You Are Not Your Name
Don’t take your personal name so personally
I remember the first time I met Jim Johnson.
It was in the 1970s—during the Nixon Administration, at Sybyl Bibble’s
cocktail party. He was standing alone, his back to me, staring at a Starving
Artist painting entitled “Mountain Spring.” Even then he was not
Mr. Fashion, dressed in Levi’s, Nehru jacket, and Hush Puppies. Over the
musical sounds of “A Horse with No Name,” I said “hi” and
he turned around. I introduced myself and asked, “And who are you?”
He switched what looked like a Harvey Wallbanger from his right hand to
his left and offered the free one to me. “I’m James Johnson.”
“Nice meeting you, Mr. Johnson,” I said shaking his hand.
He chuckled nervously. “Only my boss calls me Mr. Johnson.”
“Okay, Jimbo?” I responded as I sipped on my Rob Roy.
“My neighbor calls me Jimbo. But I don’t really like it.”
“I understand. I don’t like the name either.”
“That’s okay.” He gazed about like a nervous
Nellie. “The guys at work call me JJ. I don’t mind that so
much.” He glanced away, then down at his feet. “My friends
call me Jim.”
“Yah, me too,” I replied.
“Except my wife. I’m Puppy to her.”
“But my mother still calls me Jimmy.”
“I can understand that,” I said as we walked over to
the snack table.
“To my kids, of course, I’m Dad.” He motioned
with his hands.
“It seems everybody has a different name for you. Who, then,
addresses you as James Johnson?” I asked.
He thought a moment with a pretzel stick half in his mouth. “I
don’t know. It seems only the junk mailers and the government.”
Sticks and stones
ow, I thought.
The only people to refer to Jim Johnson by his real name were
those who did not know him. And when he dies, that real name which he
was never called with affection will be carved into his gravestone for an
anonymous posterity. He might as well have been named “Current Occupant.”
Most of us will share that same fate—answering to a glut of names in life,
then having the least genial one branded on our souls in death. Think for
a minute how many sounds you answer to, how many symbols and signs you attach
ego to. Ask yourself how many variations of your full name you have used and
how many nicknames and appellations you respond to. Then ask yourself what
label will introduce your obituary. Probably the same one used by telemarketers.
Yet that legal label consumes most of us. We dutifully print it (often last
name first) or sign it (first name first) on all the forms we have thrust
at us. We proclaim it upon introductions, register it with bureaucracies,
and etch it on prized possessions. And sometimes, when we find our formal
human label in a newspaper article, we snip it out and proudly show that paper
morsel to all our friends who never call us by that name.
Such actions are a symptom of a mistaken identity some of us have with our
names. We believe those personal syllables are stand-ins for our being, that
as long as they exist, we exist. Why else all the surname graffiti on our
streets, buildings, businesses and offsprings?
Garden of Stone
And let’s face it. It’s not just our formal names that tickle our ego. It’s
our everyday name, too. Dale Carnegie
tells us in How
to Win Friends and Influence People that “a person’s name is to that
person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Indeed, all of those sweet syllables
that we respond to get into our heads with all the other notions that have our loyalties, like Mama, the
Wildcats, Fluffy, and Old Glory. Then we invest ego in them so that they are part of us and apparently we part of
them. “The name of a thing is its soul,” said a man who must have thought his soul was
F. M. Cornford.
Yet what does a name tell you about a person? Walk through a cemetery some
time and read the gravestones. You will find common cognomens like James Johnson
and Bobby Jones, and odd ones like Myrtle Turtle and Elzora “Blondie” Flittwill.
Each is accompanied by two dates that are the sole chronicle of an entire
life. Rarely will you see a biography or even the added caption, “Loving Mother”
or “Dear Friend.” What do any of the simple inscriptions in the garden of
stones tell you about any of the souls laid to rest there? Nothing, not even
of those of any renown. Each gravestone displays only a label as lifeless
as the corpse six feet under.
Which reminds me of the story about the woman dancing and laughing in front
of a tombstone. A curious fellow noticed her, went up to her and read the engraving,
“In memory of Mrs. Marie Manchester.” “Your behavior isn’t very respectful,”
he said. She pointed at the inscription. “Oh, there’s nobody buried here.
That was me before the divorce.”
