You Are Not Your Name

Your personal name doesn't define who you are


I remember the first time I met Jim Johnson.  It was in the 1970s – during the Nixon Administration, at Sybyl Bibble’s cocktail party.  He was standing alone, his back to me, staring at a Starving Artist painting entitled “Mountain Spring.”  Even then he was not Mr. Fashion, dressed in Levi’s, Nehru jacket, and Hush Puppies.  Over the musical sounds of “A Horse with No Name,” I said “hi” and he turned around.  I introduced myself and asked, “And who are you?”

He switched what looked like a Harvey Wallbanger from his right hand to his left and offered the free one to me.  “I’m James Johnson.”

“Nice meeting you, Mr. Johnson,” I said shaking his hand.

He chuckled nervously.  “Only my boss calls me Mr. Johnson.”

“Okay, Jimbo?” I responded as I sipped on my Rob Roy.

“My neighbor calls me Jimbo.  But I don’t really like it.”

“I understand.  I don’t like the name either.”

“That’s okay.”  He gazed about like a nervous Nellie.  “The guys at work call me JJ.  I don’t mind that so much.”  He glanced away, then down at his feet.  “My friends call me Jim.”

“Yah, me too,” I replied.

“Except my wife.  I’m Puppy to her.”

“That’s sweet.”

“But my mother still calls me Jimmy.”

“I can understand that,”  I said as we walked over to the snack table.

“To my kids, of course, I’m Dad.”  He motioned with his hands.

“It seems everybody has a different name for you.  Who, then, addresses you as James Johnson?”  I asked.

He thought a moment with a pretzel stick half in his mouth.  “I don’t know.  It seems only the junk mailers and the government.”

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Sticks and stones

Wow, I thought. The only people to refer to Jim Johnson by his real name were those who did not know him. And when he dies, that real name which he was never called with affection will be carved into his gravestone for an anonymous posterity. He might as well have been named “Current Occupant.”

Most of us will share that same fate – answering to a glut of names in life, then having the least genial one branded on our soul in death. Think for a minute how many sounds you answer to, how many symbols and signs you attach ego to. Ask yourself how many variations of your full name you have used and how many nicknames and appellations you respond to. Then ask yourself what label will introduce your obituary. Probably the one used by the faceless government.

Yet that legal label consumes most of us. We dutifully print it (often last name first) or sign it (first name first) on all the forms we have thrust at us. We proclaim it upon introductions, register it with bureaucracies, inscribe it on our prized possessions, and answer to it soberly.

Such actions are a symptom of a mistaken identity some of us have with our names. We believe those personal syllables are stand-ins for our being, that as long as they exist, we exist. Why else the surname proliferation in labeling streets, parks, towns, buildings, businesses, and, yes, offsprings?

Garden of Stone, cemetary

Garden of Stone

And let’s face it. It’s not just our formal names that tickle our ego. It’s our everyday name, too. Dale Carnegie tells us in How to Win Friends and Influence People that “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Indeed, all of those sweet syllables that we respond to get into our heads with all the other notions that have our loyalties, like Mama, the Wildcats, Fluffy, and Old Glory. Then we invest ego in them so that they are part of us and apparently we part of them. “The name of a thing is its soul,” said a man who must have thought his soul was F. M. Cornford.

Yet what does a name tell you about a person? Walk through a cemetery some time and read the gravestones. You will find common cognomens like James Johnson and Bobby Jones, and odd ones like Myrtle Turtle and Elzora “Blondie” Flittwill. Each is accompanied by two dates that are the sole chronicle of an entire life. Rarely will you see a biography or even the added caption, “Loving Mother” or “Dear Friend.” What do any of the simple inscriptions in the garden of stones tell you about any of the souls laid to rest there? Nothing, not even of those of any renown. Each gravestone displays only a label as lifeless as the corpse six feet under.

Which reminds me of the story about the woman dancing and laughing in front of a tombstone. A curious fellow noticed her, went up to her and read the engraving, “In memory of Mrs. Marie Manchester.” “Your behavior isn’t very respectful,” he said. She pointed at the inscription. “Oh, there’s nobody buried here. That was me before the divorce.”

