The Power of Names

This last weekend I was at a family reunion, and in spite of my best intentions (but just in line with my predictions…) I didn’t get much writing done. What I did get done was lots of thinking, playing with shiny rocks and metal, and watching people.

One of the more fascinating things to watch was people interacting with the younger nieces and nephews, the ones who had no idea what health care reform is, how to play Monopoly, or even how to tie their shoes. One thing those kids did have a handle on was who the were!

One young niece had just learned that her mom had a name other than mom and was working on which name she used and which one other people used. And then there was her twin brother. There were two things you could call to get his attention, his own name or “Dodie”. Woe to the person who called him Dodie, unless it was his twin sister. Most people would receive a stern rebuke for calling him Dodie (well as stern a rebuke as a three-year old can give), but when his sister used it there would be an immediate and positive response. Sometimes his sister would even get a response on a heroic level (again that’s heroic at a three-year old level), like the time he tried to push a full on queen sized blanket up a spiral slide because his sister was at the top and wanted her blanky.

This all got me thinking about names…

Names are by necessity abstract, they are symbols. They are words with the power to represent concrete objects and beings, but also to represent ideas (sometimes both).

How many of us have heard, or said, the statement, “He doesn’t seem like a <insert name here>.”  The name represents the person (it’s his name), but also an idea about a kind of archetypal person; one that this individual doesn’t seem to fit.

Other people can seem to typify a name they are given. In fact a single individual may fit one name perfectly while being a ‘odd fit’ for another.

We have many names and many kinds of names: first names, given names, family names, nick names… It’s not surprising that we fit some names better than others, and some names fit us better than others.

Names are not just titles, symbols or descriptors. They are indicators and influencers of identity. Ursula Le Guin’s Earth Sea trilogy makes much of names and the power of names, it’s an idea that’s been around for a long, long time.

Real world examples tying into belief in the power of names can be seen in tribal and religious names (like baptismal/christening names…) used only within a certain group. Other names are taboo in certain places and circumstances (that’s why a lot of us use screen names on-line…).

The reality is names do have power, but it requires two things. First we, the named individuals, have to give the name power. We have to give it value and meaning to us. Second, it is not enough just to know the word or symbol, you have to know what it means. How does the name fit and describe the person.

Why does the name Farangian apply to me? Why do people at some “day jobs” independently add  the title ‘sir’ to my first name? (they really have and it’s people who don’t know each other…) Why did certain individuals in college come to refer to me as ‘The Lord High Executioner’?

Names can help us understand who we are and what we are. People will do, think and say things that they might not otherwise because of a name. People will act against their own interests and principles to protect a family name. A name that includes you in a group can be a powerful thing. I know more than one person who has explained doing acts of utter heroism with the simple phrase “I’m a Marine”.

The names we accept for ourselves, or give ourselves, have tremendous power, even when no one else knows them.

Here is the true power of names: not some arcane ability, not some mystic tool, but the power to represent, to understand who we and others are. The meanings we give names are powerful and affect how we deal with ourselves and others.

Research has demonstrated that placing students into a group on the basis of reading level, essentially labeling or naming a child as having a certain level of skill and proficiency, changes how teachers (both in the immediate setting and future potential teachers) interact with a child. The children come to fit the group that they have been named to (D. Stipek: How Do Teachers Expectations Affect Student Learning. Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall. Found on Education.com Updated on Jul 20, 2010). Real world changes in behavior happen because someone chooses to accept and believe a label, a name.

The same thing happens on a personal level. Lets take two hypothetical individuals Erick and Debby.

How will Erick live if he defines himself as “Erick the pot head”? What if he sees himself as “Erick the survivor”, or “Erick the creative problem solver”?

What happens to Debby if she accepts the title “Dirty Debby”? What about “Daring Debby”, or “Debby the daughter of God”?

What happens when the different Debbys meet the Ericks?

When we know our names, not just what the word is, but what it represents, that is power. At the same time our names are abstract, they are not written in stone. We have the power to change our names, change what they mean. We have the power to take new names that better fit us and the situation we are in (or want to be in).

Really knowing our names and those of the people around us is powerful in that it helps us to plan, to make choices and decisions. When we know who the people we’re interacting with are we can better predict what they will say and do. But remember NO ONE short of God and we as individuals knows all our names (assuming we as individuals know all our names!) and people can surprise you.

So dear reader, till next time… If you know your name, who you are and what that means, good for you! If not, (or if you want to change it), take some time to think about who you are and what you want to be. Choose a name for your self; choose what it means. Choose a name that you can grow into. You have that power!

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