Naming Rights of Passage

Andy Griffith ShowYes, yes, yes. My last name by any other would smell as sweet, blah, blah, blah. If I had a nickel for every time someone recited that to me…well, I wouldn’t exactly be rich, but I’d have enough to purchase one of those expensive bouquets (and yes, there are the times I’ve received roses with the note “a rose for a Rose.” sigh).

Anyone with a name that is better known as a thing or place probably shares my lack of humor. The teasing does get old, however harmlessly meant.

I can’t think of a more deliberate action than giving an object, place or person a name. It is not only an identifier; it anchors the person, place or thing to a sticking point of origin. We assign character and soul to it. It is the sound bite, the hash-tag, the simply and succinctly put summary statement of who or what we are. And it’s typically given to us by someone else.

Parents predetermine who they see their children becoming, or what they represent, though they may try not to. Many of us are just fine with the names our parents assigned us, living quite comfortably within it’s connotations, but many people change, or alter their given name because they simply didn’t relate to it. I grew up with a boy at school we all called Paul, but his parents called him Johnny. I asked why that was and he shrugged. “I don’t like the name John or Johnny. I like my middle name, Paul, better. But they still call me Johnny.”

At the urging of his manager to differentiate himself from singer Tom Jones, Arnold George Dorsey changed his name to Engelbert Humperdinck, after the German composer best known for his opera, “Hansel and Gretel” (source: Wikipedia). Why that name above all others? Well, it certainly is distinctive, no mistake. In a competitive pop-music market, distinction is king. Just ask any hip-hop artist.

Entertainers and actors, especially those from the golden age of cinema and the turn-of-the-last-century stage, often changed their name to something more “marketable.” This is no longer the fashion, of course. If you were given the name Benedict Cumberbatch at birth, you don’t shorten it to “Ben Cumber,” even if your well-known actor parents don’t use the surname. Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez are another example. Mr. Estevez did not have to worry about marketability issues as his father once had to. Mr. Sheen is of a generation where you didn’t reveal your ethnicity for fear that it would cost you certain opportunities. Names have the power of prejudice that way.

As Shakespeare’s Juliet mused, the person and the name are not necessarily reflections of the other. But we have strong attitudes about names that reflect ethnicity, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that some elect to alter their name in order to avoid judgment. Just ask Barrack Obama. As a child he was called Barry, sometimes Barry Soetoro, his step-father’s surname (source: Wikpedia). I’m sure, for a kid trying to fit in, as all kids are want to do, especially a black kid with a white mother, it was easier to be “Barry” than Barrack Hussein Obama.

I’m sometimes asked if my surname is shortened from something like “Rosenburg,” etc. I know of others who chose not to mask a name’s origin, changing their surnames back to the “old country” original their ancestors had before landing on Ellis Island and being randomly assigned some sort of homogenized version. Mine, however, has always been “Rose.” It’s a Scottish clan name (though, after 300-ish years in the U.S., I don’t know how much actual Scottish DNA still courses through my veins. Surnames have an interesting way of carrying on long after the root DNA has morphed into something no longer native to the name’s origins).

The solemn tradition of giving someone a name is often more pressure than many can reasonably manage. The desire to be thoughtful, clever or profound often warps common sense. For example, there are those who think it ingenious to name all five of their children with a name that starts with “D” because their last name also starts with “D.” Some are so pressured to stay within the confines of family identity that they resort to using only a single set of three or four names. From one generation to the next, for example, all the male names are Mark, John, Robert or Michael and the females are named Mary, Elizabeth, Catherine or Margaret. But, then there are those who break entirely with convention, thinking “Moon Unit,” “Bear,” “Honeysuckle,” and “North” are thoughtful alternative expressions of individuality.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of personal preference. My mother gave us names she felt couldn’t be shortened, because she didn’t like it when, for example, people are named Robert but are called Rob or Bob. Despite her concerted effort to guarantee we’d always be called by our full name, we shortened each other’s names anyway. However they come out, nicknames are terms of endearment and are nearly impossible to avoid. We ended up calling each other by the first few letters of our names. One of us just goes by “D.”

We are very accustomed to associating character traits with a name, from personality and gender, to ethnicity, regional heritage and social status. Many fiction writers spend a lot of time working these details out for their characters, but in the nonfiction world, names can confound the status quo. For example: I have a friend who was born/raised in Hong Kong. For Chinese families, during British colonization a tradition developed to name children with an English first name. When my friend married an American, she learned it was best not to use his European surname but her Chinese surname instead. When clients met “Jane Doe” for the first time (as I will call her for the sake of her privacy), they expected to see a Caucasian woman with an American accent walk through the door. “I always felt so badly for these poor people; their initial look of surprise, and then embarrassment hoping I didn’t see their surprise, followed by the awkward moments when they try to cover their embarrassment…so I went back to using my maiden name. It’s so much easier.”

Names have hard-cash value. They open doors. Why else would we see value in “name dropping,” whether it’s on a sign or in a conversation, as a means to gaining access or influence? Fundraising and financing efforts have a solid foundation in “naming rights,” from single ceramic tiles with “Mr. & Mrs. So-and-So” embossed in its center, representing  the couple’s $200 donation toward the restoration of a historic building, to multi-million dollar financing so a football field will be named “[Corporate Name] Stadium.”

The most entertaining of the name-game belongs to the people who come up with names for racehorses. I think I would be very successful as one of these people because I give my pets unusual names. They are, after all, not people but animals. I can’t look at a horse named Ed and not think of several men I know of the same name. So for that reason my pets have gone by names like, Psycho-Fish-Qu’est-Ce-Que-C’est, Whooper-n-Fries, Iona-Cat-Named-Skipper, Daffy-Go-Lightly…etc. I’ve always thought a good name for a parrot would be His-Dog-Max.

I’m sure singer/Broadway actress Idina Menzel would agree that there is just about everything in a name (she’s better known to most of us now as Adele Dazeem, thanks to John Travolta’s bumbled introduction at this year’s Academy Awards). I can relate because I…well, all of us that day…had the same thing happen during college graduation ceremonies. Our department’s Dean forgot his reading glasses. As he announced each person, he faltered and stammered, mispronouncing each and every name as he struggled to make out the small print on the program. We started laughing, our friends and families were laughing, and the other faculty, etc., on stage were laughing, which made him self-conscience and matters worse. My name was pronounced with an “L” and an “R,” but that was about where the accuracy ended. One student, however, was not amused. Instead of proceeding past him to the college president for her diploma and handshake, she stopped at the podium, discreetly placed her hand over the microphone and quietly told the Dean she would not cross the stage to accept her diploma until he pronounced her name correctly. She wasn’t about to have her 15 minutes of fame so horribly fumbled. What is in a name, indeed.

2 thoughts on “Naming Rights of Passage

  1. Wow, you covered it all, and very well written. This one is worth re-reading several times because names have a number of connotations for me. I’ve written one post about my writing moniker and have a couple more planned on family names, etc. I can tell that “Rose” has not been an easy name to live with, as beautiful as it is. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  2. Nice post!

    “I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”
    ― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables


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