Names are often cloaked in emotion. Like silk sheets, the softest and sweetest
names can enrapture two lovers. They can signal the beginning and end of marital
strife. A friend of mine recounts how “…usually my husband calls me Marty,
until he gets mad. Then I’m Martha to him. When he calls me Mar, I know the
fight is over.”
Sour names, too, can stick to the ego, as most school children discover. Not so much the generic labels
like “fatty” or “four-eyes,” but personal epithets like “Fitch the Bitch”
or “Belly Kelly.” Some adults remember the effectiveness of such branding
and use it whenever they get into a war of words. In the 1970s and 1980s war
veterans were upset with Jane Fonda’s
visit to North Viet Nam and so nicknamed her “Hanoi Jane.” When the actress planned to
film her new movie “Stanley & Iris” in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1987, the local veterans showed their
hatred with bumper stickers that read “I’M
NOT FONDA HANOI JANE!” A street philosopher once said, “Sticks and stones may break your bones,
but names can really hurt you.”
The power of names to carry love and hate, to evoke pride and pity is real enough. Some people even believe
they affect personalities and have developed theories to explain how, such as the Price-Stern
Theory of Names. There is the Garwood’s Desirable Name
Theory which is supposed to correlates names with success, and the Loyola Criminal Name Discovery
which supposedly predicts criminality. If you want to correlate names with neurosis, try the
Alphabetic Neurosis Theory. Of course all these theories are ridiculous—as my Theory of Name Theories postulates.
In spite of all this attention to human names, the fact is they are, like all names, only mental
handles. Those strings of symbols and sounds may point at us but they simply cannot stand in for
the essence of our character—for our reputation. This detached and unsentimental approach to
names is not new. It is reflected in the thinking of such rationalists as
Bertrand Russell and
John Stuart Mill.
“A proper name is but an unmeaning mark which we connect in our minds with the idea of the object,” wrote Mill.
A name is just one of the things that has happened to you, like being born
a twin, or not finishing college, or getting a tattoo with “mother” misspelled.
Only if you are obsessed with an event will it rule your life. If you believe
is a silly name, that may stop you from becoming a movie star. With a family name of
Mudd you may not believe you could
become a TV commentator. The fact is you are not your name—not any of them, and they
do not shape your destiny unless you let them.
Do you have change for a name?
For one thing, a good many people have changed their names willingly, without
fear of losing their identity—some more than once. Count among these people
the innumerable immigrants who Americanized their names for convenience and
patriotism. Piotrowski became Peters; Kabotchnik changed to Cabot; Pfoershing
scrubbed into Pershing; and Johanson, Johannsen, Jonsson, and dozens of other
patronymics of John became Johnson. And even if the new citizens kept their
foreign-sounding surnames, many of their children and grandchildren did not.
Wegrzynowicz Grocery Store
Such was the case with the only grandsons of Pawel and Wadyslwa Wegrzynowicz,
Polish immigrants to America at the beginning of the twentieth century. I don’t
remember when I first became aware of the fact that I had an unusually long surname. But I do
recall those first days of class in elementary school, the teacher calling out the children’s
names, stepping down the alphabet, “Paul Ryder, Charles Schell, Susan Trumbull
…” and finally coming to the w’s, and stumbling with “James Weg…
Veg zzrr…Wee chzz…,” then me rescuing her from her painful pronunciations
with “veng’-zji-no’-vitch,” and everybody looking at me—the kid with
the weird name. The sounds that had begun as the simple appellation meaning “son of
the Hungarian” in eastern Europe was now a tortuous mouthful of foreign syllables
in the melting pot of the world.
My father must have tired of the same annoyances, for he invented the cognomen
Ted Wegryn as a convenient alias for Thaddeus Wegrzynowicz. When it came to
subscriptions, registrations, or casual introductions, or when we were traveling
on vacation, we were all Wegryns. Yet at family weddings and funerals we were
still Wegrzynowiczs. So at the age of 21, impatient with my signature, tired
of its oddity, bored with the kidding, I shortened a perfectly good Polish
name from 12 to 6 letters. My two brothers did the same. Yet my father had
to wait until his mother and father died before he felt comfortable in making
his short alias legal.
We did not dislike the old name—it was just too long. But changing it was
more exhilarating than we had expected. And none of us thought we had lost
something of our personal identities. Still we are proud of and enjoy our
cultural heritage, and we share a fondness for our former name as one would
for a childhood home. And yes, it seems smaller than I remembered.
