MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: George Lucas named Darth Vader "Darth Vader" because it was a variation of "Dark Father."
Reader John W. wrote in to ask if the much-recited legend that "Darth Vader" means "Dark Father" in some language was true and thus, was it a hint to Darth Vader's true identity all along?
George Lucas has specifically spoken about this issue, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2005 by Gavin Edwards:
Edwards: How did you get the name Darth Vader?
Lucas: "Darth" is a variation of dark. And "Vader" is a variation of father. So it's basically Dark Father. All the names have history, but sometimes I make mistakes – Luke was originally going to be called Luke Starkiller, but then I realized that wan't appropriate for the character. It was appropriate for Anakin, but not his son. I said, "Wait, we can't weigh this down too much – he's the one that redeems him."
Now, first off, yes, Vader does, in fact, mean "father" in Dutch (pronounced vah-der, to the point where it pretty much just sounds like "father" with an accent). "Darth" is a made up word (that was obviously intended to evoke the word "dark"), so technically, I guess Lucas is correct.
However, what we're really talking about here is "Did Lucas name Darth Vader 'Darth Vader' because he was trying to say that this guy was Luke's father?"
As noted in an older Movie Legends Revealed, it appears pretty clear that Darth Vader was NOT intended to be Luke Skywalker's father until some point during the development of Empire Strikes Back. Pinpointing the exact moment when Lucas made the decision to make Vader Luke's dad is a tricky subject. I honestly couldn't tell you precisely when Lucas made the changeover in his mind. In fact, longtime reader Garth G. recently wrote in to me with a legend specifically about that topic. So maybe I'll have an answer on that one, as well, in the future. For now, though, I can only say that Empire was already being developed before Lucas went with the whole "Vader is Luke's dad" bit.
What we also know, though, is that in Lucas' original screenplay for The Star Wars (which was, of course, dramatically different from what Star Wars became), there WAS A CHARACTER NAMED DARTH VADER IN IT! General Darth Vader, of the Royal Space Fleet. He was a “tall, grim looking humanoid." We know that Vader is not meant to be anyone's dad, because the Luke character in this version of the screenplay HAD a dad who is ALIVE.
Clearly, then, the name was not invented as some sort of commentary on father. Much more likely, it was simply a cool sounding name. Much earlier in his career, Lucas spoke about the naming of Vader, "[It] sort of appeared in my head one day. I had lots of Darth this and Darth that, and Dark Lord of the Sith. The early name was actually Dark Water. Then I added lots of last names, Vaders and Wilsons and Smiths, and I just came up with the combination of Darth and Vader."
That Lucas included Vader with "normal" last names is important to note, since Lucas went to high school with a guy named Gary Vader.
So no, I don't believe that Lucas had the "Vader means 'father'" concept in his mind when he named Darth Vader, so I'm going with the legend as...
My longtime buddy Rohan Williams did an EXCELLENT in-depth article on this topic here. It's well worth a read. It even has a picture of Gary Vader! Thanks to John W. for the suggestion!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.