Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of the American Oriental Society
Vol. 56 (1936), p189‑197

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p189  The Egyptian Origin
of Some English Personal Names

Alan H. Gardiner
London, England

Contributors to the present volume may well have reflected upon the very unusual quality of mind which enabled James Henry Breasted to conceive and inspire what he describe as a "research laboratory" for the enrichment of modern knowledge "with a fuller vision of the rise of man." The Oriental Institute is the monument to a scholar who was a human being first of all — to one who, while living ardently in the present, kept his gaze unceasingly fixed upon the past from which that present has sprung. To him, in fact, past and present were indivisible, and being imbued as he was with an intense interest in all evolution, no question of origins could be indifferent to him. This article can deal only with a small and unimportant aspect of human affairs, but, such as it is, I derive satisfaction from the thought that the topic would not have been uncongenial to my deeply regretted friend.

The conclusions to be reached are unhappily mostly negative or at least highly speculative, but we are fortunate in being able to point to one common English Christian name the Egyptian origin of which is beyond question. That name is Susan, and it goes back, of course, to the pious and beautiful wife of Joakim whose story is told in an apocryphal addition to the book of Daniel. The Greek form of the name is Σουσαννα, and the corresponding Hebrew is שׁוֹשַׁנָּה, an obvious derivative of the fairly common word שׁוֹשַׁן, "a lily." The Egyptian origin of the latter was pointed out long ago, whether first of all by Brugsch or some other I will not inquire. The Egyptian word for a "lotus" was zššn, later zšn.​1 This in Coptic has become šōšen, with the same assimilation of the first two radicals as that found in Coptic šoušet "window," from old śšd. Erman (ZDMG 46 [1892] 117), in accepting the view that the Hebrew šūšan and its Arabic equivalent sūsān are loan-words  p190 from the Egyptian, rightly observes that the borrowing must have been one of comparatively late date, for even in Ramesside times there is no trace of the assimilation. The use of šūšan in a feminine form as a proper name will have taken place within Hebrew itself, where other plant-names as well are used for both men and women.​2 In Egyptian zšn "lotus" is indeed used as a personal name, but only for men.​3

Thus encouraged by Susan, we shall be the better able to face the disappointment occasioned by Humphrey. It was with surprise and delight that about a twelvemonth ago I learned from Baedeker's guide to Rome and Central Italy (16th English edition, p456) that the church of Sant' Onofrio in the Via del Gianicolo owes its name to an Egyptian hermit bearing the name "Onuphrius or Humphrey." Of him Evetts writes:​4 "This saint, called in Arabic Abû Nafar, whose festival is kept on Ba'ûnah 16 = June 10, and by the Roman church on June 12, was a hermit in Upper Egypt. His life was written by St. Paphnutius, of whom Onuphrius was an elder contemporary. . . . Onuphrius would seem to have died about A.D. 400." The story of St. Onuphrius is preserved in a Sahidic manuscript written about six hundred years later.​5 It is not he, however, but his name, in Coptic ouenŏbr, ouanŏfre, etc., which interests us. This was quite a common personal name in Egypt alike in Coptic,​6 in Greek,​7 and in Pharaonic​8 times, and originated in the well-known epithet of Osiris which means "He-who‑is-continually-good"; the hieroglyphs give Wnn‑nfr, and this combination of imperfective active principle of the verb "to be" with the old perfective *nŏfru was doubtless meant to stress the permanent, unvarying character of the god.​9 But is this  p191 Humphrey? Pleasant as it would have been to announce to the distinguished head of the Oxford University Press that his name owes its ancestry to the greatest of Egyptian deities, I must deny myself that treat. At first, it must be admitted, the glamour of the derivation itself and the authority of Baedeker combined to beguile me, but further inquiry has shown that the identification is untenable. To begin with, is it likely that an obscure Coptic anchorite should have conferred his name upon a royal duke, a celebrated naval aviator, and the hero of a novel by Smollett? More serious, however, is the fact that another derivation of Humfrey — for that is the less barbarous spelling of the name — has far better claims to acceptance. In form Humfrey recalls Godfrey, and the parallelism is continued in other languages, for in French we have Onfroi and Godefroi, in German Humfrid (Hunifred) and Gottfried. The Teutonic origin is thus clear, and there can be no doubt that the first element is the word hun which means a "support," while the second element is the word for "peace," found also in Siegfried and Wilfred. Thus the entire name means something like "support-of‑peace." In excuse of Baedeker I will quote some lines from Miss Charlotte M. Yonge's still unsurpassed History of Christian Names (1884. 350), whence it will be seen that the confusion of Humfrey and Onofrio was the deed of some medieval chronicler: "(The name) Hunifred, which the French much affected in the form of Onfroi, belonged to one of the short-lived kings of Jerusalem, and was Latinized as Onuphrius." Miss Yonge's account of the name's subsequent history is not without interest: "In the form of Humfrey it was much used by the great house of Bohun; and through his mother, their heiress, descended to the ill‑fated son of John IV, who has left it an open question whether dining with Duke Humfrey alludes to the report that he was starved to death, or to the Elizabethan habit for our gentility to beguile their dinner hour by a promenade near his tomb at old St. Paul's."