Of course changing one’s name for convenience is not a new practice. In
the late 18th century, for example, the Scotsman, John Paul, tried to hide his identity
by becoming John Jones; this after killing two men in a mutiny attempt. Later
he retook his old surname as a middle name to become
John Paul Jones.
Then there was the son of a Huguenot immigrant known in Boston for his skill in making
teapots, false teeth, surgical instruments and copper plates. A legend of the American
Revolution, he did not gain fame as one of those dressed as an Indian during
the Boston Tea Party or as the chief messenger of the town’s Committee of
Safety, but rather for his ride to Concord and Lexington warning of the British
advances. Born Apollos Rivoire, he changed his name to
Revere because “… the bumpkins pronounced it easier.”
The tenuous link between identity and name can be seen best in the entertainment
field. Before the 1960s, most actors took new names invented by the studios
because people thought designed names promoted image. So, for example, Doris
von Kappelhoff became Doris Day
and Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis. For
some celebrities their name changes hardly seemed compelling by today’s experience as when Vivien
Hartley became Vivien Leigh and Harriet Lake
became Ann Sothern and Thomas Woodward became
Tom Jones. But who can blame Walter Matuschanskavasky
for changing his name to Walter Matthau?
Times have changed, though, and today an actor is more likely to keep his
or her original name, like John Travolta
or Harrison Ford, or
who believes that “since it takes a long time to remember, then it will take
a long time to forget.” Still there are those like Demetria Guynes, now known
as Demi Moore, and Margaret Hyra, now
Meg Ryan, who continue the Hollywood
tradition. On the other hand Tracy Marrow pushed the tradition to non-tradition
when he became Ice-T.
One of the best examples of a celebrity with no loyalty to a name is found
with an actress born Edna Rae Gilhooly. As a young model she became simply
Edna Rae, then as a dancer, Kerri Flynn. For her first screen test she called
herself Erica Dean. When she got her first role in a movie she was Ellen McRae.
Over the years she would go through 25 names until she married and became
finally Ellen Burstyn. Why did she make so many
changes? Because, she said in a TV interview, she was always trying to erase her past, and she was never
happy with her choices. I’ll bet the post office wasn’t very happy either.
The reverse was true for Tommy Wilson, a young Princeton lad who was trying
to find his future. He did not change his name so much as play with the pieces
until the cognomen sounded right. At first he ignored his middle name, a gift
from his mother’s family. But when he entered public life he became Thomas
W. Wilson, then T. Woodrow Wilson, and finally as president of the United
States just Woodrow Wilson.
(See U.S. Presidents.)
Changes can be major or minor—there are no rules. An aspiring actor changed
an “e” to and “a” in her first name and became
Henry Warren Beaty
added a “t” to the last name and threw away the first name. Meanwhile,
his sister Shirley Maclean
Beaty revised her middle name to MacLaine and threw
away the last name. Some changed only their last names, like singer Bernadette
Lazzara who became Peters
and actor Winona Horowitz who is now Ryder.
Some throw away their middle names, like Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives to become
Burl Ives, and some change their first name like
Barbara Streisand to become Barbra.
Susan Weaver took Sigourney
from a character in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Some
just dropped the surname as did Tom Cruise Mapother,
while others made their first name their last as Love Michelle Harrison did when
she became Courtney Love.
For some a mere initial is a big deal
as when Michael A. Fox changed
the A to a J because he did not want to see “Michael, A. Fox” in the headlines.
as Jay Silverheels
Some stars had very practical reasons for changing their names, like the
aspiring actor named Albert Einstein who wisely chose to became
Or the young actor born James Stewart, who took the name of
because someone had already claimed fame with his original cognomen. Harold
J. Smith thought he would do better with a name that fit his heritage, so
became Jay Silverheels
and eventually captured the TV role of Tonto, Indian sidekick to the Lone Ranger.
The Irish dramatist and poet, Oscar Wilde,
did not so much change his name as shed it. “I started as Oscar Fingal
O’Flahertie Wills Wilde,” he said. “All but two of the five names have
already been thrown overboard. Soon I shall discard another and be known simply
as ’the Wilde’ or ’the Oscar.’”
