April 12, 2024

If the NAME of a person is not sufficient to identify him or her, then our lords must define, strike a balance between the Description of a person and the Identification of a person.

The truth is that names are a part of every culture and that they are of enormous importance both to the people who receive names and to the societies that given them.

Despite their universality, there is a great deal of difference from one culture to another in how names are given. Among most preliterate peoples, names are determined according to very definite and specific rules. Generally, in cultures with a keen sense of ancestry, children get their names from the totems and family trees of their parents. In some cultures, names are taken from events that happen during the pregnancy of the mother or shortly after the birth of the child, and in others, names are divined through magic and incantation. In some cases, the name given at birth is only the first of several names a person will bear throughout life. When this happens, the new names are given either to mark important milestones in life or to ward off evil spirits by tricking them into thinking that the person with the old name has disappeared.

In the Catholic baptismal ceremony, the priest meets the parents, godparents, and baby at the door of the church building, and the first thing he says is, “What name do you give your child?” After the parents answer this and other questions, the priest invites the parents and godparents to trace the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead, and then they move into the main body of the building for the rest of the christening.

In Christian thought, baptism is a cleansing or reclaiming of the soul of the child, and this takes place under the name the child receives in the ceremony. Among preliterate peoples, the act of naming is a bestowal of a soul on the one who receives the name (Charles). In either case, though, the effect is the same: the person who receives a name thereby receives an identity and a place within the society.

This bestowal of name and identity is a kind of symbolic contract between society and the individual. Seen from one side of the contract, by giving a name the society confirms the individual’s existence and acknowledges its responsibilities toward that person. The name differentiates the child from others; thus, the society will be able to treat and deal with the child as someone with needs and feelings different from those of other people. Through the name, the individual becomes part of the history of the society, and, because of the name, his or her deeds will exist separate from the deeds of others.

In industrialized countries, parents must register a child’s birth and record the child’s name. In this way, the child’s name becomes part of the public record of the society. The birth certificate the parents receive when they register the child’s birth becomes a kind of ticket or passport to some of the essential services the society offers its members. For example, public schools in the United States require that prospective students present birth certificates when they register for classes. If a child doesn’t have a birth certificate for some reason, the school system feels no obligation toward the child until the parents produce a birth certificate or provide some other type of verification of the child’s legal name and date of birth.

We find an awareness of the link between name and identity in everyday speech, particularly in the words we use in making introductions and in identifying ourselves when we answer the telephone. When we introduce ourselves, we usually say something like, “Hi. I’m Charles,” and when we answer the phone, we probably say something like, Hello. This is Charles speaking.

The same idea applies when our name is mispronounced. Most people take great care to make sure they pronounce another person’s name correctly, especially in introductions. The reason for this concern is that people generally resent the mispronunciation of their name because mispronunciation amounts to a distortion of their identity. Accidental distortions are annoying, but mispronunciations and distortions of a name on purpose are sizable insults, especially if they result in unflattering puns. Martin Luther used this tactic to belittle one of his enemies, Dr. Eck, by purposely writing his name as Dreck, which means filth.

Freud and Shakespeare both recognized that the relationship between name and identity is so strong that the misrepresentation of a name amounts to a misrepresentation of the person.

The sense of personal identity and uniqueness that a name gives us is at the heart of why names interest us and why they are important to us as individuals and to our society as a whole. In spite of their importance, though, most people know very little about names and about the effects they have on us and on our children in everyday life.

In a very real sense, we are consumers of names, and we have a need and right to know about the psychological, magical, legal, religious, and ethnic aspects of our names.

 

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