Names are often cloaked in emotion. Like silk sheets, the softest and sweetest names can enrapture two lovers. They can signal the beginning and end of marital strife. A friend of mine recounts how “…usually my husband calls me Marty, until he gets mad. Then I’m Martha to him. When he calls me Mar, I know the fight is over.”

Sour names, too, can stick to the ego, as most school children discover. Not so much the generic labels like “fatty” or “four-eyes,” but personal epithets like “Fitch the Bitch” or “Belly Kelly.” Some adults remember the effectiveness of such branding and use it whenever they get into a war of words. In the 1970s and 1980s war veterans were upset with Jane Fonda’s visit to North Viet Nam and so nicknamed her “Hanoi Jane.” When the actress planned to film her new movie “Stanley & Iris” in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1987, the local veterans showed their hatred with bumper stickers that read “I’M NOT FONDA HANOI JANE!” A street philosopher once said, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can really hurt you.”

The power of names to carry love and hate, to evoke pride and pity is real enough. Some people even believe they affect personalities and have developed theories to explain how, such as the Garwood’s Desirable Name Theory which is supposed to correlates names with success, and the Loyola Criminal Name Discovery which supposedly predicts criminality. If you want to correlate names with neurosis, try the Weston Alphabetic Neurosis Theory. Of course all these theories are ridiculous – as my Theory of Name Theories postulates.

In spite of all this attention to human names, the fact is they are, like all names, only mental handles. Those strings of symbols and sounds may point at us but they simply cannot stand in for the essence of our character – for our reputation. This detached and unsentimental approach to names is not new. It is reflected in the thinking of such rationalists as Jean Piaget, William James, Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill.  “A proper name is but an unmeaning mark which we connect in our minds with the idea of the object,” wrote Mill.

A name is just one of the things that has happened to you, like being born a twin, or not finishing college, or getting a tattoo with “mother” misspelled. Only if you are obsessed with an event will it rule your life. If you believe Sylvester is a silly name, that may stop you from becoming a movie star. With a family name of Mudd you may not believe you could become a TV commentator. The fact is you are not your name – not any of them, and they do not shape your destiny unless you let them.

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Do you have change for a name?

For one thing, a good many people have changed their names willingly, without fear of losing their identity – some more than once. Count among these people the innumerable immigrants who Americanized their names for convenience and patriotism. Piotrowski became Peters; Kabotchnik changed to Cabot; Pfoershing scrubbed into Pershing; and Johanson, Johannsen, Jonsson, and dozens of other patronymics of John became Johnson. And even if the new citizens kept their foreign-sounding surnames, many of their children and grandchildren did not.

Wegrzynowicz Grocery Store

Wegrzynowicz Grocery Store

Such was the case with the only grandsons of Pawel and Wadyslwa Wegrzynowicz, Polish immigrants to America at the beginning of the twentieth century. I don’t remember when I first became aware of the fact that I had an unusually long surname. But I do recall those first days of class in elementary school, the teacher calling out the children’s names, stepping down the alphabet, “Paul Ryder, Charles Schell, Susan Trumbull …” and finally coming to the w’s, and stumbling with “James Weg… Veg zzrr…Wee chzz…,” then me rescuing her from her painful pronunciations with “veng’-zji-no’-vitch,” and everybody looking at me – the kid with the weird name. The sounds that had begun as the simple appellation meaning “son of the Hungarian” in eastern Europe was now a tortuous mouthful of foreign syllables in the melting pot of the world.

My father must have tired of the same annoyances, for he invented the cognomen Ted Wegryn as a convenient alias. When it came to subscriptions, registrations, or casual introductions, or when we were traveling on vacation, we were all Wegryns. Yet at family weddings and funerals we were still Wegrzynowiczs. So at the age of 21, impatient with my signature, tired of its oddity, bored with the kidding, I shortened a perfectly good Polish name from 12 to 6 letters. My two brothers did the same. Yet my father had to wait until his mother and father died before he felt comfortable in making his short alias legal.

We did not dislike the old name – it was just too long. But changing it was more exhilarating than we had expected. And none of us thought we had lost something of our personal identities. Still we are proud of and enjoy our cultural heritage, and we share a fondness for our former name as one would for a childhood home. And yes, it seems smaller than I remembered.

