What’s in a Name?

By Michael W. Gos

Wichita Falls, Texas

It is a long way from Clear Lake to Wichita Falls up near the Panhandle at the Oklahoma line.  It was our overnight stop on a trip to Caprock Canyon.  The first thing I did on arrival was find the town’s namesake.  As I stood leaning against the rail below the falls, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of two women sitting on a nearby bench.

“She was my seventh interview today.  I looked at her resume for just a few seconds before she came in.  I couldn’t even guess at how to pronounce her name.  It was spelled s-h-a-hyphen-a.  I had to guess so I went with ‘Sha aa.’

“She gave me a condescending look and said, ‘it’s Shadasha.  The dash is pronounced.’  I thought about telling her it was a hyphen and not a dash, but I thought better of it.”

My first response, of course, was to struggle to stifle a laugh.  As a professor, I too often encounter strange names at the beginning of semesters.  Sometimes foreign students have names that are difficult for me, and often, even American students have names I’ve never seen before.  But those thoughts quickly passed as I relaxed, watching the water pouring over the multiple levels of rock.  I found myself thinking instead about the significance of the names we give children. How do we decide on names and do the names we choose somehow affect who those children will grow up to be?

Many writers have grappled with this question over the centuries.  The most famous discussion probably occurred when Shakespeare asked:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

While Shakespeare seems to believe names are inconsequential, I tend to disagree.  Even though I have no hard evidence to support it, I have a gut feeling that our names really do have a lot to do with who we are.

It seems to me there are three basic tactics people use when choosing names for their offspring.  Oftentimes parents choose a name because they want to honor some older family member by passing that name on to their child.  Sometimes this becomes so entrenched in family custom that we see multigenerational names, and we are forced to begin attaching numbers to the names to identify which “Henry Wilkes” we are referring to (junior, the third, fourth, etc.).  While I understand the respect and love involved when naming a child after a relative, it just doesn’t seem to say much about the person bearing that name.

Another common tactic is to pick names that carry some special meaning.  There are several books on the market with lists of baby names and their meanings.  My parents chose Michael because the books said it means “Godly One.”  My wife Jill’s name means “Youthful.”  In cases like that, I think parents are probably engaged in forward planning.  They believe a name is instrumental in who the child will become. They pick a name they hope will facilitate the desired result.  My parents freely admitted that as their motive.  I don’t have to tell you it didn’t work.

A third approach would be the one we see in many Native American cultures.  Instead of naming a child for whom they want him to grow up to be, they wait until the child is old enough to show his true essence, and only then do they give the name that he will carry for life.  The newborn gets a temporary placeholder name that will change when his true character starts to show.  Remember John Dunbar becoming Dances With Wolves?

I think there is evidence that the ancient Greeks tended to share the Native American view of names, in theory, if not in practice.  Take the example of Odysseus in The Odyssey.   While he has a name he was given at birth, every time he is asked who he is, his name is only the beginning of his answer.  He follows it with an entire story of his life.  He gives the names of his father and grandfather followed by a litany of what battles he was in, who he killed, who he conquered and was conquered by, how much land he has and the gods that love and hate him.  This kind of self-identification seems to me a far better way to present ourselves, and it is still with us today in some of the Native American naming ceremonies.
About 30 years ago, I had the amazing experience of going through such a ceremony.  For weeks, a committee of three interviewed me, and most of my friends, including ones I hadn’t seen in years.  I got no feedback on their findings at any time during the process but on the day of the ceremony itself, it was announced that one day, about ten years earlier, I was walking along the beach on Lake Michigan with an old girlfriend when we saw a large yellow bird sitting in a fallen tree at the foot of a dune.  I still don’t know today if it was a hawk, and eagle, or an osprey; I’m not a birder.  But I was fascinated.  My girlfriend stayed at the water’s edge while I walked closer and closer by degrees until I finally got within six feet of the bird.  I was mesmerized at the needle-like beak and talons on him.  I never realized they were that sharp.  It let me understand just how they were able to capture prey so easily.

The bird and I stared, checking each other out up and down for about three minutes, and he seemed to be in no way intimidated by my presence. He could have flown off at any time, and I expected he would.  With this human invading his space like that, it was the rational thing to do.  But he just looked at me.

Eventually, I walked back to the lady who was waiting on me and we continued on our way.  About a hundred yards down the beach, I turned around to look back at the tree and saw that he too had moved on.

Apparently the lady I was with related the event to the committee when they contacted her, and on that night I received the name “Yellowhawk.”

It seems to me that a name that reflects who we are is far more meaningful than either of the other options because it carries a truth about us, something the other options lack.  A name should define us for the world, not tell what someone planned for us to be.  As cowboy poet Buck Ramsey wrote: “We are what we do, not what we lay claim to.”

Too bad it doesn’t work that way in our society.

4 Commentss to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. #1 Fan says:

    Mike, Mickey, Mikey–a man by any of these names has written yet another great article. Thanks, Michael!

  2. Twin #2 says:

    Wonderful article, Michael, and I agree. I was named after my aunt and was told that I reminded others of her so many times in my life, which was a wonderful compliment. She was a blessing to me.

  3. Jack Lampe says:

    As always, a thoughtful and perceptive article. Still, I think it fine for parents to try to maintain names. It gives us often a high standard to aim for. My grandfather was Governor of Minnesota and I did not quite live up to his achievement!!

  4. Mitchel Burchfield says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. Often, I assign an essay topic to my freshman composition class related to this article. I ask them to write about the meaning of their names…I do get some excellent essays, but Michael’s article would be an excellent example of what a professional could do with the topic.

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