Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What’s in a Name?



In a time where celebrities name their children after characters from the Jungle Book and fruit it is sometimes hard to remember what the purpose of one’s name exactly is. Has anyone ever asked you: “What does your name mean?” And how many of you can actually answer that question? I was thinking about it and I haven’t really heard anyone ask that in a while. So it got me thinking, how are people naming their kids now, specifically in our American culture? Are they looking at menus, referencing pop culture, or are they going to the route of words?
This issue I’m going to tackle while wearing two hats. The first one will be my writing hat and the second will be the normal anthropology hat (which I always envision as Indiana Jones’ hat). As a writer all the characters in my stories/novels have names that always mean something; there is not one character whose name is an accident. For example in the story I just wrote the mob boss’ name is Damian Brent. Damian means “to kill” and Brent means “branded” in Old English thus showing you what kind of person he’s going to be upon hearing his name. In the same aspect my main character goes by her nickname Clover which means “luck and prosperity.” It is also interesting to note that I never reveal her real name first or last and there is also a purpose to that as well.
That then leads to my next point about names; names can hold all the power over a person. To know someone’s name is to know a part of them. Think about when you’re having a conversation with someone; if you mention their name every so often during the exchange you can captivate that person more. We then come to the greatest example (in my opinion) of the power of names. Now of course if you know me, you knew this was coming but my example happens to be from the Joss Whedon show Angel. The prime example is the character of “Jasmine” who was named after a flower but that’s not her real name; in fact no one knows her real name. This again has a purpose because once you have the name you have the power.
So here’s a little background for those of you (shame on you) who don’t watch Angel or haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Jasmine. Jasmine comes about at the end of season 4 of Angel and she is supposed to be this ultimate evil. Instead she looks like an “ebony goddess” and she brings what appears to be peace on earth. Of course though there’s a catch; she’s eating people to keep her powers thus keeping this trance like state that has everyone seeing her as this beautiful goddess and also seeing the beauty in everyone else. This trance though is broken when Angel and the gang learn the truth and sees her true hideous face. Angel then journey’s to another world to find a way to break this trance. He then learns that Jasmine does in fact have a “real name” but that there is only one being that knows it. This then leads credence the fact that she is keeping it hidden so that her power is kept. Angel though of course finds this being kills it, brings it back, slices the mouth open and the name is revealed. The trance is then lifted and everyone sees her for who she really is. Thus her name is the thing that sets her apart from everyone else.
There are plenty of other examples of this in other shows, movies and literature. Think about in Harry Potter how no one wants to say the name Voldemort, instead they all call him “You Know Who.” This calling him by something that is only whispered about gives him all the power. This then can also be applied to reality and even modern days. How about titles of power? The Queen, the King, Mr. President, Czar, etc are all titles that one uses to address people in their positions. Very seldom would you address them by their first name because that would strip away some of their power, their allure.
Now that we know power and names are connected let’s circle back around and revisit the concept of the origin of names. The best example I think comes from the Native Americans who all name their children after things in nature. Many Native Americans believe that what you are named after shows what sort of person you are going to be. Likewise in ancient times in Europe, Near East and Asia you were named after qualities that your parents wanted you to have. For example someone in Scotland would name their son Duncan which means “brown warrior” in hopes that he would grow up to be a great warrior and fighter (which is no coincidence why the main character in The Highlander TV series is named Duncan).
So what does your name mean? Does it reflect who you are? My name Samantha actually has two meanings. The first part “Sam” is derived from the Hebrew male name of Samuel and it means “God heard.” The second part “antha” is derived from Greek which means “flower.” So apparently I’m a flower that God hears. My middle name, Eileen, is Gaelic meaning “light.” My mom gave me these names because she had always wanted a very girly girl who was full of light and flowery I guess. Funny though how I know go by Sam and am pretty much the opposite of how she thought I would turn out. This shows that every intention is not always the result. But regardless she put thought into naming me because she wanted it to reflect who I was (or rather who she thought I would be). Also she wanted her maiden name of “Sampson” to live on through the generation so my name is homage to the Sampson clan. These are all things I believe are lacking in modern American culture.
Hopefully all this insight will persuade you to really think about your name and what it means as well as other people’s names around you. I always make a point when I’m meeting people face to face for the first time to ask their name, ask what their name means and then see if I get that impression of their name from them. On the flipside of that it is sometimes very interesting to observe a person in their environment and then try to think of what their name might be. Maybe that’s just the anthropologist in me that loves that, but try it one day it’s very intriguing.



Image Courtesy of http://www.techpin.com

5 comments:

The Writing Revolutionary said...

I laughed at least 10 times reading this. Perfect way to end my morning/day. Thanks. Oh, also, enlightening.

Sam Curtin said...

Well I do aim to entertain! So you like my very vague explanation of Jasmine? I could spend a whole post on talking about just her.

The Writing Revolutionary said...

Way vague, but insightful nonetheless. Am I allowed to be jealous?

Sam Curtin said...

Well I don't know why you would want to be jeslous, but sure.

The Writing Revolutionary said...

Take a compliment.

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