There is much more to be said in favour of an Egyptian origin of Moses and Phineas, but here the question presents itself as to how far these names are entitled to be described as English. We will assume them to be such; Phineas, at least, was common in Puritan days and is still not rare in America. Phineas comes, of course, from the Biblical name Phinehas best known as the name of a son of Eli, the priest of Shiloh, though there is another  p192 Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, mentioned Ex. 6:25, Num. 25:7 and elsewhere. The very look of the Hebrew פִּינְחָס Pī‑nehās suggests Ancient Egypt,​10 and it would demand an excessive scepticism to reject the long-accepted derivation from P᾽‑Nḥsy "the Nubian." This Egyptian name was common from the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty onwards,​11 but has not survived into Coptic, where it is replaced by Pegōsh "the Cushite." In dynastic times there were at least three highly distinguished personages of the name, first the Chief Treasurer whom Amenophis III sent to Sinai,​12 second the Vizier who lived under Meneptah,​13 and lastly the Royal Son of Cush contemporary with Ramesses XI.​14

The majority of scholars — I will mention only Ed. Meyer, Kittel, Gressmann among the Germans, Driver, Griffith, Burney and Robinson among ourselves — have settled down to the comfortable belief that Moses is really an Egyptian name, a shortening of one of those theophorous names like ᾽Aḥmŏse, Ptaḥmŏse, Thutmŏse, which were very common throughout the New Kingdom. It may be so, and yet there is considerable force in the objections to this view that have been raised. For the moment let us assume it to be the true view. The Egyptian names just quoted mean respectively "Yoḥ (the Moon), Ptaḥ, or Thoth is born" and refer, according to Ranke,​15 to the birthdays of the gods in question. For non‑Egyptologists it is necessary to point out that Ramesses (Rʽ‑ms‑sw), though containing the same verbal stem, is a name of a wholly different type, containing not the old perfective ‑mŏse, older ‑măse, "is born," but the active participle ‑măs "having borne" followed by the pronoun se "him"; thus Ramesses means "Rē (the Sun‑god)-is‑he-that-hath-borne‑him. "​16 The shortening of Aḥmŏse, Amenmŏse and the rest into simple Mŏse (written in hieroglyphs Ms or Msw)​17 is common and well attested within Egyptian itself.  p193 In two passages a mysterious Msw, Msy, is mentioned in such a way as to preclude reference to anyone of much lower rank than the reigning king, and in both cases Egyptologists have not been wanting who proclaim the presence of Moses himself.​18 The first passage is in the ironical composition contained in the Papyrus Anastasi I (18.2). The scribe, whose incompetence is so scathingly criticized, has failed to make proper provision for a military expedition, and the soldiers are represented as saying "What means it that there is no bread at all? Our night quarters are far off! What means, good sir, this scourging of us? . . . This is not good; let Mŏse hear of it, and he will send to destroy thee!" The second passage differs in that it is drawn, not from a literary text, but from an actual record of accusations brought against a well-known chief workman in the Theban Necropolis. Here the passage runs: "The chief workman Neferḥotep brought a plaint against him (i.e., the defendant Penēb) before the Vizier Amenmŏse, and he inflicted punishment upon him. And he (i.e., Penēb) brought a plaint against the Vizier before Mŏse, and had him dismissed from the office of Vizier, saying: He has chastised me."​19 The common-sense view of Mŏse in these passages is that it is a nickname for the reigning Pharaoh,​20 though it can hardly be a shortening of Ramesses, since in the second case not a Ramesses, but either Siptah I or Amenmŏse was upon the throne. The name Mŏse is thus for the present utterly inexplicable, but it must be left for those who have the courage — a better word would perhaps be temerity — to find here a reference to the Moses of the Bible.

