The Meaning & Etymology of The Name David:
David = Japheth = Reddish Color

If you look up the name "David," the meaning that is given is usually "Beloved" or sometimes "Friend." Despite a widespread use of these associations, they are really little more than educated guesses that have become standardized.

In this article, I will try to provide both an explanation of the Hebrew origins of the name and also the previously-unknown pre-Hebrew, pre-King-David origin of the name! If your name is "David" or are close to someone by that name, I'm sure you will find this very interesting!

The name David is of Hebrew origin. The ancient Hebrews had no vowels in their written words. In "David" the Hebrew consonants are transliterated as "DWD" or sometimes "DYWD". This three-consonant word is thought to be the root not only of the name "David," but also of the following words:
  • beloved (DWD)
  • uncle (DWD)
  • aunt (HDD)
  • mandrake (DWDY)
  • pot/jar (DWD)
  • leader "dawidum" (DWDM)

Not only are there many meanings and spellings, there may also be many alternative pronunciations. And, to make matters worse (i.e., more interesting), it may be the case that the name did not originate with the Hebrews; it is actually of a significantly more ancient origin!

DWD first appears in history near the end of the 11th century BC with the naming of the great and famous King David. Before this time, however, it is my belief that DWD was actually a common word for a color! In addition, I am convinced that it was used as a personal name much earlier than King David. The name and the color are linked by the fact that the persons bearing the name possessed this color in their skin and/or hair. It appears that the very first man to bear this name in recorded history lived much earlier than King David. He is very well known, his version of the name is found in the book of Genesis: "Japheth."

How Words Change Across Time and Cultures

To reach and understand this conclusion, we have to look at the way that words change as they pass from one culture to another. When studying words and names across many different languages and dialects certain transitions among specific groups of sounds are commonly seen. When one language has no letter/sound for a word that comes into it from another culture, substitutions are made. For example, in Germany the name "Weimar" is begun with a "Vee" sound, but the dog breed that comes from that location is pronounced with a "double-you" sound: Weimaraner. In Norway and Denmark, many names end with "Gard" when it is a place name. In English, we pronounce the same word as "Yard."  Thus, Kierkegaard, means "Church Yard."

This kind of substitution is a well-documented phenomenon and it occurs very frequently. In fact, most of our vocabulary derives from words in other languages that are now anglicized or americanized to sound quite different from the original. In the same way, the "original" was also likely derived from an even earlier word. Linguists trace these changes back as far as possible. The trail ends with a word in a proto-language.

These substitutions are neither random nor evenly mixed. Whereas some sounds transfer virtually unchanged, others are very often altered within a small set of similar sounds. For example, "TH" can turn into "T" or "SH" very easily. This forms a family of linked sounds. So, words that started out like "Tesh" can become "Thesh," "Thet," or "Tet." Sometimes a set is linked to another set. The SH/TH/T set can be linked to the T/DT/DJ set by the "T" sound. Also, a word can be transferred more than once. After a few transfers, a word can become unrecognizable with regard to the original word. A linguist has to trace the word back through these steps one by one to make the connection.

It is probable that the form of the name David that we find in the 10th century BC, "DWD", has already gone through a few alterations to arrive at that form.

Regarding the first letter, I suspect that the "D" sound could have originally come from a "Y/J/DJ" sound. Try saying "Djavid" to yourself. 

Regarding the second letter, the "W" in "DWD" could have originally been an "F" or a "V." This is obviously possible because it has happened an additional time since King David. The original Hebrew "W" was transferred into the Latin and then into the English as a "Vee" sound. That is why we say "David" and not "Dawid." The "W" has become a "V" in this more recent transfer. So, because we can see that it has happened recently, this is not only a good example of the kinds of transitions that typically take place, but it is an instance of the exact kind of change that has happened to this very name in the second letter! If you know anyone from India or Germany, you will note that they have trouble with the English letters W and V. Germans also have trouble with the English usage of F and V. Try saying "Dafid" to yourself.

Regarding the final letter, which is the same as the first, in addition to being linked to the "Y/J/DJ" family of sounds, it is also similar to the "DT/T/TH" family. This explains the transition from "T" to "D." Try saying "Davit" to yourself.

To sum up these transfers diagrammatically:
Y/J/DJ is hardened to become D in the first position
F or V becomes W in the second position
DT/T/TH is softened to become D in the third position

Thus, it appears possible that DWD originated from YFT. Of course, this is without vowels. The vowels were spoken, but not recorded in texts. To reconstruct the sound, we can use a neutral vowel sound added equally between all the letters. Thus, DWD becomes DaWaD, and YFT becomes "YaFaT." You may now start to recognize the name. "Japheth," as it is spelled in the typical English Bible, was the name of Noah's second oldest son as mentioned in Genesis 5:32. "Japheth" is Latinized, however, so it is very helpful to note that Japheth is YFT in the Hebrew original. So, the first letter is a Y not a J, "Yah" not "Jah."

