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The changing fashions of Lithuanian names

  • 2002-02-21
In the first of a three-part feature, Rokas M. Tracevskis looks at what it's hip to call your child in today's Lithuania. The Latvian and Estonian parts of the story will appear in coming issues.

There is no doubt that Grand Duke Gediminas would shake his head were he to see a McDonald's on the edge of Vilnius' Old Town. But he would probably get downright angry to know that his name, which survived decades of Russian then Soviet occupation, is now out of style.

The Lithuanian tradition of naming children after legendary Lithuanian heroes seems to be fading.

"The fashion for names is changing," said Arturas Dubonis, a historian with the Lithuanian History Institute. "Now short international, Christian names are more popular in Lithuania."

When Lithuania regained independence in 1918 after more than 100 years of Russian occupation, the names of grand dukes like Gediminas, Kesutis, Algirdas, Vytenis, Vytautas and Mindaugas were all the rage. The names of their wives, like Birute and Morta, were fashionable.

The same names continued to be in style throughout the Soviet period, Dubonis noted.

"It was a kind of anti-Soviet statement," he said.

But at least one historic name is making a comeback.

Jogaila, a Lithuanian grand duke who married the queen of Poland in the 14th century to become the Polish king, was not a popular name between 1918 and 1940, when relations soured between the two countries.

But now parents have started to pick the name up again.

New names

Last year the most popular names for newborns in Lithuania were Lukas for boys and Gabriele for girls. According to the Residential Register Service, 642 baby boys were named Lukas in 2001, and 491 girls were called Gabriele.

The second most popular name for girls was Gabija (465), and for boys Mantas (389). Karolina (387) and Rokas (338) were third. Other popular female names last year included Viktorija, Kamile and Greta. For boys, Deividas, Tomas and Matas were also popular.

Engineer Julius Vaitkeliunas said he named his son Darius and her daughter Vaida simply because the names were short

"I think short names are more popular now," he said. "Nobody would call them by their full names if they had some long names because it is not practical."

Many traditional Lithuanian names have retained their popularity because they fit the modern-day need for brevity while retaining meaning. Like the English-language names Hope and Joy, many Lithuanian ones are simply nouns.

"My husband's name is Azuolas," librarian Dalia Kiaupiene said laughing. "It means 'oak' in English. It seems that names really do influence people. My Azuolas really looks like an oak. He is big and strong."

Others include Ruta, which means "common rue" in English and is the name of the unofficial national flower of Lithuania. Other girls' names include: Audra (storm), Aukse (gold), Ausra (dawn), Gintare (amber), Laima (happiness), Sniega (snow) and Ugne (fire).

Boys' names seem to fit as well. The name Rokas is sometimes translated into "rock music." But perhaps the most impressive boy's name is Liutauras, which is a combination of "lion" and "bison."

Unlike the other two Baltic countries Lithuania is Catholic, which is one reason why Christian names are popular in the country.

A combination of religious tradition and reverence for historical heroes and pagan myth led to Lithuania's tradition of a middle name. During the Soviet era this made it the only republic to include a first and middle name in its passports.

About half of Lithuanians have retained the tradition.

Usually one of the names is of pagan origin or is the name of a ruler of the Lithuanian grand duchy. The other is of a Christian saint.

For example, the current prime minister is Algirdas Mykolas Brazauskas. The leader of the Social Democrats in the Parliament is Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis. Mykolas and Povilas are the Lithuanian versions of Michael and Paul.

Usually the second name is omitted in official reports and in the press.

But some people, including film director Vytautas V. Landsbergis and poet Antanas A. Jonynas, are mentioned in the media by their name, surname and middle initial.

Lithuanian painter and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis and other historic figures are often known by their full names.

Smell of leather

Lithuanian names do not always roll off the tongues of foreigners, but there are some that are similar enough to ring with familiarity.

Norma Hollings, a tourist from the U.K., considered some of Lithuania's most popular names recently over beers in a Vilnius tavern.

"Lukas (Luke) yes, it's a nice name. Gabriele (Gabrielle) yes, Viktorija (Victoria), that's the name of one of the great queens, and also the name of Posh Spice," she said. "Camille (Camilla), that's also Prince Charles's mistress' name."

Swedish journalist Jonas Ohman was surprised to discover that his name is popular in both Sweden and Lithuania.

"It was interesting to realize that my name was actually the same in Lithuanian," he said. "The pronunciation differs somewhat. It's something like 'younas' in Swedish and 'yonas' in Lithuanian.

"I have had some severe difficulties convincing people in Lithuania that I am not at all of Lithuanian origin. Actually I didn't know that the country even existed some 15 years ago. But it's quite fun and it makes me feel a little associated to the country in a special way. The name Jonas is rather common in both countries, which of course is a good thing."

Ohman has lived in Lithuania for several years, speaks the language and says he likes the sound of the names here.

"There is something interesting about the names associated with the history of the country," he said. "For instance, Mindaugas and Kestutis have a decisive air and touch. Jogaila has something of a wild and belligerent flavor, the sound of hooves, the smell of leather, sweat and metal armor twinkling in the sun.

"I very much like Lithuanian girls' names. Zivile and Jolanta for instance, or Ruta and Laima. They carry within them a kind of humble beauty, pride, joyful childishness and desire."

Student Uta Volgmann, who is German, shares Ohman's fascination with Lithuanian names.

"The traditional names are, of course, different from German names," she said. "They sometimes have meaning, like thunder or chamomile (Ramune). Boys are named after the most important Lithuanian kings, like Gediminas and Vytautas. The new names here are similar to the names in Germany, France and England like Lukas, which is very popular in Germany as well."

But Lithuanians for their part have spent plenty of time pondering foreign names.

The first name of Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga is similar to the Lithuanian word vairas, which means "wheel." Lithuanians got a good chuckle from Latvian film star Girts Jakovlevs. His first name was spelt Girtas in Lithuanian, which means "drunk."

"The name of Hollywood movie star Mel Gibson always sounds funny to me," said former TV journalist Rima Dovydeniene. "We usually add Lithuanian endings, so his name is Melas. It means 'lie.'"