Every once in awhile, I hear my name spoken in a way that makes it sound special. One friend has a way of saying “thanks Bill” which seems to resonate perfectly with everything around us. There are those moments when my name on the lips of a lover is enough to momentarily align all the stars in the heavens. One such singular “Oh Bill!” still resonates in my deep memory cells from over a dozen years ago.
I often ponder what it means that each of us has a name, by which we know ourselves as well as by which others can know and call us. Generally we each have three names. First is our given name - in my case it’s William Kenneth. Second is my nickname - Bill. And third is my surname or my father’s family name - McDonald (given that our particular culture is patrinomial in its naming).
Our name contains our aura. Now I’m not sure I believe in auras, but still this is the best way for me to describe how much of ourselves is carried by the way others have named us, and how we ourselves visibly and invisibly carry that heritage. There’s the name itself, how it feels to us and how we present it. There’s the particular way we speak it. And there’s the way we write (or sign) it.
1) Names are “given”
First I consider it significant that all names are given. We don’t choose our own names. I have had a few good arguments in my day with friends who wanted to legally change their name, and insisted on their right to choose a new one. I don’t mind if some win such those argument. There are some for whom the legal right to change their name becomes a release from the oppression of a given name, or the way it carries a poisonous family heritage. I’m comfortable with the person being part of the choice of a new name, but still I recommend that the new name be ritually given to us from outside ourselves. (On the other hand, I believe we can ourselves choose and invite our nick or familiar name.)
Most of us were named by our parents. In the Baptism service (as I know it in the Episcopal Church) the minister will say to the parents and sponsors “Name this child.” The name spoken at that moment becomes the child’s given or “Christian” name (hence the term “Christening” or “Naming” - the “name” traditionally by which God will know this new person). The occasion and the Name are recorded in the parish register, and becomes an official record. At the non-spiritual level, the name given on our birth certificate becomes our legal name. That ‘official’ naming usually takes place when a nurse comes into the mother’s hospital room, with a clipboard in hand, and asks for the child’s name, to entered it into the records of the State. I know of some occasions when that nurse, may unilaterally make a change in what she thinks is appropriate - reminiscent of Ellis Island “renaming” of newly arrived immigrants.
I know of other cultures when the given “Name” is determined or “discerned” by community elders, and is meant to reflect the discerned life purpose of the child. Hence from the beginning the name ‘carries‘ the character of the person. This happens at birth and again when initiated into adulthood. The baby name is relinquished to the adult purpose-name. This latter is often wrestled out by virtue of an initiatory ordeal.
In my own case, the choice was apparently easy - both of my grandfathers were named William, and on my father’s side there were Williams preceding along the older male line as well. My middle name was the name of my only uncle. My father had suffered his entire life with a name that was not easy for him - Beaty - named for an Army friend of his father. So he wanted his children to have “easy” names - and my nickname “Bill” is about one of the best for easy. True also for my brother Bob, who’s middle name is the same as our father’s middle name. Yes, my name connections to my heritage are strong ones.
Nicknames, those informal or familiar names that take the place in everyday life for our given names, are usually given as well. This can come from within or outside the family. Sometimes the community or the culture can give a nickname that includes affection, familiarity or even ridicule. But as I mentioned above, we can often direct or choose this name, if we wish.
There are numerous times when from within a semi-dream state, I hear my familiar name being called. It’s a wonderful momentary experience.
The surname, on the other hand, is given by the family. You are a McDonald - a proud and strong Scots Highland heritage of warriors and chiefs. Just ask any Campbell, and notice the response. Or ask an Englishman.
2) Giving one’s name
The giving of one’s name to another is also a powerful act. In the old ways, when I would give my name to another, I give that person some claim upon me. I make use of this frequently in dream work with clients. The sharing of one’s name is not a casual matter. I’ll notice this when a telemarketer, or someone who doesn’t know me, calls me by my familiar name, Bill. I feel it as an offense and sometimes will respond, “Do you know me?” The answer is usually in the negative, to which I will respond, “Then until I give you my name, I’m Mr. McDonald to you.” That overfamiliarity is of course a sales/marketing strategy designed to introduce a faux camaraderie. It happens often with telemarketing by law enforcement groups for local charity work. I don’t mind the product, just the false overfamiliarity.