Of course changing one’s name for convenience is not a new practice. In the late 18th century, for example, the Scotsman, John Paul, tried to hide his identity by becoming John Jones; this after killing two men in a mutiny attempt. Later he retook his old surname as a middle name to become John Paul Jones.

Then there was the son of a Huguenot immigrant known in Boston for his skill in making teapots, false teeth, surgical instruments and copper plates. A legend of the American Revolution, he did not gain fame as one of those dressed as an Indian during the Boston Tea Party or as the chief messenger of the town’s Committee of Safety, but rather for his ride to Concord and Lexington warning of the British advances. Born Apollos Rivoire, he changed his name to Paul Revere because, he was heard to say, “… the bumpkins pronounced it easier.”

The tenuous link between identity and name can be seen best in the entertainment field. Before the 1960s, most actors took new names invented by the studios because people thought designed names promoted image. So, for example, Doris von Kappelhoff became Doris Day and Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis. For some celebrities their name changes hardly seemed compelling by today’s experience as when Vivien Hartley became Vivien Leigh and Harriet Lake became Ann Sothern and Thomas Woodward became Tom Jones. But who can blame Walter Matuschanskavasky for changing his name to Walter Matthau?

Times have changed, though, and today an actor is more likely to keep his or her original name, like John Travolta or Harrison Ford, or Arnold Schwarzenegger who believes that “since it takes a long time to remember, then it will take a long time to forget.” Still there are those like Demetria Guynes, now known as Demi Moore, and Margaret Hyra, now Meg Ryan, who continue the Hollywood tradition. On the other hand Tracy Marrow pushed the tradition to non-tradition when he became Ice-T.

One of the best examples of a celebrity with no loyalty to a name is found with an actress born Edna Rae Gilhooly. As a young model she became simply Edna Rae, then as a dancer, Kerri Flynn. For her first screen test she called herself Erica Dean. When she got her first role in a movie she was Ellen McRae. Over the years she would go through 25 names until she married and became finally Ellen Burstyn. Why did she make so many changes? Because, she said in a TV interview, she was always trying to erase her past, and she was never happy with her choices. I’ll bet the post office wasn’t very happy either.

The reverse was true for Tommy Wilson, a young Princeton lad who was trying to find his future. He did not change his name so much as play with the pieces until the cognomen sounded right. At first he ignored his middle name, a gift from his mother’s family. But when he entered public life he became Thomas W. Wilson, then T. Woodrow Wilson, and finally as president of the United States just Woodrow Wilson. (See U.S. Presidents.)

Changes can be major or minor – there are no rules. An aspiring actor changed an “e” to and “a” in her first name and became Julia Roberts. Henry Warren Beaty added a “t” to the last name and threw away the first name. Meanwhile, his sister Shirley Maclean Beaty revised her middle name to MacLaine and threw away the last name. Some changed only their last names, like singer Bernadette Lazzara who became Peters and actor Winona Horowitz who is now Ryder.

Some throw away their middle names, like Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives to become Burl Ives, and some change their first name like Barbara Streisand to become Barbra. Susan Weaver took Sigourney from a character in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Some just dropped the surname as did Tom Cruise Mapother, while others made their first name their last as Love Michelle Harrison did when she became Courtney Love. For some a mere initial is a big deal as when Michael A. Fox changed the A to a J because he did not want to see “Michael, A. Fox” in the headlines.

Jay Silverheels as Tonto

Jay Silverheels

as Tonto

Some stars had very practical reasons for changing their names, like the aspiring actor named Albert Einstein who wisely chose to became Albert Brooks. Or the young actor born James Stewart, who took the name of Stewart Granger because someone had already claimed fame with his original cognomen. Harold J. Smith thought he would do better with a name that fit his heritage, so became Jay Silverheels and eventually captured the TV role of Tonto, Indian sidekick to the Lone Ranger.

The Irish dramatist and poet, Oscar Wilde, did not so much change his name as shed it. “I started as Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde,” he said. “All but two of the five names have already been thrown overboard. Soon I shall discard another and be known simply as ’the Wilde’ or ’the Oscar.’”

