That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
No doubt, Juliet’s got a point there. Content matters over labelling. But isn’t there a reason why we call a rose “rose” and not “quackdridge”? Afterall, we might, the second word is perfectly pronouncable by any rules of English phonetics. Analogously, why are we called the way we are called? Could names not simply be random in so far as only content really matters?
People that don’t like their names can more than less easily change them in the US. Others simply just go by their middle names as that’s what they prefer. Many artists adopt one or more stage names. Lovers, close friends and family use pet names to address each other. Nuns and monks generally pick a new name when joining an order. Couples to be wed usually agree on one common last name that either partner will have to adopt. In this web 2.0 era, screennames have become a thing so common that nobody below their fifties seems surprised by the idea that somebody might use a different name online than in non-virtual life.
Doesn’t this clearly show how random names actually are?
I’d say, “Not quite”, as people generally want a name that reflects them and their personality. We choose pet names for those we like to create an atmosphere of closeness. By deciding on a common last name, couples signify taking the step of forming a unity as a family. Screennames are a good way of portraying who you are and what you want to be perceived as without giving up your privacy. In my case, I made using a pseudonym a condition to start blogging for Jewlicious even though a handful of fellow bloggers and three select readers know my real name. There usually are good reasons why we choose or drop a name, so naming isn’t quite as random as it may seem at first glance.
Judaism is all about naming. A newborn receives its name on the eighth day (which, as I figured, is because so that grandmothers have got enough time to threaten to disown the child should it get a certain name grandma considers inappropriate). On the eighth day, Adam & Eve were permitted to name things in their environment according to the biblical legend. That same legend tells us that God Himself named night and day. Genesis also tells us the story of how, by God’s request, Abram and Sarai changed their names. Many rabbis have desperately and unconvincingly tried to explain the use of different names in the Jahwist and Elohist portions of the Torah for the same person or object in response to critical exegesis that had figured out different literary traditions throughout the text. Converts are expected to take on a new, “Jewish” name. Jewish people with non-Jewish names usually have got an additional Hebrew one. Often people are singled out as Ashkenazi Jews based on their last name, which in most cases in the US are plain German, Yugoslvian, Polish and Russian last names that mostly got traded on through the paternal line as was the law in many European states until not too long ago, so those names tell us next to nothing about religious adherence and geneaology. [Just a sidenote: last names that refer to skilled crafts, e.g. “Zimmermann”, are not typically Jewish. At the time Jews were forced to adopt last names, they were not permitted to join guilds, which was a prerequisite for pursuing and making money out of a sklled craft.] Cohanim in Ashkenaz would not uncommonly change their names in punny ways, e.g. the German “Kahn” is a cargo ship, so names regarding ships, water creatures and water activities were a popular way among Cohanim of the Middle Ages to disguise their last names while still remaining distinguishably of Jewish priestal descendance to their peers. Naming a child after a living relative can be a reason for a heart attack – out of shock or out of joy, depending on whether one’s Ashkenazi or Sephardi.
So, indeed, we ascribe a lot of importance to names and naming. And this is not only just the case among Jewish people, but among non-Jewish folks as well.
In that context, I cannot help but wonder why many people seem to put such little thought into naming their children. Often enough I see birth announcements in newspapers that make me wonder how much parents must hate a child to torture them with names “creative” enough to make their children instant subjects to playground bullying. Mind you, I definitely don’t oppose the use of foreign names, particularly given my love of foreign languages, but people should beware of names they cannot properly a) pronounce, b) spell, c) explain.
Category a) includes any name of foreign origin, particularly French names seem to evoke the love of those whose French vocabulary consists out of “baguette”, “fromage”, and “Voulez vous…?”. The funniest example that was brought to my attention the other day by a friend of mine was that of “Ãœvez”. She’d been talking to a mother of a new student who kept referring to her son as “Ãœvez”. My friend commented that this was rather an uncommon name and asked the mother to write it down for her. The mother complied: YVES.
This suggestion also pertains to speech impediments. Lest anybody starts whining, everybody’s got some kind of a speech impediment. Nobody possesses perfect speech. Have you ever tried to speak a Bantu language? Noticed how the tongue stays flat when pronouncing the “L” in English while the tip of the tongue arches back when pronouncing the “L” in most Continental European languages? See? Unless you are into teaching languages, a little accent isn’t bad; often enough accents are somewhat adorable. If one’s affected by a speech impediment that will drastically impact the pronunciation of the name of one’s child though, one might want to reconsider the choice of name. For instance, when my little brother was born (still enjoy calling him that, though he’s about two metres tall and 25 years old), there was a woman at that hospital who gave birth to a boy she called “Lutz”, a variant of “Ludwig”. Now, that woman had a severe speech impediment that would turn any /s/ into a /sh/. So whenever she said her baby’s name, “Lutz” turned into “Lutsch”. “Lutsch” means “suck!” in German.
As for category b), spelling is not such a tricky issue. Bookstores sell gazillions of books aiming at helping parents with finding names for their offspring. If somebody doesn’t want to spare the money, there also are websites where one can look up not only the spelling but also different variants of the desired name in different languages. Not only me but also others of my profession have often found it a great source of embarrassment for students when the suspected typo in the class list turned out to be the incorrect spelling parents had chosen.
The third category, the meaning of names, can be an extremely important one to consider to protect your prospective child from being teased by its peers. Many of you have probably shuckled at the random celebrity that would name their child a Hebrew name used for the opposite sex. So, if you enjoy the sound of a name, make sure it’s the right gender – don’t just rely on that a suffix would denote masculine respectively feminine grammatical gender because the same or a similar suffix does in your mother tongue.
Also, you might want to look up the meaning of names. “Perdita”, for instance, means “the lost one”. “Vanessa” hasn’t got any meaning. “(Alek)Sandra” literally doesn’t only mean “guard” but “the one fighting off men”. “Cora”, while meaning “heart”, is etymologically related to “whore” even.
In addition, certain names bear social stigmata in certain cultures. In Germany, those would be (not exclusively): Kevin, Justin, Leon, Jean (French pronunciation), Mandy, Sandy, Cindy, Jacqueline, Peggy, Doreen, Jeanette etc.
So, why am I writing all this? The reasons are pretty simple: I’ve seen more than one student suffer or having suffered from parental creativity when it comes to first and middle names. Naming people and objects is an important aspect of Judaism. Blend the two, and the quintessence is responsibility.
I’m aware this post will likely not stop anybody from using their children’s names as a creative outlet, but please take it from someone who works with those on the receiving end of such inventiveness, I’d rather you took up macrame.