There are those who change their names to hide who they were or are, as did
many Jews before World War II. In America, the immigrant Jews found it pragmatic
in a bigoted society to have gentile sounding names, so, for example, Mendel
Garfinkel became Hemingway Garfield while Irving Shoenberg became John Belmont.
A restaurateur born Jacob Rubenstein became the infamous
Jack Ruby. The adoption
of surnames like Green, Harris and Ross was so prevalent among Jews that the
once Christian sounding names became identified as Jewish names.
There is an old story about a clothier named Goldstein whose business in
an Irish neighborhood was not doing well. He decided to change his name to O’Malley.
The judge asked him why and he replied, “It’ll be good for business.”
Six months later he was back in court wanting to change his name from O’Malley
to Dooley. Again the judge asked why. “Because people keep asking me what
my name was before I changed it,” he replied.
It is not only Jews who take aliases to escape prejudice. During the prohibition
era, a federal agent based in Homer, Nebraska known as Richard J. Hart worked
to improve the lives of the American Indians there. His heroic efforts to
keep the moonshiners from supplying their illegal brews to tribe members gained
him the nickname “Two Gun” and almost as much publicity as his brother in
Chicago. All through the 1920s, no one knew that “Two Gun” Hart had fled
the crowded streets of Brooklyn and the stereotype of his Italian heritage.
Born James Vincenzo Capone,
this crusader against alcohol not only hid his nationality, but also his
link to the kingpin of illicit booze, his younger brother Alphonso Capone also known as
Some people change their names like a pair of shoes. In the 1970s,
when the rage was sit-ins and love-ins and nature, the actress
(born Barbara Lynn Herzstein) became Barbara Seagull. Then when the “ins” were
out, she became a Hershey once again. One established actor known as Joseph
Lane became so fond of a character he played in
Guys and Dolls that he changed
his first name to become Nathan
Lane. In the movie Fargo,
a joke is told about a guy who could not afford a personalized plate, so he changed his name to J3L2404.
nee Linda Rose Myers,
becomes Linda Rose Wegryn
Of all the reasons for changing one’s name, ritual takes the cake—the
wedding cake, that is. Around the world, it is most common for a woman to give up
allegiance to her “nee” name to take on her husband’s legal label. In the
countries where she has a choice about it, she does it anyway. Why? Ostensibly
out of respect for tradition. For example, a cute young lady born Linda Rose Myers, became a wife called
Linda Rose Fockler. Then she divorced, and few years later made me a lucky guy and became Linda Rose Wegryn.
When asked about these name changes, she offers that the act itself, apart from the marriage, suggests a
woman is free of her childhood. It is not an identity change, but rather a
role change. It is as much about the “Mrs.” as whatever follows, she says.
(I’m hoping she is not planning on a gravestone over an unused plot like Ms. Manchester.)
For a woman who does the “I do” thing more than once, the name changes are
simply signposts in the peaks and valleys of life. One of my daughters was
born Fockler, became Wegryn by adoption in childhood, married to become a
Ruiz, divorced and remarried as a Tanner, and divorced again. Here is a woman
who could have, at this point in life, taken any name in the world or invented
an utterly new one. But to her, the importance of a surname was lost in childhood
and her search for identity was not about playing name games. So, rejecting
my suggestion of Wegrzynowicz, she settled for Ruiz because “…it seemed the
Me, myself and the masked rider
Some of us have either unusual surnames, like
Renee Zellweger, rare first
names, like Uma Thurman,
or full cognomens that are quite distinctive, like
or Barack Obama.
For us, our ears perk up if we hear anything approximating
those sounds. Yet for so many others, it is not as easy to confuse name and
self. Sons who are christened with their fathers’ names must find their identity
in the “Jr.” appendage. Privileged sons must find it in some Roman numerals
as did Henry Ford II
(Also known as “The Deuce”) and Henry Ford III. But cloning
a cognomen, then trying to distinguish it, is a male thing—unless you are
a queen of England.
Those with weak names, like Jim Johnson, learn to live with a label that
may pop up anywhere. For example, in 1996 while reading the sports headlines,
it never occurred to my friend Jim Johnson, he might be the one named head
coach of the Miami Dolphins. In fact only after I pointed it out to him did
he realize he shared the new coach’s name. He had become numb to the rat-a-tat
of Johnsons in the our culture. He and other Johnsons I have talked to admit
to having no more interest in their surname than their first name. I recommend
they change their name to Johnsonowicz.