There are those who change their names to hide who they were or are, as did many Jews before World War II. In America, the immigrant Jews found it pragmatic in a bigoted society to have gentile sounding names, so, for example, Mendel Garfinkel became Hemingway Garfield while Irving Shoenberg became John Belmont. A restaurateur born Jacob Rubenstein became the infamous Jack Ruby. The adoption of surnames like Green, Harris and Ross was so prevalent among Jews that the once Christian sounding names became identified as Jewish names.

There is an old story about a clothier named Goldstein whose business in an Irish neighborhood was not doing well. He decided to change his name to O’Malley. The judge asked him why and he replied, “It’ll be good for business.” Six months later he was back in court wanting to change his name from O’Malley to Dooley. Again the judge asked why. “Because people keep asking me what my name was before I changed it,” he replied.

It is not only Jews who take aliases to escape prejudice. During the prohibition era, a federal agent based in Homer, Nebraska known as Richard J. Hart worked to improve the lives of the American Indians there. His heroic efforts to keep the moonshiners from supplying their illegal brews to tribe members gained him the nickname “Two Gun” and almost as much publicity as his brother in Chicago. All through the 1920s, no one knew that “Two Gun” Hart had fled the crowded streets of Brooklyn and the stereotype of his Italian heritage. Born James Vincenzo Capone, this crusader against alcohol not only hid his nationality, but also his link to the kingpin of illicit booze, his younger brother Alphonso Capone also known as “Scarface.”

Some people change their names like a pair of shoes. In the 1970s, when the rage was sit-ins and love-ins and nature, the actress Barbara Hershey (born Barbara Lynn Herzstein) became Barbara Seagull. Then when the “ins” were out, she became a Hershey once again. One established actor known as Joseph Lane became so fond of a character he played in Guys and Dolls that he changed his first name to become Nathan Lane. In the movie Fargo, a joke is told about a guy who could not afford a personalized plate, so he changed his name to J3L2404.

Of all the reasons for changing one’s name, ritual takes the cake – the wedding cake, that is. Around the world, it is most common for a woman to give up allegiance to her “nee” name to take on her husband’s legal label. In the countries where she has a choice about it, she does it anyway. Why? Ostensibly out of respect for tradition. For example, a cute young lady born Linda Rose Myers, became a wife called Linda Rose Fockler. Then she divorced, and few years later made me a lucky guy and became Linda Rose Wegryn. When asked about these name changes, she offers that the act itself, apart from the marriage, suggests a woman is free of her childhood. It is not an identity change, but rather a role change. It is as much about the “Mrs.” as whatever follows, she says. (I’m hoping she is not planning on a gravestone over an unused plot like Ms. Manchester.)

For a woman who does the “I do” thing more than once, the name changes are simply signposts in the peaks and valleys of life. One of my daughters was born Fockler, became Wegryn by adoption in childhood, married to become a Ruiz, divorced and remarried as a Tanner, and divorced again. Here is a woman who could have, at this point in life, taken any name in the world or invented an utterly new one. But to her, the importance of a surname was lost in childhood and her search for identity was not about playing name games. So, rejecting my suggestion of Wegrzynowicz, she settled for Ruiz because “…it seemed the most pragmatic.”

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Me, myself and the masked rider

Some of us have either unusual surnames, like Renee Zellweger, rare first names, like Uma Thurman, or full cognomens that are quite distinctive, like Sidney Poitier, or Barack Obama. For us, our ears perk up if we hear anything approximating those sounds. Yet for so many others, it is not as easy to confuse name and self. Sons who are christened with their fathers’ names must find their identity in the “Jr.” appendage. Privileged sons must find it in some Roman numerals as did Henry Ford II (also known as “The Deuce”) and Henry Ford III. But cloning a cognomen, then trying to distinguish it, is a male thing – unless you are a queen of England.

Those with weak names, like Jim Johnson, learn to live with a label that may pop up anywhere. For example, in 1996 while reading the sports headlines, it never occurred to my friend Jim Johnson, he might be the one named head coach of the Miami Dolphins. In fact only after I pointed it out to him did he realize he shared the new coach’s name. He had become numb to the rat-a-tat of Johnsons in the our culture. He and other Johnsons I have talked to admit to having no more interest in their surname than their first name. I recommend they change their name to Johnsonowicz.

