What’s in a Name?

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What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Do you like your name? I have not always liked mine. Mary Frances is too goody-goody sounding, a sweet little Catholic girl worrying that her black patent leather shoes really do reflect up. And being named after the Mother of God? Well, that’s a tough role model to live up to.

When I was growing up, the name Mary was exceedingly common. There were lots of variations and add-ons: Mary Ann, Mary Jo, Mary Pat, Mary Lou, Mary Catherine. A family friend was named Mary Kateri, and I used to find that name humorous until I learned that Kateri is a Catholic saint. In any event, I grew up with an image of being innocent, proper, maybe even a bit prudish. I have lived a pretty circumspect life, seldom swear, and generally try, albeit unconsciously, to live up to my sacred name.

Names are an important part of a person’s identity. In the Bible, when God reveals his name to Moses, it is a pivotal moment. The name reveals who God really is and what His people’s relationship is to Him. Similarly, when parents name their children, they are often investing a lot of meaning in that name. Perhaps it is the name of a cherished loved one. Maybe it’s a way of carrying on their own legacy by naming their children after themselves.

And a person’s name affects how others see him or her. For instance, a study revealed that when applications for employment contained what is thought of as an African-American name, the applicant was 50% less likely to be invited for an interview.

Black names have come under a lot of criticism lately from both white and black Americans. Bill Cosby famously attacked stereotypically black names, even the venerated moniker Mohammed, as “ghetto” names. These criticisms reveal long-standing prejudices. The advent of unusual black names took off in the Sixties and Seventies, the age of black pride and a newly awakened appreciation of African roots. It also said to white America that blacks refused to be defined by the culture that has historically repressed them.

Let’s face it. Blacks do not have a monopoly on exotic names. Celebrities are notorious for coming up with unique names such as Apollo, Pilot, Kal-El, Bronx, Brooklyn, Blanket. The list goes on. And while there is some good-natured mocking of these names, when celebrities latch onto a name, it often becomes popular with ordinary Americans. The girls’ name Ava, for instance, has become hugely popular since Reese Witherspoon used it for her daughter. Furthermore, I may have made fun of Gwyneth Paltrow for naming her daughter Apple, but my own daughter is essentially named after a plant herself. The difference is that her plant name is in another language.

Economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, in their popular book Freakonomics, address the issue of what effect names have on our children. What they found is that for the most part, people can succeed or fail regardless of their names. An example from the book refers to twins named Winner and Loser. Loser turned out fine while Winner ended up in jail.

What’s in a name? Well, we have twice elected a president with the name Barack Hussein Obama. Maybe names don’t define us as much as we think. Time for this Mary to let her hair down?

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2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. I think you’ve let your hair down plenty, don’t you? I would never think of you as a sweet little Catholic girl. Growing up, in fact, I had a decidedly non-Catholic name in a neighborhood full of Mary Somethings. Janice Lindegard does not scream Catholic. I haven’t always like Janice, but loved my last name enough to keep it when I married. That, and the fact that it would have sounded weird with my husband’s last name.

    Liked by 1 person

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