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What's In Your Name?

ktan's picture


“What’s in a name?” wrote Shakespeare...actually, more than you’d think would be the answer. True, that, “which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet,” but everything that we have now associated with the word “rose” would have lost the subtle nuance of inference to all things, well, rose-y. Let’s face it, how many times have we heard people say things about people’s names like, “she seems like a Sarah,” or, “he doesn’t sound like a Paul” in everyday conversation? In reality, while we may snicker at the occasional thought of someone, somewhere, in a distant (or maybe not so distant) place, is named “Stan Still,” “Justin Case,” or “Carrie Oakey” (, the simple fact holds true across every population in the world: our fascination with names has historical, cultural, and even mystical roots. In general, I believe that names have a tendency to define personality, because society has used personality and/or characteristics from other objects or people to define names.
Dating as far back from ancient times up to our own, the belief that names are a source of power and/or influence has been ingrained in several societies. Notable family names pass along an air of deference for future generations (of course, this also holds true for infamous names), while others, who are not as lucky as those who have been born with reputable names, name their children after somebody famous in hopes that they can generate honour. Furthermore, to refer to popular culture, it can be seen in Harry Potter how names (Voldemort) can create fear through association of the person’s deeds. On the other hand, Rumplestilskin’s powers lay upon the fact that nobody knew his name, and thus, nobody had power over him (,1510,6005,00.html?r=related). “Nomen est omen” is a Roman saying which means “Names are destiny,” which brings in the idea that what you are named, you will become. However, to step back a little from being overly dramatic, I want to explore this saying through the eyes of history and culture. Onomatology, the study of names of all kinds and their origins, tells us that names (both places and personal) are embedded in history ( There are even societies and associations that focus on this specific branch of research, proving hidden meanings can be traced behind every name. But how aware are we of those meanings? Do these “hidden meanings” even affect humans in this modern age? A look at how different cultures decide on names has me thinking that yes, Onomatology is very much relevant and connected to the relationship between names and personalities.  
Several cultures take it upon their traditions to determine a child’s name. In Western culture, for example, it is not uncommon to name a child after relatives. The psychological effects of this may be that expectation is imparted upon the child before the child has fully developed mentally and emotionally, which may make the personality of his/her given name a factor in how the child will develop. This may also be true in other cultures where names are commonly passed down generation after generation. However, looking into other cultures, we can see that names are chosen using a variety of methods. The Chinese, for example, routinely name their kids after desired traits or metaphoric allegories such as “love and courage,” “strong and prosperous” and “precious diamond,” while the Akans in Ghana name their children after the day of the week he or she was born on ( So, for whatever purpose this gentle reminder may serve (whether it be beliefs of characteristics associated with being born on that exact day), we know that Kofi Annan is born on a Friday.
In this day and age, where uniqueness is highly sought after, parents have added twists to the art of naming their children. Apple, Maddox, and Kal-El are only some atypical names parents have given their children. The future of these children’s personalities cannot be determined scientifically, but there are psychological studies that show children with more popular or common names tend to fare better in school, which may be linked to teachers being biased and/or stereotypical. Furthermore, kids with unpopular names have a higher chance of being teased by peers, leading to emotional and mental distress which may affect the child’s personality (,1510,6024,00.html). However, this may also depend on other factors within the child’s life, such as his/her environment, status, and parental guidance. It may be that children with uncommon names born into privileged, affluent families will be affected differently from those born into conventional homes. From another perspective, it can also be said that children with unusual names may well grow up to revel in their uniqueness, while those with common ones are overlooked as being “ordinary.”
Philosophically speaking, humans have defined the meaning of words constantly throughout history, starting from the beginning of human consciousness. We use words to refer to objects, thoughts, ideas, and so much more; in some way, every single word is a name, which we string together to form definition. Which brings me precisely back to my point: the meaning of a name has been forged by the expectations and connotations that society has associated with the name over time, thus the relationship between name and personality is reciprocal. From what I’ve come to realize regarding the history and cultural roots of names, the bestowal of a name is a bestowal of an identity; it is a symbolic contract between the society and the individual. In some way, a name confirms to society the existence of a person. Through this name, the person will help shape history through their legacy, as his or her deeds become entrenched in society.
In the end (while I do have my suspicions that Romeo, “were he not Romeo call’d,” wouldn’t have made Juliet look twice his way if he were called, say, Borat), picking the “perfect” name for a child may not be so much as important as helping the child grow up strong and confident, and able to deal with the consequences of whatever name they are given. Besides, he or she can always resort to a nickname. But that’s another topic altogether.   
“Names and Personality.” <,1510,6024,00.html>
“The Etymology and History Behind First Names.” <>
“Most Unfortunate Names.” <>
“Names in Ghana.” <>
“Onomastics.” <>



Paul Grobstein's picture

Naming and its significance

Bears an interesting relation to our discussions of biological classification (would an elephant be different if we called it an beoplex?) and to broader issues along those lines, as per Classification: Why and How?  Maybe the naming of a child is not quite as much a free choice as one might at first think?