March 4, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

What's in a name? More than we ever dreamed

We’ve all heard many allusions to naming: The name of the game, a rose by any other name, the Holy Name. In The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, there are almost 100 references listed under “name.” You name it, there are all kinds of meanings attached to the word. So, naming must be something powerful and important.

Since this is true, I am sometimes bemused about the names people choose for their children. For example, I know of a woman named “Vendetta,” and I can’t help wondering what terrible grudge her mom was carrying when she picked her name.

Then, there are folks who name their kids after sports figures like Kobe Bryant, or rap artists or other current names in the news. That’s a bit risky, however, considering that many of them may be caught later in scandals that quickly change their names to, well, “mud.” And, as we all know, that very expression comes from scorn for Samuel Mudd, the doctor who unwittingly treated John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Lincoln.

Lately, celebrities have gained even more attention than usual because of names they’ve given their kids. Gwyneth Paltrow has an “Apple,” and Julia Roberts goes her two better with twins named “Hazel” and “Phinneaous.” I’m not sure if the latter is spelled as Julia does it, but then, who would?

Now, an apple is a fruit and hazel is a color or a nut. And, the only “Phinneaous” I know of is Phineas Fogg, a fanciful character in a Jules Verne novel. Oh well, forget naming kids to inspire them to greatness. Maybe they’ll just go by nicknames.

Speaking of nicknames, there’s a whole other creative area for you. Sometimes they’re merely utilitarian, as in calling John’s son “Jack.” That way, you uphold honor to the father and carry on family tradition without confusion when calling everyone to the dinner table.

Once in a while, nicknames are mean-spirited. School kids caught up in mob frenzy will sometimes label one of their classmates “Fatty” or “Four Eyes” or (in these times) worse. Employees may call a mean boss unflattering names behind his back, thus saving their jobs while enjoying a measure of control and revenge. Politicians also receive such nicknames, not often behind their backs. But then, maybe some of them deserve it.

On the other hand, nicknames may pay tribute to a person’s personality or talents. We hear people called “Sunny” or “Brainiac” or “Princess,” and understand that these names are complimentary. Even “Mom” and “Dad” and their variations, like “Abba” when calling upon God, are affectionate nicknames for parents.

Perhaps the importance of naming is illustrated best in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians when he wrote, “God hath also highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth.”

Hmm. Maybe we should get back to naming our children for saints whose lives we hope will inspire them. The way things are going, I’d even settle for naming them after genuine secular heroes or just plain good people. And spelled correctly, please.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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