What’s In A Name.

The notion of naming is very interesting, is it not? Think about it: where would human interaction stand if there was no such thing as linguistics, if we didn’t give names to the things that constitute our reality? We give these names to things and in so doing are conditioned to think that the name is inextricably linked to the thing, when in actuality, it’s very arbitrary. For example, we Americans have a name for those things that grow outside and have branches made of wood and that in certain months have some leaves on them: a tree. But in France, a tree is called an arb. Though arb translates as tree, who is to say that the essence of what we identify as a tree is more wholly characterized by the word “tree” rather than “arb“? It’s all situational. And if I remember anything from my post-colonial literature class in college (I actually remember a lot of things… it was a great class), it’s that naming is always done by the person or group in power. When the French colonized the Caribbean, they came in and renamed areas of land and physical landmarks in their own mother tongue because they had the elevated position, the power, that would allow them to do so. And as a result, the names that the native inhabitants gave to the land were all but lost.

Keeping all of this in mind, now put it in the context of naming children. Parents giving a name to their newborn child is a cultural tradition that is considered pretty normal, but when you actually think about it, it’s kind of weird. It’s strange that a person can give a name to a nascent being, without really knowing anything about them or the kind of person they’ll become, just because they like it. Parents name their children because infants can’t name themselves, but I think that giving a name to a child ends up shaping them in profound ways that most people don’t take into consideration.

Yes, naming is arbitrary, but like naming objects, naming a person can fuse the name with the thing (or person, rather) to the point that they can’t be separated from each other. I have kind of an unusual name, and sometimes I try to imagine myself as a Tiffany or a Megan or a Jessica or some comparable name that’s common for a girl my age, and it’s near impossible. Just like I can’t subscribe to a linguistic designation for a tree that isn’t the word “tree,” I can’t think of myself as being called anything other than Kendall. Even though I know that the name “Kendall” is arbitrary and not an inherent quality of my essence as a person, it feels like it is most of the time.

Sometimes it seems like naming is a way for parents to make a bold statement. If you give your child a name like Jordan or Alexander or Jennifer, it says that you’re traditional; if you give them a name like Atticus or Harper, it says you’re literary; if you give them a name like Poesy or Sebastian or Tancey, it says that you’re creative and quirky. It says something about you, and is set out as a sort of template or mold for your child to grow into. Of course there are exceptions, where a child can rebel 100% against what their name would suggest, but it seems that names can be almost as formative as a kid’s surrounding environment can be. I sometimes think about what I would be like if I had been named something common like Sarah, or outlandish like Rainbow, or ethnic like Gerta, and how those versions of me would compare to who I am as Kendall. And I suspect I would be a very different person if I didn’t have the name I was given.

So I was given the name Kendall, and though it’s not the name I would have chosen for myself, I definitely think it has shaped me as a person. Kendall is a pretty androgynous name, and there have been many times in my life where someone heard my name before meeting me and assumed I was a boy; I think that has made me less of a girly-girl than I could have ended up being, more comfortable playing with boys and engaging traditionally masculine activities and qualities. Unusual, and sometimes downright weird, names are in vogue right now, but I grew up in a sea of Jennifers and Katies, so I was always the person with the name that stood out; but I kind of liked that, and realized that I’m most comfortable when I’m distinct. People have misspelled my name my entire life (Kendal, Kindle, Kandle, Kendyl, Kendell, Kendra, and my personal favorite: Kandl); it’s given me a good sense of humor and incentive to enunciate. But by the same token, there are shades of insecurity in all of these epiphanies that I’ve had to learn to work with.

When I was in first grade I was obsessed with Power Rangers, and I told my mom that I wanted to change my name to Kimberley, the name of the Pink Ranger. Can you imagine if I were a Kimberley?! I can’t. Sometimes I think it would be a really good idea to give an infant a filler-name until they were old enough to choose a name for themselves, like maybe nine or ten, but then I remember this Power Rangers anecdote and I think twice. But there has to be a better way to give your children names that will really suit them; maybe a name-exchange/loan program, so that kids can try out different names and see if they like them or not? Hmm…

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3 responses to “What’s In A Name.

  1. Interesting , particularily:
    Yes, naming is arbitrary, but like naming objects, naming a person can fuse the name with the thing (or person, rather) to the point that they can’t be separated from each other.
    It evoked a long-forgotten memory in my Catholic brain. Your words were familiar but not immediately definitive to a memory so I reflected a bit and guffawed at what my brain came up with. Without trying to alarm you with a potential bible-thumping, the memory was based on a quote which came out of Gensis. It is the only book I can still relate to because it was told like a story and as a kid I liked stories. As an adult it still offers some beautiful prisms with which I can see the world and humanity around me. However, there is a verse which I guess supports your point of view.
    19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

  2. Kendall, you write beautifully 🙂

  3. Pingback: Middle Names. |

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