Friday, May 22, 2020

What's In A Name?

I've been intending all year to write more about the Magic Language course I taught this year, but in the midst of an extraordinarily crazy semester, survival was the name of the game. Now that the class is officially over (and I can officially say it was the single greatest teaching experience of my life), I'm hoping to write a little bit more about it here. In our first unit, we read A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, a fantasy book where the magic system revolves heavily around knowing the "true name" of people and objects. We spent a lot of time discussing how language works, if there is any connection between a word and the thing it names, and the power names hold in our society. I assigned my students a creative essay to write about their relationship with their own name, and I must say, I've never had more fun grading an assignment, because the essays I got were AMAZING. Some of my students loved their names, others hated them, some had even officially changed their names, and it was fascinating to read about. Every essay was deeply profound, and since reading them, I've been stewing all semester about what I would've written about my own name. As soon as I submitted final grades, this is the first thing I decided to do with my time. Below is my own name essay. I hope you enjoy.


“What’s in a name?” asks Juliet to the night sky. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as a sweet.” She has a point. What is a name, but a conventional piece of language, a collection of arbitrary sounds attached to us at birth. Names are just words, words just puffs of air. They mean nothing but what we ascribe them to mean. Why does it matter, what we are called, or that we are called anything at all? While some of us are eccentric enough to slip in and out of names and identities throughout life, the vast majority of us are saddled with a moniker at birth, officially to be changed only through a fee and court order. We do not choose our names, mostly. Our parents choose for us, but what do our parents know of us to pick good names? Just scrunchy blobs of newborn flesh, how are parents supposed to pick the perfect sounds to identify us?

Socrates and Cratylus debated the question of whether there were “true names,” sounds and syllables that represented and connected to a person’s true “essence,” a word that described them so perfectly that to know a person’s name was to know the person truly. They, along with the modern branch of linguistics, eventually decided this could not be how language works, and of course it is not. Words are not intrinsically connected to the things they signify. The names given us at birth are less like skin, attached to our being, and more like clothes, artificial additions. And like clothes, some names fit like gloves, others fit like baggy sweaters. Unlike clothes, names cannot be changed so easily, and sometimes the infant who snuggled in the warmth of their childish name must grow into the adult constricted by the too-tight fabric. If only names could be shed as easily as clothes, or shed entirely. What’s in a name, really? Perhaps it is a relief to some, knowing that their name, and whatever conventional baggage comes with it, is not actually a part of who they are. Names are signs, not realities of identity.

And yet, the first act of brutality the Nazi’s inflicted on inmates of those infamous concentration camps was to strip them of their names. In place, inmates were given numbers tattooed into their very flesh. There is a reasonable logic to this. Numbers are markers of identity too. Numbers can be even more individual than names; there can be an infinite amount of numbers without ever repeating, whereas one class of twenty kindergartners can have two Johns or three Marys. But reasonable logic doesn’t negate the fact that a number instead of a name is dehumanizing. Even de-biologizing. We name every living thing—the family pet, the flowers in the garden, even the algae scum on the surface of a puddle in some squalid bog gets a name (chlorella, what a beautiful name at that). To take away a person’s name and replace it with a number is not just to deny their humanity, it is to class them with the inorganic commodities bought and sold by bar code identification. Some things may be identified by number, but living souls need a name.

However arbitrary or ill-fitting our names may be, like all of language, names have power and significance because we believe in their power and significance. Our magic stories, fantastical semiotic reflections of how we imagine the real world could work, are rife with names of power: names that can summon demons, names that can control the wind or call a storm, names so evocative of dreadful evil that they must not be named. Names can be so sacred we don’t use them at all, but instead use honorific titles. While we can talk all we want about sticks and stones and words not hurting, it just isn’t true. Words matter, and the most significant words we have are the ones that have the power to identify us. To name us. We crave to be known by our names. To be called by our names. In the few instances of scripture we have where God the Father has spoken to man, he has called them by name: Adam, Moses, Joseph. To be called by name is to be known, or at least, acknowledged, a type of knowing.

Perhaps that is why I went through such a period of mourning when I changed my last name after marriage. I’d disparaged my maiden name while growing up. Smith. Could there be a more common, more unimaginative, more bland name in existence? My shallowest fear in life was to become a teacher before I got married and have to listen to my students call me “Miss Smith.” And yet, and yet! That name had been my identity for twenty-one years. That name tied me to the only family I’d known, to my father, and to his father before him, and his father before him. It was a name rich in legacy, a name of prophets and presidents. Though my lineage did not change with marriage, I still felt a severing, a wondering if I could claim my noble ancestors now I didn’t share their name. Would my children feel the same connection to that heritage if they never bore the name Smith? It felt like losing a part of myself, and I mourned that loss.

I considered keeping my last name (and confession, I did keep it as a middle name, but the strange place and powerlessness of middle names in our society is a topic for a different essay). However, if I had to go back and do it again I would still change my name, because I recognize how my new last name represents the new family unit I have built. It connects me deeply to my husband and my children. Tanner (a name, I might add, barely one syllable more interesting than Smith if no less common and unimaginative) is the name that unifies and identifies us as a family. It’s a powerful thing, to share this common family name. It binds us together. I wish the burden of losing and changing names and identities didn’t fall so heavily upon women in our culture, didn’t reinforce so much the paternal connection. I wish my name represented all the lost maiden names from my maternal line, the Nortons, the Prices, the Warrs… but hyphenated names are an in-elegant solution. The only perfect situation happened to my Grandma Donna Smith, who married her third cousin once removed, my Grandpa Mitt Smith, and never had to change a thing. Of course, we can’t all have looping family trees like that, or the species would be in danger.

