Nothing sounds sweeter than the name of someone you have fallen in love with; nothing intrigues you more than your own name, overheard. “Pronounce people’s names,” my mother urged her shy daughter. “People love to hear their names spoken.”
Refusing to speak someone’s name either acknowledges their power or cancels it. Some traditions refuse to speak the name of their god in a show of humility; others signal scorn the same way. “The Queen” is a deferential placeholder, signaling a power so absolute that no name is needed, but Queen Elizabeth II will definitely be named in the history books. Lord Voldemort, on the other hand, will remain “he who must not be named,” in an effort to contain his wicked power.
Erasing someone’s name was, for the ancients, the ultimate cancellation. Akhenaton had his rival’s name painstakingly ground off monuments all over Egypt. The ancient Romans called the practice damnatio memoriae and dreaded such ignominy. The names of popes who had proven less than holy were deliberately dropped, like a hated ceramic object, from the Roman Catholic registers.
Losing a name invalidates that person; “taking names” promises consequences. Practitioners of certain kinds of magic believe that knowing someone’s name gives you power over them, and bestowing a name is often meant to convey special powers—the speed and cunning of a spirit animal, say, or the virtue of a saint. People go to great lengths to protect their “good name,” and living with a name that does not suit you is as awkward as wearing the wrong size clothes.
When I set out to write a murder mystery, I agonized for weeks over my characters’ names, which seemed far more significant than their age, looks, shape, color. Consumed, I scribbled possibilities, looked up lists, tried one name after another until I found the right one for that character, as though the words could contain some essence of their personhood. I was embarrassed to have wasted so much time—was this just an excuse not to start writing? But those names mattered. Think what a strong statement it makes to change your name, rejecting either the parents who gave it to you, the spouse or audience who knew you by that name, or the sort of person the name insisted you should be. Names call us. They hold us accountable; they allow us to be known.
Surnames are non-negotiable, at least at birth, but most first names begin in fond squabbles, one parent tossing up an option, the other whacking it away. A fine old family name can broker fast peace, offering a gravitas no first name can add: This child is not a random dot on the Earth’s surface; they are the fresh end of a long line. But if you do not have a lovely old family name and you are loath to steal one, brace yourself for a tough decision. I am only Jeannette because my father wanted Bobby Sue. And the wrangling must be far worse these days, because what was once a pool of about a thousand established names is now an ocean of varied spellings, and inspiration does not end with old-fashioned flowers but extends to countries, weather, minerals, astronomy, fruit and other foodstuffs (Brie, really? You name your child for oozing cheese?).
Centuries ago, the children of sober Anglo settlers were named from Holy Writ; later for virtues such as Hope, Patience, or Endeavor. After the Revolution, patriotic heroes arrived complete with middle names, and lots of boys were named George Washington Something or Thomas Jefferson Something, notes an article by Clive Thompson on JSTOR. Still, the list had boundaries: In 1920, fewer than a third of U.S. baby names were unique. By 1980, as many as sixty percent of names for Black girls were unique.
“Black parents want their children to have unique names of glittering value, names that may very well be the only thing that glitters in their complicated lives,” writes Sandra L. West. No more names that trace back to slaveholders’ whims; no more names that carry ancestral pain; names, instead, that go home to Africa or sing a song all their own.
Today, all conventions can be broken, and names come from every imaginable source. Why the weird spellings—just to annoy the elders? Or is it to smash any possible compartment, break free of a few more people who would otherwise share your name? Names are canaries in the dark mines where culture shifts. The more individuality matters to us, the weirder our spellings become. Dogs are now considered part of the family, and they sleep atop our beds; you cannot name such a princeling “Spot” or “Spike.” He must be named (and therefore treated) as a child would be—George, perhaps, or Simon.
Or Ishmael. “Call me Ishmael,” Melville insists. Chaim Potok writes My Name Is Asher Lev. Eminem sings “My Name Is.” A name is how we introduce ourselves to the world. Philosopher Justin H. Smith thinks proper names “have a sort of conjurational power,” unlike the categorical description in a word like “cow.” “To utter the pet name of a former lover or the nickname of a deceased child or the ‘true’ secret name of a playmate or parent,” he writes, “is to summon them into presence, perhaps for the first time, perhaps for the millionth time. It is not merely to note what makes up our world, but to generate that world.”
The idea is thrilling, capturing Adam’s ability to name, and thus participate in, creation. But, like Adam, it sounds a bit arrogant. People own their presence. Uttering a secret name does not bring them into being. Instead, it beckons them into relationship.
Why else would we bother with nicknames and pet names and goofy rearrangements of our loved ones’ names, if not to call them toward us?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.