Consider another example of a known transition. Many will know who Confucius is. He is an influential Chinese philosopher from the 5th century BC. Though we know him by this name, he himself would not answer to it! His original name was Kung Fu Tzu. "Confucius" is a completely Latinized name. This means that it was transferred into Latin, the language of the Romans, and then into English. It's original Chinese character was lost. The two versions of the name are only vaguely similar now.

Another example, this time involving a Hebrew name, will make for an even better example. We all know who Joshua is. He has a book of the Bible named after him. And, we all know who Jesus is. But, did you know that they have the same name? In Hebrew, there is no difference between Joshua and Jesus. The Hebrew name sounds like "Yeshua," but each man's name was transferred into English via a different route. "Joshua" retained most of it's original pronunciation and Hebrew character, but "Jesus" was fully Latinized before it came into English.
Returning to "David," we see that a transition between David and Japheth is feasible because there is a bridge between all the consonants. That is, between "YFT" and "DWD," there are well-known transition points at each letter position.

This can also be understood intuitively if you allow yourself to say the two names rapidly and without precision. Try to say something like, "Djafadt" or "Yayfet." Try varying between the options for each consonant. You will eventually come to some raw, basic sound that can be heard either as "David" or "Japheth." (I hope no one is listening to you!)
The Meaning is the Same
Perhaps all the above isn't convincing on its own. A wise man withholds judgment for a time because this allows for more evidence to make itself known.

Thankfully, there is more evidence! Many scholars think that Japheth originally meant "Fair" or "light-skinned." He is the ancestor to all Europeans and Indians. While the Indians are dark, they may not have been so originally. While the Indians were surrounded with dark-skinned peoples and also reside in an area of intense sunlight, the Europeans were more isolated from intermarriage and lived in colder areas with less sunlight. These factors likely accentuated the fairness (lack of pigment) of the Europeans and darkened the complexion of the Indians. In any event, Japheth is probably the source of the light-skinned mutation and this was probably visible from his birth. Thus, it was reflected in his name. It was fairly common to name a child after his/her appearance.

David may have been named after a color too. It should be no surprise, then, that the first usage of the name "David" also includes a comment that he had red hair! 1 Samuel 16:12-13 reads,

"So he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance. And the Lord said, 'Arise, anoint him; for this is he.' Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward..."

"Ruddy" = Having a fresh, healthy red color: a ruddy complexion. Red or reddish. This is either a reference to red skin or red hair or both. Note that only skin without much pigment can be seen to blush.

"beautiful eyes" = likely a reference to an atypical appearance of blue or green eyes rather than the nearly ubiquitous brown color among Hebrews. Though brown eyes are often beautiful, they would not have been a feature worth noting in that culture. Even more, it would be odd to mention the beauty of the eyes of a young man unless the eyes stood out in some unusual way. Light-colored eyes are often noted as special in dark-skinned regions.

So, Japheth probably means "light-colored," and David probably means "reddish." Both names share nearly the same meaning! But, the association goes even deeper! Recall the other options for DWD; they included Pot/Jar and Mandrake.

Pottery is typically a tan or reddish color, just like David's hair and complexion! And, the mandrake root is similar in color to earthen-ware pottery. They are both pale and reddish. Red clay produces red pots. Often, the mandrake is found in the form of a man's body with it's branches resembling two arms and two legs. Thus, it looks like a little, pale man.

So, it is beginning to look like most of the meanings of "DWD" refer to a light, or reddish color. This similarity makes a strong case, I think, for seeing the origin of "David" in "Japheth" and for associating them both with color. Light or reddish color is the primary meaning of the word, and the color used as a name is the secondary meaning.

Regarding the other definitions, it is likely that these uses of the word DWD could have taken on their meanings because of people who bore the name. King David was a great king, so it makes sense that his life was the reason why DWD took on the meaning "leader." He was described as a man after God's own heart whom God loved... thus he is "beloved." Uncle, and the derivative Aunt, are more mysterious, but perhaps David is also associated with family relationships in some way. Many people descended from David due to his many wives and the unusually large number of wives that his son Solomon had. The Scriptures do not mention many children, but they do mention 700 wives and 300 concubines!

Since DWD has five fundamental meanings, it is a very flexible word. Humorously, we could imagine a sentence like this actually being spoken in the 10th century BC! "DWD (reddish boy), go get me the DWD (reddish pot) with the DWDY (reddish root) in it."

Therefore, in conclusion, the biblical names "Japheth" and "David" are very similar names in terms of linguistic principles, by sound and by meaning.
So, I think the origin of "David" is "Japheth" and I think it means fair, light colored, reddish, etc. And, I think this association was simply lost to history.

Let me know what you think of this theory!

by David Pensgard
david @ (remove spaces)