The significance of last names, the connection to family, define people in a very specific way, but first names are another matter. If Socrates’ “true names” exist, names that define the true essence of who we are, we would expect to find them in the first name. But if first names actually reveal anything about anyone, it is more about the parents giving the name than the child receiving it. Did my mother have any clue that the name “Suzanne” was a French version of the Hebrew word for “lily”? Did she believe that flower possessed any essential connection to the babe in her womb? No. My mother gave me my name for the entirely unromantic reason that my due date was originally on the birthday of her favorite college roommate, who happened to be named Suzanne. Of course, then I actually came two weeks late, so the date was irrelevant, and I’ve never in my life met my namesake, which generally makes me question how strong their friendship actually was (if you name your child after someone, don’t you think they’d be an important enough person in your life to actually meet up with occasionally, and introduce said child to?). So for all intents and purposes, I consider my mother’s choice of my name to be arbitrary. Practically meaningless.

And yet, and yet… When I stumbled across the etymology of my name in a baby book years later, I felt a spark of recognition. I felt the clothing of my name, at times in my past too tight or too baggy, to slide in comfortably around my skin. I had loved calla lilies since I was little—pure and white, graceful curves, long and elegant. They were the flowers in my wedding bouquet. And French had been my minor in college. I did a study abroad in Paris. Now here was my name Suzanne, literally meaning French lily. Fleur-de-lys. Could a name be more perfect for me? Was it a true name? Or was it coincidence? Did my name, with the power of some unbelieved magic, shape me? Predict me? Guide me to become the essence it defined? Or was it just luck, me forging connections to an arbitrary collection of sounds randomly assigned to me by chance? Is that what all people must do who love their names? Find the connection, build the identity, create the definition they want?



I decided I wanted to name my first daughter Lily, as a way of naming her after myself without giving her the name Suzanne. Maybe that’s a selfish thing to do? But how could I give her a more significant and meaningful name? How else are parents supposed to choose names for their children? How else other than chance, whim, liking the sound of the syllables, the way it will look on some future theoretical resume, the connection to some long-dead ancestor or some beloved celebrity, trying to conform, trying to be unique, naming her after my favorite flower, myself? How else to pick the single crucial defining symbol for a being who exists more in potential than in experience? And, like all the other baggage parents pass along, children must do their best to get along under the weight (or weightlessness) of the name handed to them.

I had so many images in my mind of what this daughter would look like, how we would go see the ballet together every year, how she would let me curl her hair and we would wear matching dresses, how someday we would go to Paris together, and how her favorite flowers would be lilies too, simply because of her name, and the connection it would give the two of us. Three years ago, I gave birth to that daughter I’d been dreaming about, and I named her Lily. And she grew up to be nothing like I imagined.


She is a force. Though she be but little, she is fierce. She is strong and opinionated and stomps around our house in her favorite pair of boots. She is passion and bursts of emotion and has a flair for the dramatic. She looks nothing like me (she is 100% her father’s child), and loves wearing princess dresses but only over pants. She won’t let me touch her hair, so she runs around with wild stringy curls, little more than bedhead. She will likely never take a day of ballet lessons in her life (though I can potentially see her going out for softball, and honestly, with the way I’ve seen her tackle her older brothers I believe she would make a fair linebacker). She is the life of the party, the center of attention, color and sound and explosion. She is the opposite of me in almost every way possible, and yet the depth of my love for her takes my breath away. I stand in complete awe of her fierce, beautiful, passionate little person, but I often worry she will grow up resenting the name I gave her, for she is nothing like the quiet, slender, elegant calla lilies I painted in a watercolor to adorn her nursery before she was born.

We do not get to choose our names, but even if we could, how many of us know what name we would pick? How to choose a collection of sounds to represent our identity? Such a significant weight for a symbol to hold! How does one choose the perfect name? Does the perfect name exist? What do we do with the names we are given? Especially the ones that fit like baggy sweaters or squeeze like too-tight T-shirts. Do we suffocate? Do we chafe? Do we drown? Do we insist on nicknames or file legal petitions to change them? Or do we learn to accept them? Do we let our names define us, or do we define our names?

What I hope my daughter knows is that while it may not be a “true name,” or a name that describes her essence perfectly, it is still her name. She is not a number. She was loved enough, cherished enough, to be given a name. Her name still holds power, still holds meaning, still identifies her. There is still magic in her name. Maybe some names “fit” better than other names, maybe some names feel arbitrary and unconnected to who we want to be or feel we truly are. But also, maybe it’s about making the connection. After all, a name’s meaning isn’t tied down. There are a million ways to inhabit a name, to find the connection, and make it fit. I wasn’t always sure my name defined me. Maybe my daughter will find her own reason to love her name. Maybe she will love the connection it creates between the two of us (a mother can only hope). Or maybe she will find some other way entirely to connect her name to the essence of her identity.

I am the calla lily, but there are other varieties of lily. She can be the tiger lily.

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