Sunday, January 22, 2012

The power of names

Lore and legend has long held that true names have power.  From the Egyptian gods of the netherworld to Rumpelstiltskin, deities and supernatural beings of all kind can be controlled, dismissed, or invoked through saying their true name.  To know something's true name is to know its shape and thus do we leash it and make it bow to our will.

But what is a true name?  Proper names seem particularly unlikely as true names.  Inherited or given at birth, these are merely arbitrary handles that seem to have no connection to our inner self.  But at times these names, random syllables as they are, become part of our selves.  The name has been attached to us and we grow attached to it.  As we become entwined with our name, we may come to see it as at least a fragment of our inner self.
Proper names are poetry in the raw.  Like all poetry they are untranslatable.  ~W.H. Auden

Of course, if our names hold the shape of our true self, then those who share our name reflect upon us, for good or ill.  When Bear-Stearns was implicated in the subprime mortgage debacle, I felt vaguely culpable somehow, even though I have no affiliation with the company whatsoever.  I was startled each time I heard "my" name on NPR.  My sister, Julie Wiener, blogged about the challenge of being a Wiener, particularly during Weinergate. (She's technically my stepsister, hence the different last name.) As Eric Weiner wrote in the New York Times:
With all due respect to Shakespeare, a rose by any other name just isn’t the same. We look in the mirror and see not a generic person but a very specific one. We see Ted, and Sarah, and José, and yes, sometimes we see a Weiner. Names don’t merely describe. They invest meaning. The river of semantics flows in both directions. Call someone a nincompoop often enough and long enough and they start to believe it. There is no such thing as “mere semantics.” Names matter. (Weiner, June 7 2011)
My name, Stearns, has the benefit of not moonlighting as a generic term, so one might think it would elude the affiliations of food and sex attached to Wiener/Weiner.  Perhaps so, but while I don't have a hot dog jingle with my name attached, I, too, am linked to any number of commercial products.  Think of all those Stearns & Foster mattresses!  And really, what are we to take from this ad campaign?  (I guess it's a compliment, of sorts.
Interestingly, the first hit on Google for my last name is for Stearns life jackets -- I had no idea that I was a Life Jacket Expert.  Add to that the motor brakes, packaging, and banking, and we Stearns seem to cover the gamut of goods and services.  I certainly take pride in my Stearns family lineage, decorated as it is with important personages and fine achievements.  However, in the public discourse, "my" name is inextricably entwined with capitalism.  Perhaps I should be pleased to reflect the longstanding tradition of providing goods and services for those in need, but I want my true self to be more than a mere outgrowth of the marketplace. 

I turn, then, to my first name.  Surely my given name will be more my own than the inherited family name that I share with so many others.  Except that my given name is even more common than my last name.  There were always two or three girls named Deborah in my class in school. At least I could differentiate myself from those who went by "Debbie," as my parents ensured that I never answered to that nickname.  If my true self by any name be known, surely it could never be . . . Debbie.  (One of the faculty members in my graduate program sometimes called me Debbie, and I flinched each time he did so.  His less-frequent tendency to call me Barbara was more welcome, quite frankly.) 

In the Bible, Deborah was a judge and prophetess, an independent woman whose story inspired The Song of Deborah.  She is known not for her relationship to an important male figure, but for her own achievements.  Her name means "bee" in Hebrew.  (When I stand in our garden, surrounded by busily humming bees, Q is wont to call me beekeeper.) 
Bee on the hyssop in our front garden (2009)
But is this ancient figure the woman who is evoked by the name "Deborah" in modern parlance?  I suspect not.  The name has become so commonplace that virtually everyone knows someone named Deborah, and it is that person who is elicited by the name.  Here I do not battle a central, capitalist namesake, but a thousandfold crowd of Deborahs, all unknown and unknowing.  When I am introduced to someone new, which Deborah is invoked?  I cannot tell.  I will not, in this endless line of Deborahs, find my true self.
Names, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth's marvels, beneath the dust of habit.  ~Salman Rushdie 
I hold that my true self cannot be named.  There is no single appellation that will encompass who I am.  Or perhaps my true self holds a secret name, to which even I am not privy.  This name cannot be simple, for I am complex.  It must reflect my many selves to embody all that I am and all that I can be.  In the end, it may be that we spend our entire lives in discovering our secret true name, and it is only with our last breath that the final syllable of that name is inscribed.

Weiner, E.  (June 7 2011).  Weiner like me.  New York Times

Wiener, J.  (June 13 2011).  Wiener and Weinergate.  The Jewish Week


  1. I so dub thee Bethesda Merrywhipple.
    There you go. : )

    Oddly, I have never felt any kinship with my first name. I have only held onto it because everyone else I love has grown so accustomed to it. Still, it bothers me when people drop the "extra" n, especially if they are replying to an email with my name right on it.

    1. Thanks for my new name -- I love it! Maybe our true names can only be given by those close to us . . .

      It's interesting that some people feel so attached to their names and others do not. I wonder why that is. And yet, even when you don't feel a kinship with your name, you don't want it to be misspelled or misrepresented. "Even though I don't particularly like it, you should at least spell it correctly!"

      Thanks for your comment!