Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On the naming of names

As a writer, I take some time trying to find good names for my characters. I tend to pick names with some kind of symbolic meaning, though I try not to make it too glaringly obvious. (Get too ham-handed about this and your characters start sounding like fugitives from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.) Consequently, I've started asking the people I meet about their names. Not only is it good research, but the responses are consistently fascinating. Most people like to talk about their names -- what they mean, where they come from, all the family politics that were involved in choosing them. Some people come from countries where there are strict rules about what names you may give your children (a skosh totalitarian, but then again in those countries you never run across a kid named Bronkyall-Spazm Johnson, or something equally horrific). Some people have names which they started out hating but have gradually come to appreciate; others, like my friend Fen, eventually choose a name that they feel better suits them.

My own given name means "lily." It's not exactly an accurate descriptor, but as name meanings go, it's not bad; I could've been saddled with Dolores, which means "sorrows," or Kennedy, which means "ugly head." Or I could have been one of my sister's students whose name was Dejabrie, which as far as I can tell means "this cheese tastes familiar." Pass, thanks.

I am hugely fascinated by names and the practice of naming conventions, partly because one of the rare cross-cultural constants seems to be the importance of names. It shows up in Judeo-Christian scripture (where God bestows a name on the first man, Adam), in the oldest poems and stories, in scientific nomenclature, in modern epic fantasy, and in various cultural traditions and mores. To one extent or another, the whole human family seems fixated on the practice of giving every living being a specific handle.

This fixation for naming things can sometimes cause problems. For instance, we have an odd naming tradition in the west wherein we bestow names on tiny infants -- sometimes even on the unborn -- before we get the chance to know them as people. The majority of Westerners are thus forced to grow into the names they were given, rather than receiving names that fit who they are. I've often wondered why we don't adopt the more sensible convention of giving children temporary names at birth and allowing them to choose their own names when they come of age.

Although relatively few people change their given names, the idea of taking a new name as a symbol of personal metamorphosis is common in both secular and religious contexts. Traditionally a western woman takes her husband's surname when she marries, symbolically indicating her love for and closeness to her husband and his family. (Less traditionally, a man sometimes takes his wife's surname, the couple create a hyphenated surname, or they choose a brand-new surname of their own invention. I say, whatever floats your boat.) Many African-Americans, once freed from slavery, stopped using the surnames of their former masters and chose new surnames, such as Freeman. And some religious traditions require acolytes or new members to choose a new name as a symbol of the powerful changes they have undergone in joining the faith.

Perhaps most interesting is the concept of the true name. In ancient philosophy and occult tradition, the true name of a thing is a word which describes or defines it perfectly. Knowing a being's true name was thought to give one power over that being -- see, for example, "Rumpelstiltskin" and numerous other folk tales. In some cultures a person's true name was considered so powerful that people took nicknames for everyday use, concealing their true names so that no one could use such knowledge to enthrall them. Funnily enough, in the Internet age one's true name has again become significant, as people who know your real name can use it to gain power -- at least the power to look up your information on search engines and social media.

Whether you love your name, tolerate it, or hate it, there is always a certain visceral power to it. Most people react when they hear their own name being spoken aloud in a crowd, even if they don't expect to run across anyone who knows them. (I once witnessed several adult men, all with the same first name, cringe instinctively in reaction to a mother's stern warning to her child: "Michael! Don't make me count!") Dale Carnegie, of How to Win Friends and Influence People fame, understood and knew how to harness this power -- his comment on the subject was, "Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language." Even if you dislike your own name, there are few things more delightful than hearing it said with tender affection by someone you love. And that may be the best quality about the human tendency to name things -- it can turn a simple, single word into a kind of gentle verbal caress, a way of saying "I see you" that buoys up your spirits and stays with you long after all other words are forgotten.

So, do you like your name? Does it have some special meaning to you? If you could choose your own name, what would it be?

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