Now the name Mŏse as shortening of ᾽Aḥmŏse, Amenmŏse, etc., is not identical with the element ‑mas- found in Ramesses (see above), yet the two come from the same verbal stem meaning "to bear, to give birth." Consequently, one might expect the name Moses, if really derived from the former, to present the  p194 same sibilant in Hebrew as the Hebrew equivalent for Ramesses. Such, however, is not the fact; Ramesses, preserved in the name of the town of Ramses (רְַעַמְסֵס) Gen. 47:11; Ex. 1:11, shows a sāmekh, while Moses (משֶׁה) shows a shīn. This is not the place to argue the various ways in which the difference of sibilant can be overcome, the more so since at the back of our minds the objection would still probably remain. The best argument in favour of the derivation of Mosheh-Moses from the Egyptian Mŏse is that there is no other derivation nearly as good. It would be useless to enumerate all the various conjectures here; the most recent additions are Yahuda's mw = "seed" and š = "lake" or "Nile,"​21 and the Rev. J. R. Towers' mi or ma Shu "Like the Sun."​22 If we prefer the derivation from Egyptian Mŏse, let us at least be clear in our minds that we may well be influenced by the form in which the name Moses appears in our English translation of the Bible. And, on due reflection, would it not be more scientific to admit that we have no satisfactory evidence for choosing any derivation at all?

