Sunday, June 2, 2013

Word Power, II: What's In A Name?

Fourteen years ago, a teacher told me that he didn't share his father's given name because his father wanted him to be unique. A few weeks ago, someone expressed this same sentiment and what once seemed true now seems to me rather ridiculous. Not that I mind either the seriousness of purpose or the liberal gesture, of course. Far from. In fact, it refreshes me to hear someone express care over the use of words, having as much respect as I do for words. There are, however, distinctions we must make, namely between care and superstition, and between naming inanimate objects and naming people.

Using words with precision is a virtue of both intellect and communication. Whatever suspicions our ancient forbearers may have harbored, we do not in fact control things by naming them. It would be an improvement to say that we taxonomize them.  This is surely not news. The burden is simply on us to categorize with care, and so we without much trepidation call something a com-puter because it seems to think, or a library because it holds books. Naming people, though, is a different matter.

It's a curious and persistently illiberal fact of life that we don't get to choose our names. We might avoid the fact, but our given name always retains a certain authority over us. Nicknames and abbreviations let us pretend, yet it's not what we're called by any old person or even ourselves but rather what we were named which, in some inescapable way, makes us.

So we're named, but do we really think we impute qualities to a child when we name him? Probably not, though we'd like to and we try. When you name a child after someone you hope they turn out like their namesake, the cause of their name, but we know that their name assures nothing. Naming your daughter Iris won't give her a penchant for flowers and rainbows any more than naming your son Benito will turn him into a fascist. Nonetheless, names retain identities, some with which we identify and others by which we are repulsed, and we name people (curious how serious the act sounds when defined) based on what we believe and what we hope for them.

Obtuse hopes aside, though, if you think giving own name to your child will confine him to a life of carrying the cherished hopes and expectations of his parents, perish the thought!, why not give him a wholly different name? Why is being half unique just right? Should you research your family tree to make sure no one ever had that name? Won't you eventually run out of names? Also, since many people who are not related nonetheless share a name by chance, why not make up a new name ex nihilo? Is it better deliberately to avoid naming your child after yourself and, to no purpose let him end up with the same name as a stranger, rather than find someone after whom to name him?

It's a liberal sentiment, that in giving him a "free" name you'll pass down liberty to your child, but it's also futile. If we want to pass on an idea, we need pass on not a blank slate, but that which is meaningful.

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