What’s in a name?

by Mellissa Martinez

Last weekend I attended my 30-year high school reunion where dozens of almost-50-year-olds reconnected. Most of the small talk began with a polite “Hello! Remind me of your name.” Once names were revealed, the conversation typically jumped to a boisterous “Wow! It’s so good to see you.” The revelation of each name unlocked memories that dated all the way back to elementary school.

Names hold important information. Depending on one’s place of birth they can carry cultural, spiritual or personal information about us. The linguistic field dedicated to the study of proper names, onomastics, from the Greek onoma ‘name,’ focuses on topics such as the devices we use to create names and keep them in circulation, current patterns of naming, the connotations of names, nicknaming and the evolution of individual names.

In some languages proper names are single words, such as ‘gift’ or ‘happy.’ In other cultures, names are determined by birth order, saints or the alignment of planets at the time of birth. Balinese children, for example, can only be named Wayan, Putu, Gede or Nangah if they are first born, Made or Kadek if they are second born, Nyoman or Komang if they are third born and Ketuk if they are fourth born. All of these can be used for males or females and most Balinese people only use one name. I can’t even begin to imagine the confusion at high school reunions in Bali.

In many Spanish-speaking countries, children are given two or more surnames, while Somali children are given three first names (no last!).

In Germany, baby naming is regulated, which means that parents must choose from approved names. The registrar’s office decides whether a name is legal and denies any names that violate a child’s rights. German names must indicate the child’s gender, not sound offensive or ridiculous, and be spelled conventionally. Also, a person can have no more than five.

In Nigeria, names are often intended to reflect the person’s destiny, which is established at birth. For example, Aina is a girl born with the umbilical cord around her neck, Ajaya is a boy born with his head facing downward, Ige is the name given to boys and girls that were born breech and Abidemi is given any boy or girl whose father was out of town for the birth.

In the United States we have a variety of regional customs with regard to names. In some areas of the south it is quite common to go by one’s middle name or to use both the middle and first names together. Consider Mary Lou, Billy Bob, Peggy Sue, etc. Some American families use the same first name over and over for generations. All of us can probably think of a John Jr., John II, or even John III, whom we know personally. And trending now are names that come from flowers (Violet, Daisy and Rose) and those that honor presidents (Reagan, Jefferson and Kennedy).

Unlike many countries around the world, it is quite common for American women to take their husband’s last name. Although, with the popularity of Facebook many women have begun using three names—given, maiden and married—so that they can be located by old friends. Another interesting trend in American naming traditions is the practice of using the mother’s maiden name as a first name. It is believed that this initially occurred in wealthy families as a way to honor the mother’s side (she did give up her last name after all!) Names like Tucker, Tanner and Presley all come out of this custom.

People form associations with names. I have been told on numerous occasions that I look like a Michelle (even though my name is Mellissa). In fact, I usually respond when someone calls out “Michelle!” knowing that they are probably trying to get MY attention.

A New Yorker article on this very topic pointed to a German poet who wrote, “All seagulls look as though their names were Emma.” The same article cited a study that determined female lawyers in South Carolina were more likely to become judges if they had more masculine-associated names, like Kerry or Jody, compared to their counterparts with feminine-associated names such as Hazel and Laurie.

As I scanned the faces at the reunion I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the people in the room had helped form my name associations. Have I always thought of Andys as red heads or Christines as delicate because of the kids I grew up with? Probably so. I also realized that I would have been in serious trouble without nametags. It’s embarrassing to forget someone’s name…even after 30 years.


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