If, in the teeth of all objections, the Egyptian origin of Moses be upheld, then why not also that of Miriam and of Mary, the later equivalent of Miriam? In my opinion, at least as good a case can be made out for an Egyptian derivation of Miriam as has been made for Moses. Eduard Meyer is insistent that Egyptian names ran in the family of Moses, for he holds that the latter's son Eliezer (Ex. 18:4) was identical with the Eleazar, father of Phinehas (Jos. 24:33), whom Deut. 10:6 gives as a son of Aaron.​23 Eleazar's father-in‑law פּוּטּיאַל Pūtiēl (Ex. 6:25) was likewise doubtless the bearer of an Egyptian name, apart from the element Ēl, which may have been chosen to replace some more heathenish divinity; at all events, the name presents exactly the same formation as that of the priest of On פּוּטִפֶרַע Potiphera, an excellent rendering of Egyptian P᾽‑dỉ‑p᾽‑rʽ "He whom the Sun gives" (Heliodorus), which all sensible scholars admit.​24 There is thus  p195 some a priori ground for supposing Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, to have received her name from Egypt. This supposition would overly fall to the ground if there were any really likely derivation for the name from Hebrew itself. In the wholly admirable monograph which Bardenhewer has devoted to the subject,​25 he arrives at the conclusion that the derivation from the stem מרא "to be fat" is as likely as any; מִרְיָם Miriam might be an adjective in ‑m from this stem, and the meaning "the plump" would not be out of keeping with Semitic ideals of feminine attractiveness. This theory, though far superior to all other rivals, is open to some weighty objections. If the name Miriam were, or had once been, a common epithet of the kind, how comes it that no other examples of it occur until just before the beginning of our era, when it suddenly springs into popularity in the form of Maria, Greek Μαρια? Furthermore, adjectival formations in ‑m, like עַמְרָם ʽAmrām, elsewhere are masculine, not feminine. At all events, the suggested derivation is not sufficiently convincing to prohibit us from seeking a solution of the problem in another direction. I have to admit, however, that if the final ‑m is essential (Μαρια suggests that it is not), then no Egyptian hypothesis can be plausibly presented. Bardenhewer castigates an impossible suggestion put forward by the venturesome Egyptologist Lauth. But it is strange that no one seems to have thought of a most striking Egyptian counterpart. No Egyptian personal names are commoner than what the hieroglyphs write as mry for the masculine and as mryt for the feminine,​26 meaning either "The‑beloved" absolutely or "The‑beloved" as shortening of some theophorous name like ᾽Imn‑mryt (doubtless to be read Mryt‑᾽Imn) "The-beloved‑of-Amūn. "​27 At some time or other mryt was doubtless vocalized Marye, since we have in Coptic a well-authenticated perfect passive participle from another verb of this class, namely hasie, originally meaning "favoured" or "blessed."​28 Unhappily, it  p196 seems likely that from the Nineteenth Dynasty onward, i.e., in the period within which the supposed borrowing of the name must have taken place, the r of Egyptian Marye had become assimilated to the following y or i, so that Maye or Maya was the full form; in the Boghazköi tablets "beloved of Amūn" is rendered by Ma᾽i‑Amana, and the Greek equivalent μιαμουν is well known. Nevertheless there is one way in which the old pronunciation Marye can be saved for an etymology of Mary, Mariam, Miriam. It is noticeable that the Bible has very little to say about Miriam's personality. She is mentioned but three times in all, apart from the Levitical genealogies: once in a record of her death and burial (Num. 20:1), once when she rebels with her brother Aaron against the authority of Moses and is punished with leprosy (Num. 12:1‑5), and once (Ex. 15:20‑1) as the prophetess who, when Moses and the children of Israel sang their song of triumph over Pharaoh and his chariotry, "took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances." "And Miriam," the text continues, "answered them:

Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously;

The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea."

Here and here only does Miriam betray any distinctive character of her own, and then it is as prophetess and as musician. It seems impossible not to think of the Egyptian goddesses and priestesses who were called mrt, i.e., in all probably Marye "the‑beloved," and who are not seldom depicted playing the harp or the sistrum on Egyptian temple walls.​29

It would be agreeable to think of the name Mary as originating in the Egyptian goddess of music, and I venture to think that the possibility should not be rejected out of hand. But the more carefully one studies the earliest Biblical and Egyptian connections,  p197 the more hazardous do any decided convictions on the subject show themselves to be. I will therefore sum up the results of my investigation: Humphrey is clearly not of Egyptian origin, and Moses and Mary are extremely doubtful; on the other hand, Susan and Phineas can be confidently accepted as good Egyptian names.


Since my article was sent in I have called to mind yet another name, or rather group of names, for which Egyptian descent has been implicitly claimed. Time fails me to investigate who first connected Latin lilium with the Coptic word for "flower," but Professor Lefert has recently quoted the derivation with approval and used it as the basis for an argument (admittedly of a very fragile kind) to the effect that the dialect of Coptic spoken on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt was that now known as Fayyûmic or Middle Egyptian (Muséon 44.120 n. 2). For in Fayyûmic the old Egyptian hreret "flower" has assumed the form hleli, whereas in Sahidic and Bohairic the old r has not changed to l. By way of corroboration M. Lefert advances a new etymology of his own, namely Latin columba from Coptic groompe (Fayy. *glampi) with the same meaning. I do not feel qualified to express an opinion on these daring hypotheses, but it seemed necessary, for completeness sake, to add Lilly, Lilian, and Lilias to the English names which have become candidates for the same high honor as Phineas and Susan.

The Author's Notes:

1 If anyone should doubt the Hebrew and Egyptian equivalence, his scruples should surely be overcome by the facts that Hebrew šūšan is used in I Kings 7:19 of flower-shaped capitals of pillars, and ib. 7:26 of a vase of some sort. The archaeological analogies admit of no hesitation.