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman or Diana Prince  [touch]

In the Amish communities of America, unique names are practically nonexistent. Among the 144,000 Amish in the 1990s there were exactly 126 family names. In Lancaster County Pennsylvania, 25% of the people had a surname of Stoltzfus, and in Holmes County in Ohio 27% were Miller. Even first names are chosen from a small list of traditional names. With so few first and last names, the Amish people rely heavily on pronunciation differences to distinguish people with the same name. Nicknaming is also prevalent, often arising from a person’s actions or traits, as with Strong Jacob Yoder, Chicken Elam, and Huddle Jake. One fellow accidentally poured gravy instead of cream in his coffee and became Gravy Dan.

Another way to see the weak connection between identity and name is through the heroes of fiction. The character of the Lone Ranger is a hero because of his Samaritan deeds and his crusade against evil and no one but his loyal Indian friend Tonto knows the real identity of the masked man. Yet a Texas Ranger once known as John Reid, sole survivor of an ambush on his scouting company, can claim credit for the same deeds.

This theme of dual identities and anonymity can be found in several modern day myths including the adventures of Zorro, Wonder Woman, the Green Hornet and other comic book heroes listed in the table Masked Hero Names. For varying reasons, each of these characters chooses to duck in and out of his or her invincible role rather than adopt it permanently.

What matters more is how this notion of masked identity intrigues us. Some would say that the story line sells because we want uncommon heroes with powers we only dream of, that like the Greeks and Romans we must have our gods too, even if belief in them sprouts only in the entertainment of our imagination.

However, it is possible the real appeal of these dual-identity heroes is something else. Like Harrison Ford or Jim Johnson, we all have had several roles to play and each of these roles may have a name, like Han Solo or Indiana Jones, or Mr. Johnson or Dad. As we watch the Lone Ranger or The Phantom mete out justice we have an opportunity to imagine ourselves in yet another role. And since nobody is supposed to know who the masked one is, it is easy to believe for the moment it could be us.

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Unknown soldiers

There is no inherent magic in personal names; they are merely labels. They are not a requirement for our existence. Linguist Ernst Pulgram said, “If a man were to move in perennial darkness, he would have no shadow, and if he were content to dwell in solitude, he would need no name.” Yet we make a big deal out of names, even when we come upon an insignificant oddity, as when a Mr. Robert Black headed the White Motor Co. from 1935-1965 There are thousands of curious names in our society, some referred to as aptonyms, such as the barber John Razor, or Mr. and Mrs. Easterday who had a child on Easter Sunday, or a detective called Luke Warm, or a judge named William Justice or Janelle Lawless. How about a golf match between Tiger Woods and Jeremy Irons?

Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali

Cassius Clay

aka Muhammad Ali

These cases are amusing, but not mystical. Yet people are naturally inclined to attach emotion to names. Why? Because these magical labels are so prone to be linked with emotion, ego and pride. They get colored by associations with good and bad things. They carry meaning even if the meaning is misunderstood.

I remember as a child being afraid to speak the name Jesus because the sounds seemed as holy and inviolate as the man it stood for. I was appalled when I heard for the first time a baseball announcer introduce a Cuban pinch hitter with that holy name. But it was a natural reaction because we all are inclined to link the symbol to the real thing. Why else a commandment that forbids the taking of the name of the Lord in vain? But links between name and object can grow weaker through overuse. See how different things are today as we hear even the religious zealot utter “jezus kreist” with no thought at all of the man from Nazareth.

A black fighter with lightning fists decided to discard his classic Roman and English name for one he thought embodied the Islamic religion to which he had converted. So Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali apparently not knowing or caring that the name was owned previously by an Albanian who became a Turkish officer in the Ottoman army and who in 1805 became a slave-owning pasha of Egypt. But so what? The boxer’s fame brought new respect to an old label. What the new Ali did not realize was the original Cassius Clay was a conscientious Kentucky gentleman who in 1844 spent some $100,000 to buy the freedom of his slaves and their family members. And in 1851, the devout abolitionist ran and lost as a candidate of the “Emancipation Party.”

