Monday, September 03, 2007

What's in a name?

Everyone has a name. This name may be ordinary and commonplace, such as Andrew, Matthew, Amy, or Megan, or it may be completely different and obscure, such as Drusilla or Oddmund.
If a name is not recently invented, it probably has a meaning to it. For example, according to behindthename.com, Jacob was the most popular boys' name in 2006, and it means "holder of the heel", or "supplanter". The most popular name for girls was Emily, which means "rival". My own name, Matthew, means "Gift of God".
I have wondered for a long time whether the the meanings of our names actually hold any value. My name means "Gift of God", so am I a gift of God? I would like to think so.
However, the meaning of the name itself is the second most important thing. The most important thing about having a name is that it bestows value upon the named. A name is a sign of value and worth because it separates the named from other things similar to it. In nature, we name the biggest and neatest rocks, but we refer to the smaller, ordinary ones by their familial name (e.g. a piece of shale). We name our pets, but not every dog or cat has been given a proper name. However, every human being has a name. This means that every person is unique and has worth.
I read a sci-fi book as a child where there was a species of intelligent beings who had a very interesting take on names. Translated into human names and ideas, it looks like this: When I was born, I was called Human. When I became an adult, I earned the right to be called Neufeld. By distinguishing myself among my peers, I earned the right to be called Matthew. And when I do something that affects the whole world for the greater good, I will earn the right to refer to myself as "I".
This is an interesting system, although I cannot see it working for humans, but the idea that we would start as all the same, and gradually "make a name for ourself" by doing bigger and better things. In this example, a name is directly linked to self-worth and accomplishment.
Do we need names? I do not know whether humans actually need names, or whether names are strongly desired, but I know that humans are not hive-mind drones - we think and work for ourself. This makes us different from each other, so maybe a name is necessary to reinforce our individuality.
Now, back to meanings in names. Does the meaning of our name speak to the core of who we really are? Does the meaning of our name matter? Can a parent define what their child is going to be like simply by naming their child?
One thing that I remember from my teen emo/existentialist times is how the meaning of my name was always a beacon of hope. In the times where I was feeling down and like I did not matter, I was sometimes reminded of the meaning of my name - "Gift of God". I took this as a reminder that I was valuable, and that I was loved, because I knew that a gift from God was a very precious thing indeed. I know that this is only my example, but the meaning of my name seems to me to be an indicator of what I can be. I am worth something, so I should make a name for myself. I am loved, so I should love in return.
I could go on, but I won't for sake of time. I will, however, leave with this verse. Revelation 2:17 - He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.
Our name now represents who we are. This white stone represents who we can be. Let us overcome, so that we may be worthy of our true name.

7 Comments:

Blogger The Tartski said...

Good post, Matt. I'm absolutely positive that I read that book that you refer to. Do you remember what it was called? It also made an impression on me -- the privilege that we have of referring to ourselves as "I" and what that actually means. It's a beautiful picture.

12:50 AM  
Anonymous Crystal Schwartz said...

Names do not hold the meaning they once did. What was once a defining aspect of one's character, the art of naming has become something of a whimsical nature. Instead of taking care in discovering meaning, the vast majority just go with what sounds good.

This is why I believe so deeply in the idea that our names are not representative of who we are. My name, Crystal, for instance, comes from the Greek word krystallos, meaning ice; cold. My parents chose my name not based on its meaning, but what Crystal meant to them: it is a pure substance, free of error and fallacy. Crystal clear, if you will.

However the many debates on this matter, I believe it was Juliet who said it best:

"Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man ...
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

5:56 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Ivan: I think it was the first Rogue Squadron book, by Michael A. Stackpole.

Crystal: Good to hear from you here! What do you think about this - names do not necessarily define who we are, but can show us what we can become.
Your thoughts?

9:53 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Also, if we called a rose a stinkweed, then would we perceive the smell of a rose as unpleasant?

9:55 PM  
Anonymous Crystal Schwartz said...

I do not believe names can show who we can become. Our actions dictate the person we are, and will be.

What if one's name meant something sinister, or displeasing? Does that mean that person may become sinister and/or displeasing? That theory lacks logic.

It is my opinion that a name is nothing more than a title meant to separate, or categorize, one thing from the another. The deeper meanings given to such titles may be based upon many contributing factors, but in the end: a name is just a name. Whether a rose is called a stinkweed, or a rose, it doesn't change the aroma of the flower.

People may perceive it differently, but that has nothing to do with the flower. Our minds are powerful, and can distort our senses into thinking someone/thing is not what it seems, for we often associate names with the item/person itself. If we were given a name of a most unusual nature for instance, then we may be treated differently.

As for character definition, names do not define us for actions speak louder than words, and only we are in control of our actions.

... If that makes any sense. Haha.

3:28 PM  
Blogger The Tartski said...

That's hilarious! And here I thought that all the hours I spent reading science fiction were wasted. Thank you, Star Wars.

I will offer a comment on the other discussion going on here.

What makes a smell pleasant or unpleasant? What makes food taste good or bad? This is completely subjective.

Can our impression of the taste, then, be affected by the name? Since the senses are affected by so many other things -- who is with us when we smell, what was going on the last time we smelled that smell, etc. -- it seems to me that associations we have with the NAME given to the taste or smell could also affect our impression.

Now, most children do not know the etymology of any names, much less their own. So of course, the association Crystal would have had with her name as a child would not have anything to do with "cold" or "ice." On the other hand, I would be very surprised if the world meant something negative to her at all -- it probably means something clear, beautiful, shining, priceless.

A name is not a magic word that independently controls our future, like a horoscope. (Although the biblical writers often depict name-givings as on the same level as a prophetic utterance from God -- in other words, God gives the name as a sort of forethought of what role that person will have in the divine plan for history.) But names are words, and words contain whatever meaning we give them. If this means anything, it means that words have the power to act back on us, because we give them the power to do so.

This generates a long, long stream of thought for me, and maybe I myself will blog about it someday. But for now I'll shut up and go to bed.

4:46 PM  
Blogger The Burdman said...

I want to have a name... just like everybody else.

4:13 PM  

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