who speak the language. Names tend to shift less over time than other aspects of a language because they’re inherently tied to the lifetime of a person and often get reused on a generational basis, so divergence from other aspects of the language is largely dependent on how much the language shifts over time and how they handle choosing (and in some cases writing) names.

If you actually look at most languages in the world, names in that language fall into one of three categories:

  1. Names with roots from that language that also exist in everyday speech.
  2. Names with roots from that language that no longer exist in everyday speech.
  3. Names with roots from other languages.

As far as I know, almost all Arabic names fall into that first category, they share roots with words used in everyday speech. Same for Japanese, and for a handful of other languages too, and there are a bunch of good examples from other languages as well, such as the use of Björn or Sten as names in Swedish (or Sjögren as a surname). Of course, the reasons for this differ by language, but they’re usually not all that hard to figure out. In Japanese it’s a result of the fact that they typically use Kanji, which inherently carry other meanings, to write names (so it’s obvious in written form that someone named Haru’s name means ’spring’, or someone named Yuuki’s name means ‘snow’). I can’t comment on why it may be the case in Arabic that names mostly fall into the first category though, but I suspect that the fact that Arabic is the liturgical language of what has long been the dominant religion in the primary regions where it is spoken has been a contributing factor (liturgical languages tend to shift far less over time than vernacular languages).

Most names in English though fall into the second or third category (with a notable exception for the practice of naming girls after virtues or flowers), and it’s kind of easy to see why. English has evolved as an amalgamation of a number of different languages, has undergone multiple significant linguistic shifts over the years, and we’ve always been pretty ready to borrow words from other languages, so it’s actually not all that surprising that we have so many names that derive from archaic root words or other languages.

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    The specific evolution of the English language is not the cause for the opaque names, opaque Christian names are the norm in less amalgamated languages all over Europe. Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 15:34
  • I was going to ask, "what percentage of English given names, i.e. first names, actually have pre-Roman origin"? It's likely that the vast majority of English speakers have post-Roman names, the same as all Romance languages, just Anglicized and of course, the meanings lost, unless you know a Romance language, where Pietro, is really close to pietra (stone). Imagine reading The Bible about "Holy Stone" i.e, Italian:"Santo (holy) Pietro (close to pietra or stone") becomes English:"Saint Peter", entirely losing the original meaning. Our understanding of the Bible may be 10% of what it could be. Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 19:11

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