With emotion embedded in names, there is a psychology to exploit. Back in 1911 an actor named William Henry Pratt enjoyed playing monsters and maniacs. So to cast a foreboding shadow on his characters, he took advantage of the xenophobia of the era and took the stage name of Boris Karloff, a sinister name from the dark end of Europe. Translated, Karloff becomes “son of Charles,” not a particularly frightening epithet.

In the 1890s, a young Hungarian born Erik Weisz, whom the United States Immigration Office renamed Ehrich Weiss, wanted a more magical name. Having tried “Eric the Great” for awhile, he looked to an earlier renowned magician, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic, and became Harry Houdini.

Even people with little attachment to their own personal names (perhaps because they are a Johnson, or they are on their fifth married name) can get emotional over someone else’s name. Witness the millions of visitors at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial who well up with emotion at the sight of the names of loved ones. Often the visitor will rub a pencil over paper upon the chiseled name, and that graphite blur of a granite impression of a label of a body thought by that person to have been killed in a war, that very distant and tenuous link between the two human souls can be electric.

The name is the link – or rather, a name is the link. Any one of the James Johnsons on that memorial wall would serve as the memory trigger for all the Mrs. Johnsons who had lost a son or husband named James in the war. But it does not even have to be any name at all. I am reminded of the story of two veterans visiting the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier. One of the vets muses, “I wonder who the fallen comrade was?” The other responds, “I don’t know, but I’ll bet his mother is proud of him.”


Hi, I’m the mother of your children

Earlier I quoted Cornford, “The name of a thing is its soul.” Yet from all this anecdotal evidence it appears that names are not the soul of a person, and not the heart either – not even the skin. Rather, imagine that each of the names people call us represents a character we play in that drama we call our life. In essence, your names are the labels of your roles in life. A better metaphor would liken names to clothes. We wear them according to the occasion. In a tuxedo, I am “Mr. James Wegryn.” In a business suit, I am “Jim Wegryn.” In jeans and T shirt, just “Jim.” In pajamas, I am “Tiger.”

Dad, of course, is a generic label, but still it is a name people call other people. In addition to the pervasive Mom, Bro, Honey, etc., there are other generic labels we all live with – like Current Occupant. You may not think it is a name but it does appear on envelopes where one of your other names usually appears. The Michigan State Legislature once received a letter addressed to “Michigan Senate or Current Occupant.” How is that for personalized attention?

If you think about it all your labels are kind of like “Current Occupant.” They are just pointers at you, and sometimes they miss their mark. So when asked, “Who are you?” would it not be more enlightening, more interesting, to respond with those things that make you uniquely you? When I asked who he was, instead of “Jim Johnson,” the man at the party could have chosen to say, “I’m the man who lives at 555 Leapfrog Lane, husband to that lady over there and owner of a three legged Welsh terrier. I’m the man who invented plastic bag twists, and the one who anonymously tipped off the police about the mafia’s infiltration of the Blue Beaver Lodge. You may call me Jim Johnson.” But he did not because, like the rest of us, he incorrectly thought his label was a short cut to who he was, as if his essence were published somewhere under the heading “Jim Johnson” for all to look up.

When an insurance salesman came to my door one day, he did not introduce himself by telling me a name which was bound to be insignificant to me. Instead he said, “Hi, I’m the guy who is going to save you a lot of money.” And he did save me a lot of money because I did not buy a thing from him. But still, in the few seconds he had on my front porch, he told me something about himself and his relationship to me. Yes, I admit I will need to know his name if I ever change my mind and call his home office. I could hardly ask for “the guy who is going to save me a lot of money.”

Of course, if you can describe who you are with some rhetorical consistency, that informative blurb can become a kind of lengthy name. In essence your name becomes your biography. Such a notion was depicted by J. R. R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. An Ent, one of his many strange beings, offers this:


[touch]
Ents
J.R.R. Tolkein ---> Ents

“I’ll call you Merry and Pippin, if you please – nice names. For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate. For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say.”

Lewis Carroll expresses a similar idea in Alice In Wonderland".


