In the Book of Genesis, Benjamin is the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons and the second son of Rachel. Rachel dies during labour, using her last breath to name her child Benoni. This translates as ‘son of my sorrow’, a sentiment chiming with Mrs Compson’s martyrish lamentations about her own offspring. Jacob quickly renames him Benjamin.
Benjamin is thus a censoring not only of Benjy Compson's original name but also that of his biblical forbear. Its meaning is ambiguous. Coming from the Hebrew, ben means son of whilst the second element, yamin, may mean south, right or right hand. Alternatively, it may derive from yamim, meaning days, and allude to Jacob’s advanced age. The ramifications of these possible meanings are played with in Quentin’s narrative (see bookmarks for pages 74 and 145).
Also interesting to note are the racial dimensions to the name change. Benjy’s mother renames him to symbolically terminate the connection with ‘her’ family, the Bascombs, as her brother is also called Maury. Nonetheless, the meaning of the name, a variant of Maurice, is worthy of note: swarthy, dark-skinned, Moorish. Benjy’s two monikers can be read as evidence of the liminal position his condition confers on him: as an idiot, he subverts the white-intelligent/black-ignorant paradigm on which the social hierarchy of the time relies, and is therefore suspended between the white and black worlds, belonging wholly to neither. Fitting in with a broader pattern in the novel that portrays race as uncertain, malleable, fluctuating, he embodies a world in which deep fissures have opened up in all the old certainties. According to this line of interpretation, son of the south would seem an apt understanding of Benjamin.