For many Americans, the name Campbell is probably most familiar as a brand of canned soups; I certainly ate my share of them growing up in the 1950s and 60s. Joseph Campbell, who died in 1987, was a scholar of comparative mythology. Earl Campbell was a Texas football player. There are towns named Campbell in California, Ohio, and other states. There’s a type of grape called the Campbell’s early. Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who died in 1940, was a famous British stage actress; she played Eliza Doolittle in the original production of Shaw’s Pygmalion in 1914.

On and on we could go with Campbell, which, spelling aside, English speakers know rhymes with gamble. But Spanish speakers, or at least readers, may think they have an advantage: they can see that, but for an o at the end of each syllable—and what’s an o if not a little zero, and isn’t zero worthless anyhow?—the name Campbell is campo bello, or ‘beautiful field.’ They may think that, but unfortunately there’s zero truth in it, because Campbell is a Scottish name. In A Dictionary of First Names, Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges explain that it arose from Gaelic words meaning ‘crooked mouth,’ something that reminds us that family names came into use as descriptions of the first people who bore them.

Spanish speakers traveling in Sicily, however, who find themselves in either of the two towns called Campobello, can hold their ground in asserting that this time the name does mean ‘beautiful field.’ With components reversed, and not as easy to recognize, is the French cognate Beauchamp. Wikipedia lists a slew of people bearing the French version of the name, including a certain Noah Beauchamp, who is quaintly described as an “American blacksmith and murderer.” The murder took place in the doorway of a house, and therefore, though it sullied Beauchamp’s name, didn’t defile a beautiful field.

©2010 Steven Schwartzman


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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