[touch]
Lewis Carroll
Carroll ---> Alice

“Don’t stand chattering to yourself like that,” Humpty Dumpty said, looking at her for the first time, “but tell me your name and your business.”


“My name is Alice, but – ”


“It’s a stupid name enough!” Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. “What does it mean?”


“Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.


“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh. “My name means the shape I am and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”


We do this in our own culture to a small extent, tagging individuals with a descriptive phrase, like “Father of Our Country” or “Wrong Way Corrigan.” We do not remember John Chapman except as Johnny Appleseed.

Among the England royalty we can tell a lot about a man by his full title. Prince Charles is not just Charles Philip Arthur George but he is also His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall and Rothesay, Earl of Chester and Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland. Isn’t that much more informative than just plain Chuck?

Fiction writers try to instill something of their character in the names they give them. If the characters are Germanic/English in heritage, their names can be created from a variety of stem words or sounds.  For example, in the stories of Charles Dickens, we find characters named Honoria Dedlock, Harold Skimpole, and Josiah Tulkinghorn.  Jane Austen has Marianne Dashwood, Caroline Bingley, and Henrietta Musgrove.  (See Fictional Character Name Generator.)

These appellations may not be commonly or conveniently used, but they are a lot more revealing, memorable, and stronger than the random labels we glorify as our names. How exciting it would be to meet a woman who introduced herself as the “face that launched a thousand ships” or even “the mother of your future children.”

In spite of all the peculiar and common names in our society, we must realize that nearly everyone, regardless of cultural origin, arose as an appellation that had some purpose. It is lost to us that a name began as a description of a person, his or her stature, occupation or place of origin, like Leonardo from the town of Vinci. We have forgotten the focus of these symbols and sounds. Wainwright, now nothing more than a label applied to people, schools, and streets, was at least once many years ago an appropriate appellation for the chap who made wagons. Likewise, a word like Kellogg with its vast commercial and public meanings, began as the long forgotten appellation for “the one who slaughters hogs.” Think about that next time you have some Frosted Flakes.

With the meanings of most surnames now lost to the world of trivia, we are tempted to see the natives of the American continent as the masters of quaint appellations. We marvel at names like Handsome Lake, Red Cloud, Black Hawk, Crazy Horse, and Hawk That Hunts Walking. We are entertained by a myth that natives of North America somehow represent bareback horses, feathers, beads, pottery, and all that is good in nature – and that their names, too, are all natural. (See American Indian Name Generator.)

Rest In Peace gravestone

Such a notion gives rise to humorous stories. For example, a young American Indian boy asked his father, “Why did you name my sister Running Deer?” The old man replied, “Because when your mother gave birth to your sister she looked out the teepee and saw a deer running across the meadow.” The lad pondered, then asked, “And why did you name my brother Soaring Eagle?” The old man nodded at his recollection. “At the very moment your brother came into the world, your mother looked up and there in the sky was a magnificent eagle.” The old Indian looked at his son and asked, “Why do you ask these questions, Shitting Bull?”

We may have fun with American Indian names but the only difference between those delightful translations of native names and those from the Old World are the spaces between the words. Could we become accustom to the likes of Good Man, Young Blood, Drink Water, or even John’s Son?

Certainly we are not our name. However, we are not our appellations either – because, as we have seen, appellations can and do become names. We are, rather, our past, present and future – our experiences, attitudes, and aspirations – our deeds, beliefs, and dreams. We are the memories in other people’s minds. To be sure, people may employ any one of the many names each of us answers to as a shortcut to those memories, but that name is not what they see in their heads. That self-sacred symbol of one’s ego is just a trigger for the real stuff, the feelings, smells and thoughts, the pictures in other brains.

So when someone asks, “Who are you,” don’t tell them “Bud Baker,” or “Larry Watterworth,” or even your legal name. Tell them who you really are, and if they stick around, then tell them your human label. And when you die and they chisel your tombstone, make the engravers work a little bit. Have them describe those things you did, the things you were proud of, the things that were uniquely you – your essence. Then, maybe some day, after all the memories of you are gone and your name exists only on unread pages, someone will trip upon that stone, read who you were, bring you back to life for just a moment, and say, “Glad to know you.”


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