Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Why are people naming boys Artemis?

If you are only familiar with Artemis as a Greek goddess it can be hard to understand how it can be seen as a name for boys. Artemis Fowl gets blamed for making Artemis sound masculine but he wasn't the first.

There was Artemis the male cat in Sailor Moon, Artemis Gordon in the movie Wild Wild West, and Artemis Entreri, an assassin in the Forgotten Realms franchise. For me, that is too many to be just a coincidence. Is there a historical precedent?

You do find a few older American graves on for men named Artemis mixed in with the women. Occasionally their names will also get spelled Artemas or Artemus.

Artemas is a biblical name. In the letters to Titus, Paul mentions him as one of his disciples. The etymology is often interpreted as a version of the Greek name Artemidoros which means "gift of Artemis". One of the early American Revolutionary War heros was named Artemas Ward.

Artemus is a form of the Latin name Artemius, from the Greek Artemios meaning "devoted to Artemis". Saint Artemius was martyred in the 4th century and he is considered a Saint in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian churches.

You can imagine how Artemas, Artemus, and Artemis might get mixed up in English. They are obviously related but their usage as first names was too rare to establish an awareness of the difference. That's less likely to happen with common names like Jessie and Jesse but even with a popular name they get confused for the same name. Someone unfamiliar with Artemus might have also "corrected" the spelling to the more familiar Artemis.

Does that mean there are a bunch of men named Artemis in the US? No, not according to the SSA name database. No more than 16 are recorded before 2000, with double that many probably missed by the privacy cut off of 5. In the mean time, Artemis for girls was pretty rare as well, with about 300 women named between 1930 and 2000. If you add in men named Artemas and Artemus, the ratio is closer to 2:1 male to female. The Artemis Gordon in the 1960s tv show The Wild Wild West (and the 1980 tv movie AND the 1999 Will Smith movie) was in truth an Artemus, probably inspired by the previously mentioned Artemas Ward. The appearance of boys named Artemis in the data lines up with the Wild Wild West productions so I'm guessing the mix up started there.

That's the American context, but what about the Greek context? In Greece, there are two uncommon names that get transliterated as Artemis into English: Άρτεμις which is feminine and Αρτέμης which is masculine. They both are pronounced the same, Artemis, but have a different syllable emphasized which is lost in translation. AR-te-mis vs ar-TE-mis. Their usage is due to that same Saint Artemios, but are shortened forms. You'll also find Artemio in Italian or Spanish, Artjoms in Latvia, Артём (Artyom) in Russia and Артем (Artem) in Ukraine.

Artyom and Artem are particularly popular in Russia and Ukraine (currently top 10) due to veneration of the 16th century child saint Арте́мий Ве́ркольский (Artemyy of Verkola). (Fun fact, his mother was named Apollinariya which is another saint name derived from a Greek god. Apollo is the twin of Artemis.)

So whether you mishear Artemus as Artemis, or run into a Greek man named Artemis, there is a chance a modern person might know a man named Artemis. This, and all the other previous male usage, might have led the author of Artemis Fowl to assume it was a well known unisex name. I think Eoin Colfer was a little surprised with how much confusion the name choice caused, which he addressed in the 3rd book.

So yes, Artemis is a female goddess from Greek mythology, but as a name for a real person it has a lot of history as a masculine name too, or at least, history of being mistaken for a similar male name. We probably just reached a tipping point with Artemis Fowl. Artemis is now trending as both a girl's and a boy's name in the US. This happens so rarely for feminine names that it's kind of amazing. Usually this story is about how a masculine name started getting used for girls.

Addendum: In 1997, an episode of Seinfeld had this exchange between Jerry and George, discussing who the last American president with a beard was:

George Costanza: Artemis N. Falkmore.

Jerry Seinfeld: You made that up, right?

George Costanza: Yeah. But it sounds like a president name, doesn't it?

According to one of the most popular American sitcoms, Artemis sounds like an old fashioned man's name.

The trail of the name Sigourney

Sigourney is a surname that originates from the French town of Sigournais. It was called Segurniacum in latin which is of unknown origin. Si...