The Philosophy of Naming

7 Jun

Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – William Shakespeare

So…I’ve been mulling over the concept of “titles” this week. I’ve had a few interesting conversations about it. A title sets the tone for a piece. It gives the reader a “heads up” about what is to be expected when he or she reads the book/poem/article/blog post. It’s a fore-shadowing of what is to come. Totally random/seemingly disconnected titles irritate me. I have read some books and then said, “Okay, I tried to figure it out, but I just can’t. Where on earth did they get this title?” On the other hand, I do like a little creativity in a title or headline. I remember learning about this from our yearbook advisor in high school when I was editing a layout. My chosen headline: Homecoming 1987. Her take on it: boring. I told her, “I thought about “A Sort of Homecoming”, but thought it was too weird.” (That was the title of a popular song in the day.) She looked at me like, “You dunderhead!” but all she said was, “You should have gone with that. So much more creative and eye-catching.”
“Creative and eye-catching” …can the same be said for a person’s name? I found naming my children to be very intimidating, just as I’ve found titling my book to be scary. Chapter titles I could handle no problem…a small snippet of the whole…easy to grasp and commit to. But a LONG TERM, all-encompassing title/name…that’s frightening. I didn’t want to saddle my children with dreadful monikers, just as I don’t want to saddle my fourth “child” – for that is what this book feels like – with a title no one is attracted to. Because as much as we’re told not to judge a book by its cover…or by its title…we still do.
A child, when they are born, has their personality all there, just waiting for their parents to discover it as time goes on. Sometimes the names we give them fit their personalities…and sometimes they don’t. Aren’t there some cultures who wait a year before naming their children? Perhaps there’s some wisdom in that. People tell us that our youngest child…Lucy…is perfectly named. I always laugh a little when they say that. Does that mean she’s like Lucy Pevensie of Narnia fame? Because if so, I’m good with that. Or do they mean she’s like Lucy Van Pelt of Peanuts fame? Because if she’s going to be stealing away the football from nice little round-headed boys who trusts her too much, then that’s not so great. Knowing Lucy, she’s a little of both.
Perhaps we should start a tradition in this country that when a person reaches 18, they are expected to pick their own middle name. A name which reflects their personality better than their first name. Of course, I’m not sure I’d have trusted myself at 18 to do that. Maybe 30 would be better.
There are also “names” for events in our lives. My friend Stacey commented last week that there is power in naming something as you go through it. Stacey has been going through a lot of garbage in her life lately and there’s no sense in calling it anything other than that. It’s not “a learning experience”…it’s not “a blessing in disguise”…it’s crap. (Unpleasant word, sorry, but it’s true.) Yes, there may be learning and blessing through it in the end…but let’s call it like it is and not couch it in comforting or spiritual terms. For her, there is freedom in acknowledgement of the horribleness of it all. The naming of it: misery. (Yes, I asked her for permission to post this paragraph.)
But back to books. There are some writers who begin their books with a title and write from there. Oy, vey. I can’t even begin with an outline. I write and see what develops as I go along! Perhaps that’s a personality thing, too. My problem with starting with a name is that it’s so limiting…what if I want to diverge from the promise of the title when I get to page 200? What if I discover that such-and-such a thing is so much more important then I realized it would be when I titled it? A title is restrictive.
I wonder, is “Lucy” restrictive? Will she ever be allowed to act like a “Pamela”? Or a “Florence”? What about a “Tuesday”? (See May 24th post!) And what about the concept of “invoking” a name – seeking a blessing just by saying a name – or, conversely, the curse of saying it, like in Harry Potter with “He who must not be named”. What is it that Dumbledore says? “Fear of a name leads to fear of the thing itself.” Interesting.
And then there’s the ancient Hebrews, who wouldn’t say the name of God out loud (and current orthodox Jews won’t, either) and who had to create a sort of shorthard in order to even write it. The “Tetragrammaton” they called this combination of letters (YHWH) and, according to Wikipedia anyway, only a few people in each generation know how to properly pronounce it, and no one has said it out loud for almost 2,000 years. Apparently the High Priest used to say it on Yom Kippur, but hasn’t since AD 70 when the temple was destroyed.
Why the history lesson? Because it’s amazing proof of the power of a name. For the Jewish people, to say the name of God out loud is to dishonor God. The name is holy. Too holy to be said by mere mortal men or women. Too sacred. Too powerful.
Yes, names hold power. They hold meaning. That’s why some people really look into the meaning behind the names they’re considering for their children. For example, “Mary” derives from “Mara”…which, in the Bible, means “bitterness”…and so many people don’t want to name their daughters such a depressing name. Apparently my husband and I didn’t worry about that as our daughter Kathryn’s middle name is Mary. Honestly, I have no fear that she lives under a cloud of bitterness. Her life – and her attitude – is up to her to decide.
And, I think, that’s what it comes down to. It is up to us to overcome our names…or our titles. Shakespeare (how could I ignore this quote when on this topic?!) said it well: “What’s in a name?” So much more, Horatio…so much more…