The people who call me “Bill” are those I invite to do so - usually by ‘giving’ them that name. When I say “Hi, I’m Bill” I’ve given permission to address me in the familiar. New clients often inquire how to address me - “Doctor” (which I’m not), “Mr. McDonald” or “Bill”? And it’s an appropriate request. The management of the therapist-client relationship is an important part of the therapeutic process.
3) Respecting people’s names
To remember someone’s name is a great courtesy, as well as a way of showing respect.
I must admit, I’m not good at remembering names. Perhaps it’s simply a social laziness on my part, but it’s long been a difficulty. A common antidote is when meeting someone for the first time, to make use of their name three times in the conversation. That helps to ‘seat’ it in the long-term memory. And I personally don’t consider it impolite to write a new name down. These days in some informal settings, there’s even a ritual of adding a new name on the spot to your cellphone database.
As I say, I’m more prone than many to forget a name. But when I do, I make it a point to readily admit and apologize for my omission. Then I pay even more heed to learn it.
We live in a culture where are names are often debased to little more than fodder for database collection. Therefore let’s each be more consciously careful to keep the names of people personally important. Even if I’m in a crowd where we wear name tags, still when a person calls me by the printed name on my chest, it still feels good.
At times you can honor a person by asking about their name. Sometimes you’ll get a rich account. And then sometimes, they’ll have little or nothing to share, or there’s a hidden shame. Perhaps ask a family member what your own name means to them. The aura of our name can resonate within a very large space.
Yes, our name carries a lot of information and “aura data” about ourselves. Let’s be more attentive to honor the names of those who ‘give‘ them to us. Speak a person’s name more often. It shows personal respect. Our names make us real when other people use them with us.
I wish more people showed this same level of regard for one’s name.
I have worked with the same group of people for nearly nine years and many of them call me Lonna vs. Lana (banana). I don’t bother correcting these people anymore; I simply refrain from the names I would like to call each of them and smile or nod politely.
My great aunt called everyone in the family by their “Christian” name, without nicknames. To most my father was Dick and my mother was Marge. But to my great aunt they were Richard and Marjorie. My parents – and others of the family – seemed to deem it an honor to be called by their full name, as our aunt was compassionate, insightful, and beloved by all. Having been called by my full name for my first 17 years (or the “Bare-Foot Contessa” by some relatives because I was always bare-footed as a teen), in college far from home my laid back southwestern peers called me Cindy. A bit homesick I was happy to have new friends call me at all, so I let it ride. After a semester or two I re-established my name: Cynthia. Friends grudgingly complied. It wasn’t until I was in a competitive sport and saw “Cindy” on a leader board that I was offended at such a change without permission. “Oh what's in a name?” was the official’s stance. “It's MY name” and the change back was made. Decades have passed. Just a few months ago, looking at a work scedule in a new job I saw it again – Cindy. I made note to the supervisor who gravely asked, “Are you offended?” A bit surprised at her response to me, I laughed and said, “Cynthia is my name.” Why I am named “Cynthia” is an interesting and sometimes painful exercise in my family dynamics. To some my name seems to suggest snobbery. To others it is “old-fashioned.” To me it is my name that sums up a complex history. I am grateful to you, Bill, for awakening that history yet again, perhaps a cosmic hint to remember and discern yet again, where I’ve been, who I am, and where I am going. Perhaps Cynthia the .... or Cynthia of ..... will be my new inner name.
The original inspiration for these thoughts came a number of years ago upon hearing Harry Chapin’s song “Someone Keeps Calling My Name” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PH5Y-oCU7
You didn’t include the act of a man giving his surname name to his wife in the marriage ceremony. At that point she leaves her own behind. But there are those who keep their maiden name and add the new surname to it.