Monday, February 11, 2013

What's in a name?

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

What's in a name? you may ask. Are names really that important, or should we just agree with Shakespeare?

Names give us our identity; they tell us who we are and tell us among other things whether we will be on a no-fly list or not. If your name is Muhammad or Ali you are much more likely than I am to be on such a list.

Names are revealing. The can reveal our age, since some names are more fashionable than others at certain periods, at least in many countries. The popularity of names is an interesting phenomenon. It is difficult to explain why some names become popular and others less so.

They can also reveal much about our race, whether we are white or black or something in between, as if race really meant anything significant. Yet it is deemed important by the powers that be and is the basis for profiling.

They can reveal our nationality as well, even when one becomes hyphenated as I am, a Dutch-Canadian. What this means is that, like nearly everyone else, we came from somewhere, wherever that is. Yet this is deemed significant enough that people ask us, "Where are you from?" even when they only hear or see our names.

And names can reveal our sex, or should I say gender, since sex is considered an inappropriate word, at least for some people, but why should that be such a problem, since all of us are either male or female. As a result we treat one Pat differently from another Pat, since one is named Patrick and the other Patricia.

But still I wonder: What's in a name? Why are names so important, and at times even controversial?

Blaer (l) has been known only as "Girl" in official paperwork

A girl in Iceland has won the right to use her own name, Blaer, which means "breeze" in Icelandic but was not on the approved list of names since it was regarded as a man's name and not proper for a female.

In the Bible names are very important, since they do not only tell who these people were but they also reveal something significant about them, especially what they did.

Adam simply means "man" or "a man," while Eve means "life" or even"source of life." The Bible describes them as the first parents of the entire human race. Some scholars ask how real they were, and many of us wonder where and when they lived. 

Other biblical names are even more revealing.

Jacob, or "leg-puller" as he has been called since he was born after his brother Esau, Jacob later received a new name, Israel, which can possibly mean, "God fights/struggles," because he did fight with God.

Moses, according to some scholars, means "saved from the water," or as others surmise, "savior/deliverer." His name portends what he would do to save his people by bringing them out of Egypt to Canaan, the promised land.

Moses with Ten Commandments, by Rembrandt

Joshua, Moses' successor, who actually led the Israelites into the promised land, was also a savior as his name indicates. The Hebrew "Yehoshua" means "Yahweh is salvation."

Jesus is the English form of the Greek transliteration of "Yehoshua" (Ἰησοῦς). He was given the name Jesus because, as an angel prophecied, he would "save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). Christ is not a name but a title meaning "the anointed one."

There are many more names in the Bible that are revealing, but I will not list all of them. This sample will have to do to make my point that biblical names are important.

In other religions names are equally important. This is evident especially with the founders of these faiths.

The name Muhammad means "praiseworthy" and occurs four times in the Qur'an. It is a name that many of his followers have borne with honor. His chief title is messenger or prophet. In fact, Muhammad is called "The Seal of the Prophets" since he is Allah's final revelation to humanity.

Siddharta Gautama Buddha is another example he is the "Supreme Buddha," "Buddha" meaning "awakened/ enlightened one." Gautama is the primary figure in Buddhism.

In the twenty-first century, names are not as revealing as they were in these religions, but they are revealing nevertheless. Use this link, if you want to know more about the etymology and history of your first name.

When I taught in Russia, there seemed to be only a limited number of first names among my students. I had more than a few who were named Oleg or Olga (which are actually the masculine and feminine forms of the same name). But then came nicknames, like Sasha, which made the classroom resemble a Russian novel.

In contrast, African names are numerous and tricky. In Nigeria I rarely had two students with the same name and I could never tell if they were using first or family names. Nearly all had a tribal name in addition to their Christian or Muslim names.

Throughout Africa many people are named after the day they were born; thus Kofi Annan was probably born on a Friday. Or they are called a name that corresponds to their birth order, "first-born," etc.

What's in a name? Much more than many of us realize. A name is rarely an accident. There is often a story attached to many names, although often we never hear these stories.

I am named after my paternal grandfather, but the name does not go back any further, although there are many Dirks and Gerrits in previous generations, going back to early in the eighteenth century, which is as far back as I have been able to trace my family tree.

My youngest granddaughter, who was born recently, is named after my mother, who is still alive but in frail condition. The two, however, may possibly never meet, since they live about 700 kilometers apart. Even if they do, my granddaughter may not be old enough at the time to remember my mother. Yet what they will always share is a name.

Shakespeare may not have been right about the significance of names after all, although I know what he meant. He also got his history wrong at times, such as in his portrayal of King Richard III, as archaeologists recently discovered. Shakespeare, of course, had to humor the Tudors who had won the War of the Roses.

What's in a name? A great deal. Names do matter and are very important both for us and others.

What is most important, but I haven't mentioned yet, is this: God knows our names! He knows the name of each and everyone of us! Nothing else matters as much as this.

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