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14 Responses to “The Philosophy of Naming”

  1. Anne Nagy June 7, 2011 at 9:26 am #

    Our emotional association with names is usually dependent on people we have known with that particular name–could be relatives, friends, unfriends,– or with literary associations. Names have fashions–who ever heard of Jason as a male name until some movie star adopted it. Regarding Jewish and Christian ideas about honoring the Lord’s name, I note with great displeasure the development of the term OMG which I guess is now prevalent online–shame, shame!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

      I sure am with you on your last comment. Uff da. And yes, you’re right about name associations…Ian might have been Neil except for the fact that Colin had a bad associaiton with that name. I think that I could have gone on and on with this topic…but it was long enough as it was!!

  2. Jenny June 7, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    Thank you Aunt Anne. I so agree with you! And why name your child something they are not going to be called? That was our reasoning behind naming our children. Give them a name that will not be shortened, like my name and my husbands. Or look at what the initials are going to be together. Yes Gretchen, the topic could go on and on. I was happy to see the email come across! It’s Tuesday! Thank you for your thoughts.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

      I remember your issue with nicknames/given names…the difference with me was that I WANTED a nick name but “Gretch” just wasn’t acceptable to me! Apparently Katie was the only one who benefitted from that philosophy…Ian and Lucy are stuck with nick-name-less names. Though, of course, in our family, they still get lots of them anyway…just not short versions of their given name! Yes, there’s so much more to be said about naming…oy, vey. Oh, yes, we decided that none of our kids should have “B” names…as B.O. for initials might be opening the door for teasing. :o)

  3. Rose June 7, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    Interesting musings! Like it.

  4. Kathy June 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    I have long been fascinated with names, why someone would choose to name someone/something that, what it means to them, etc… Here’s a post I did on names (you’ll have to scroll a bit to get to the name part) almost 1 1/2 yrs ago.

    http://eskimomomma.blogspot.com/2010/01/everything-thats-on-my-mind-then-some.html

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 7, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

      Thanks for your link, Kathy – yes, a person’s “true” name…that shows up in other books/literature, too. I haven’t read those books yet – I have the first one, just haven’t opened it up! It’s the “power of a name” idea again, isn’t it? Interesting…I wonder, did that begin with Rumplestiltskin?! That idea of keeping it secret!!!

  5. Kris June 10, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    It is interesting how a name can change as a person changes over a life time. We have examples of Issac / Isreal, Saul / Paul, Naomi / Mara given to us in the Bible. We are given a (most of us) nickname growing up, which may change over the years. Once we enter school, we usually revert to our legal name. After school, as we establish ourselves in the working world (workplace or home), with a name that we will answer to. This name may change over the years, or as we see ourselves. We are also given (sometimes) a name by friends or family that we will answer to. So, it comes back to the age old question, what is in a name?

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 11, 2011 at 9:25 am #

      Yes, the name change thing is interesting…obviously in the Bible it is important, the meaning of names. And nicknames are interesting, for sure – I’ve found that only people of certain personalities will call me “Gretch”…and, thankfully, there aren’t too many of them out there! But those who do get away with it because from them it’s okay!

  6. Susan June 13, 2011 at 9:48 pm #

    Interesting and thought provoking!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell June 13, 2011 at 10:06 pm #

      Thanks, Susan! I actually can’t stop thinking about it…and seeing/thinking of other things that can be said about naming! I never knew I had such opinions on it!!

  7. Heddi Goodrich July 8, 2011 at 6:08 pm #

    Hi Gretchen, this is the first of your blog posts that I’ve read and I loved it, naming (and the power of the word) being one of my personal interests since minoring in semiotics at my university in Italy. I explored some similar concepts in this blog post, if you’re interested in reading it: http://heddigoodrich.blogspot.com/2011/01/magic-plum.html. Besides that, we seem to have much in common: writing because we are compelled to, being a mom, trying to get published. I look forward to reading more about your writer’s journey!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell July 8, 2011 at 8:27 pm #

      Hey, Heddi – I’m so glad to hear from you! I totally will check out your blog – thanks for the link(s!). I am excited to connect with you and others like us on this same journey into publishing! I must say, I’ve never met anyone (in “real life” or in “virtual life”) who has minored in semiotics!!!! Thanks so much for your comments!

  8. Heddi Goodrich July 8, 2011 at 6:10 pm #

    Sorry, Gretchen, wrong link! I meant this one: http://heddigoodrich.blogspot.com/2010/11/book-by-any-other-name-would-smell-as.html

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