Move cursor here and see
how Wonder Woman turns
into Diana Prince.
In the Amish communities of America, unique names are practically nonexistent.
Among the 144,000 Amish in the 1990s there were exactly 126 family names.
In Lancaster County Pennsylvania, 25% of the people had a surname of Stoltzfus,
and in Holmes County in Ohio 27% were Miller. Even first names are chosen
from a small list of traditional names. With so few first and last names,
the Amish people rely heavily on pronunciation differences to distinguish
people with the same name. Nicknaming is also prevalent, often arising from
a person’s actions or traits, as with Strong Jacob Yoder, Chicken Elam, and
Huddle Jake. One fellow accidentally poured gravy instead of cream in his
coffee and became Gravy Dan.
Another way to see the weak connection between identity and name is through
the heroes of fiction. The character of the
Lone Ranger is a hero because
of his Samaritan deeds and his crusade against evil and no one but his loyal
Indian friend Tonto knows the real identity of the masked man. Yet a Texas
Ranger once known as John Reid, sole survivor of an ambush on his scouting
company, can claim credit for the same deeds.
This theme of dual identities and anonymity can be found in several
modern day myths including the adventures of Zorro,
Wonder Woman, the
and other comic book heroes listed in the table Masked
Hero Names. For varying reasons, each of these characters
chooses to duck in and out of his or her invincible role rather than adopt it permanently.
What matters more is how this notion of masked identity intrigues us. Some
would say that the story line sells because we want uncommon heroes with powers
we only dream of, that like the Greeks and Romans we must have our gods too,
even if belief in them sprouts only in the entertainment of our imagination.
However, it is possible the real appeal of these dual-identity heroes is
something else. Like Harrison Ford
or Jim Johnson, we all have had several roles to play and each of these roles may have a name,
like Han Solo or
or Mr. Johnson or Dad. As we watch the Lone Ranger or
The Phantom mete
out justice we have an opportunity to imagine ourselves in yet another role.
And since nobody is supposed to know who the masked one is, it is easy to
believe for the moment it could be us.
There is no inherent magic in personal names; they are merely labels. They
are not a requirement for our existence. Linguist Ernst
Pulgram said, “If a man were to move in perennial darkness, he would have no shadow, and if
he were content to dwell in solitude, he would need no name.” Yet we make
a big deal out of names, even when we come upon an insignificant oddity, as
when a Mr. Robert Black headed the
White Motor Co. from 1935-1965. There are thousands of curious names in our society, some referred to
as aptonyms, such as the barber John Razor, or Mr. and Mrs. Easterday who had a child on
Easter Sunday, or a detective called Luke Warm, or a judge named William Justice
or Janelle Lawless.
How about a golf match between Tiger Woods
and Jeremy Irons?
aka Muhammad Ali
These cases are amusing, but not mystical. Yet people are naturally inclined
to attach emotion to names. Why? Because these magical labels are so prone
to be linked with emotion, ego and pride. They get colored by associations
with good and bad things. They carry meaning even if the meaning is misunderstood.
I remember as a child being afraid to speak the name Jesus because the sounds seemed as holy
and inviolate as the man it stood for. I was appalled when I heard for the first time a
baseball announcer introduce a Cuban pinch hitter with that holy name. But it was
a natural reaction because we all are inclined to link the symbol to the real thing. Why else a
commandment that forbids the taking of the name of the Lord in vain? But links between name and object
can grow weaker through overuse. See how different things are today as we hear even the religious
zealot utter “jezus kreist” with no thought at all of the man from Nazareth.
A black fighter with lightning fists decided to discard his classic Roman and English
name for one he thought embodied the Islamic religion to which he had converted.
So Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali apparently not
knowing or caring that the name was owned previously by an
who became a Turkish officer in the Ottoman army and who in 1805
became a slave-owning pasha of Egypt. But so what? The boxer’s fame
brought new respect to an old label. What the new Ali did not realize
was the original Cassius Clay
was a conscientious Kentucky gentleman who in 1844 spent some $100,000 to buy the freedom of his slaves
and their family members. And in 1851, the devout abolitionist ran
and lost as a candidate of the “Emancipation Party.”