2 See Encyclopedia Biblica, s.v. Names §69.

3 See Ranke, Die ägyptischen Personennamen (henceforth quoted as Ranke), 297.29‑31; 298.2.

4 B. T. A. Evetts, The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt, p111 n. 2.

5 Budge, Coptic Martyrdoms etc. in the Dialect of Upper Egypt, pp205 ff., 455 ff.

6 See Crum, Ostraca; Crum and Steindorff, Koptische Rechtsurkunden, etc. Heuser (Personennamen der Kopten, I.59) quotes other Egyptian divine epithets that gave rise to Coptic personal names.

7 Preisigke, Namenbuch 242, 247. The best spelling is Οννωφρις, but there are many variants, e.g., Οννουφις, Ονοφρι, Ουεναφρις.

8 Ranke 79.19.

9 Hence the common rendering "The good being" is wrong.

10 The Septuagint has Φεινεες and the Coptic version Penhēs. The yodh after the initial consonant is abnormal, but offers no serious objection.

11 Ranke 113.13.

12 Gardiner and Peet, Inscriptions of Sinai, I, nos. 211, 219, 220, 221.

13 A. Weil, Veziere, p104 § 26.

14 JEA 6.51.

15 Griffith (apud Burney, Israel's Settlement in Canaan 47 n. 2) accepts the rendering "is born," but supposes (if rightly reported) that ‑ms is a passive participle, whereas surely it is the old perfective, in Coptic ‑mŏse. For the Greek equivalents like Αμωσις with long ̄ο see Sethe, "Die Vokalisation des ägyptischen," in ZDMG 77 (1923), 168‑9.

16 Sethe, op. cit., 190.

17 Ranke 164.18; 165.11.

18 Lauth did so in connection with the first passage to be quoted below, and unless I am mistaken, a living Egyptologist of otherwise good judgment took the same course not many years ago in a newspaper letter or article on the basis of the second passage.

19 Pap. Salt 124, rt. 2.17. Latest and best edition by Černý in JEA 15.243 ff. Černý (p255) conjectures that Msy here is a nickname of the king Amenmŏse. But this involves the separation of the Salt passage from that in Anastasi I, which is highly improbable.

20 This view I have expressed on various occasions, and it is quoted with warm approval by Ranke, ZÄS 58.135.

21 Language of the Pentateuch 260.

22 "The name Moses," in Journ. Theol. Stud. 36.407.

23 Geschichte des Altertums2, II.2.208.

24 Cf. Peteēsis, Peteamounis, Petosiris. It is doubtless mere accident that Peteprē has not been found in hieroglyphic texts. For the formation and Hebrew writing see Sethe, op. cit., 182, n. 2; Griffith, Rylands Papyri, III.192.

25 Biblische Studien, vol. 1, pt. 1.

26 Ranke 160.1; 161.14.

27 Divine names were often written honoris causa in front of words which they followed in actual speech.

28 Preserved in the Coptic bōk‑n‑hasie "to be drowned," literally "to depart as a favoured one," see Griffith, "Apotheosis by Drowning," in ZÄS 46.132. This hasie is of interest also for the etymology of ΜωυσηςMoses given by Josephus, contra Apionem I.9.6 Τὸ γὰρ ὕδωρ μῶ οἱ Αἰγύπτιοι καλοῦσι, ὔσης δὲ τοὺς (ἐξ ὕδατος) σωθέντας. I am not sure if it has been pointed out that ὔσης here is clearly a perversion of ασιης, the Greek equivalent of hasie, though there will have been some confusion in the writer's mind, since an Egyptian became 'favoured' (ασιης) by the fact of being drowned, not by being saved from drowning.

29 The earliest mention is in the Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage, ed. Gardiner, p59. There were two such goddesses, one for Upper and one for Lower Egypt; and sometimes in temple ceremonies they appear to have been impersonated by actual women. To the references in the book cited above may be added Kees, Der Opfertanz des ägyptischen Königs, 103 ff.; Blackman in JEA VII.8 ff.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 30 Jun 21