What's in a name? A lot if you ask the author of Ruth's story. Each of the characters have carefully chosen monikers that describe not only their role in the story, but their place in the ancient world.
A Heroine by Any Other Name
The main characters in the story have names that highlight their best attributes and their emotional journey through the narrative:
- Ruth's name means "friend" or "companion," which fits her role as Naomi's bosom buddy.
- Naomi's name means "pleasantness," but when she returns to Bethlehem a grief-stricken widow and mother she asks the women there to call her Mara, which means "bitter." Hey, it worked for Abraham and Jacob.
- Boaz means "in him there is strength." Naomi certainly thinks there's husband material in him, too (source, p. 241-242).
On the other hand, the characters that fall short don't get such sweet-sounding names:
- Elimelech means "my God is king." Well someone has to be, since Elimelech checks out about two sentences into the story.
- Mahlon means "weakness" or "sickness" and Chilion means "annihilation" or "consumption." You know these guys aren't gonna be sticking around for long.
- Orpah means "back of the neck," which is exactly what you see when she turns and walks away. That's stone cold.
- The other kinsman never even gets a name, which just goes to show what a non-issue he is to Ruth and Boaz's happiness (source, p. 241).
So were the parents of these folks just really good at picking baby names or is something else going on here? Well, since Ruth is a piece of fiction, not a historical account of real people, the author was free to pick whatever name he wanted. In this case, the name fits the personality and makes interpretation that much more fun.
In Popular Culture
Names in art and literature are never an accident. A good artist picks names that not only fit a character, but a situation. Here are some examples:
- Harry Potter is chalk full of names with deeper meaning. Voldemort means "fly from death." Draco Malfoy is "dragon" and "bad faith" mixed together. They never stood a chance. Remus Lupin is a werewolf. And Severus Snape just sounds like a jerk.
- Charles Dickens was a naming master. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. The evil Uriah Heep. The beautiful Estella. And terrible teacher Mr. M'Choakumchild. Well, that last one might be a little too obvious.
- Darth Vader just sounds evil, but "vader" is also Dutch for "father." Luke, we've got something to tell you…
- Fairy tales do this, too. Snow White has skin as white as snow. Little Red Riding Hood always wears a red riding hood. Goldilocks has long golden locks of hair on her head. What do you look like? Well, that's your name now.