With emotion embedded in names, there is a psychology to exploit. Back in
1911 an actor named William Henry Pratt enjoyed playing monsters and maniacs.
So to cast a foreboding shadow on his characters, he took advantage of the
xenophobia of the era and took the stage name of
Boris Karloff, a sinister
name from the dark end of Europe. Translated, Karloff becomes “son of Charles,”
not a particularly frightening epithet.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
In the 1890s, a young Hungarian born Erik Weisz, whom the United States Immigration
Office renamed Ehrich Weiss, wanted a more magical name. Having tried “Eric
the Great” for awhile, he looked to an earlier renowned magician, Jean-Eugene
Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic, and became
Even people with little attachment to their own personal names (perhaps because
they are a Johnson, or they are on their fifth married name) can get emotional
over someone else’s name. Witness the millions of visitors at the
Veterans Memorial who well up with emotion at the sight of the names of loved
ones. Often the visitor will rub a pencil over paper upon the chiseled name,
and that graphite blur of a granite impression of a label of a body thought
by that person to have been killed in a war, that very distant and tenuous
link between the two human souls can be electric.
The name is the link—or rather, a name is the link. Any one of the James
Johnsons on that memorial wall would serve as the memory trigger for all the
Mrs. Johnsons who had lost a son or husband named James in the war. But it does not
even have to be any name at all. I am reminded of the story of two veterans visiting the
Tomb of the Unkown Soldier.
One of the vets muses, “I wonder who the fallen comrade was?” The other responds,
“I don’t know, but I’ll bet his mother is proud of him.”
Hi, I’m the mother of your children
Earlier I quoted Cornford, “The name of a thing is its soul.” Yet from all
this anecdotal evidence it appears that names are not the soul of a person,
and not the heart either—not even the skin. A better metaphor would liken
names to clothes. We wear them according to the occasion. In a tuxedo, I am “Mr.
James Wegryn.” In a business suit, I am “Jim Wegryn.” In jeans and
T shirt, just “Jim.” In pajamas, I am “Tiger.”
A more fitting comparison is to equate names to roles. Imagine that each
of the names people call us represents a character we play in that drama we
call our life. In essence, your names are the labels of your roles in life.
The table Roles and Names
shows how Jim Johnson’s many names might work with his many roles.
Dad, of course, is a generic label, but still it is a name people call other
people. In addition to the pervasive Mom, Bro, Honey, etc., there are other
generic labels we all live with—like Current Occupant. You may not think it
is a name but it does appear on envelopes where one of your other names usually
appears. The Michigan State Legislature once received a letter addressed to
“Michigan Senate or Current Occupant.” How is that for personalized attention?
If you think about it all your labels are kind of like “Current Occupant.”
They are just pointers at you, and sometimes they miss their mark. So when
asked, “Who are you?” would it not be more enlightening, more interesting,
to respond with those things that make you uniquely you? When I asked who
he was, instead of “Jim Johnson,” the man at the party could have chosen to
say, “I’m the man who lives at 555 Leapfrog Lane, husband to that lady over
there and owner of a three legged Welsh terrier. I’m the man who invented
plastic bag twists, and the one who anonymously tipped off the police about the
mafia’s infiltration of the Blue Beaver Lodge. You may call me Jim Johnson.”
But he did not because, like the rest of us, he incorrectly thought his label
was a short cut to who he was, as if his essence were published somewhere
under the heading “Jim Johnson” for all to look up.
When an insurance salesman came to my door one day, he did not introduce
himself by telling me a name which was bound to be insignificant to me. Instead he
said, “Hi, I’m the guy who is going to save you a lot of money.” And
he did save me a lot of money because I did not buy a thing from him. But still,
in the few seconds he had on my front porch, he told me something about himself
and his relationship to me. Yes, I admit I will need to know his name if I
ever change my mind and call his home office. I could hardly ask for “the
guy who is going to save me a lot of money.”
Of course, if you can describe who you are with some rhetorical consistency,
that informative blurb can become a kind of lengthy name. In essence your
name becomes your biography. Such a notion was depicted by
J. R. R. Tolkien
in his Lord of
the Rings trilogy. An Ent, one of his many strange beings,
“I’ll call you Merry and Pippin,
if you please—nice names. For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any
rate. For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time,
and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names
tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish
as you might say.”
Lewis Carroll expresses a similar idea in
Alice In Wonderland".
“Don’t stand chattering to yourself like that,”
Humpty Dumpty said, looking at her for the first time, “but tell me your name and your business.”
“My name is Alice, but—”
“It’s a stupid name enough!” Humpty Dumpty
interrupted impatiently. “What does it mean?”
“Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.
“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh. “My name
means the shape I am and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might
be any shape, almost.”
We do this in our own culture to a small extent, tagging individuals with a
descriptive phrase, like “Father of Our Country” or
“Wrong Way Corrigan.” We
do not remember John Chapman except as Johnny Appleseed.
Among the England royalty we can tell a lot about a man by his full title.
is not just Charles Philip Arthur George but he is also His Royal Highness the Prince of
Wales, Duke of Cornwall and Rothesay, Earl of Chester and Carrick, Baron of
Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland. Isn’t that much more
informative than just plain Chuck?
Fiction writers try to instill something of their character in the names they give them.
If the characters are Germanic/English in heritage, their names can be created from a
variety of stem words or sounds. For example, in the stories of
we find characters named Honoria Dedlock, Harold Skimpole, and Josiah Tulkinghorn.
Jane Austen has Marianne Dashwood, Caroline Bingley, and Henrietta Musgrove.
(See Fictional Character Name Generator.)
These appellations may not be commonly or conveniently used, but they are
a lot more revealing, memorable, and stronger than the random labels we glorify
as our names. How exciting it would be to meet a woman who introduced herself
as the “face that launched a thousand ships” or even “the mother of your future
Leonardo da Vinci
In spite of all the peculiar and common names in our society, we must realize
that nearly everyone, regardless of cultural origin, arose as an appellation
that had some purpose. It is lost to us that a name began as a description
of a person, his or her stature, occupation or place of origin, like
from the town of Vinci. We have forgotten the focus of these symbols and sounds.
Wainwright, now nothing more than a label applied to people, schools, and
streets, was at least once many years ago an appropriate appellation for the
chap who made wagons. Likewise, a word like Kellogg with its vast commercial
and public meanings, began as the long forgotten appellation for “the one
who slaughters hogs.” Think about that next time you have some
With the meanings of most surnames now lost to the world of trivia, we are tempted to see the
natives of the American continent as the masters of quaint appellations. We marvel at names like
Crazy Horse, and
Hawk That Hunts Walking.
We are entertained by a myth that natives of North America somehow represent bareback horses,
feathers, beads, pottery, and all that is good in nature—and that their names, too, are all natural.
(See American Indian Name Generator.)
Such a notion gives rise to humorous stories. For example, a young American Indian boy asked his
father, “Why did you name my sister Running Deer?” The old man replied, “Because
when your mother gave birth to your sister she looked out the teepee and saw
a deer running across the meadow.” The lad pondered, then asked, “And why
did you name my brother Soaring Eagle?” The old man nodded at his recollection.
“At the very moment your brother came into the world, your mother looked up
and there in the sky was a magnificent eagle.” The old Indian looked at his
son and asked, “Why do you ask these questions, Shitting Bull?”
We may have fun with American Indian names but the only difference between
those delightful translations of native names and those from the Old World
are the spaces between the words. Could we become accustom to the likes of
Good Man, Young Blood, Drink Water, or even John’s Son?
Certainly we are not our name. However, we are not our appellations either—because,
as we have seen, appellations can and do become names. We are, rather, our
past, present and future—our experiences, attitudes, and aspirations—our deeds,
beliefs, and dreams. We are the memories in other people’s minds. To be sure,
people may employ any one of the many names each of us answers to as a shortcut
to those memories, but that name is not what they see in their heads. That
self-sacred symbol of one’s ego is just a trigger for the real stuff, the
feelings, smells and thoughts, the pictures in other brains.
So when someone asks, “Who are you,” don’t tell them “Bud Baker,”
or “Larry Watterworth,” or even your legal name. Tell them who you really are, and
if they stick around, then tell them your human label. And when you die and they
chisel your tombstone, make the engravers work a little bit. Have them describe
those things you did, the things you were proud of, the things that were uniquely
you—your essence. Then, maybe some day, after all the memories of you are
gone and your name exists only on unread pages, someone will trip upon that
stone, read who you were, bring you back to life for just a moment, and say,
“Glad to know you.”