Friday Takeaway: What's in a name?

  • Naomi Shulman at her Northampton home.

For Hampshire Life
Published: 3/14/2019 1:57:24 PM

When I gave birth to my daughters, one of the first things the nurses did was ask their father and me what their names were. We spelled out the names we had agreed upon, first names and middle names we had deliberated on for months. The results were full names that nodded to our family history, that would sound appropriate preceded by “introducing the honorable senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” and that simply sounded nice to us. I don’t recall thinking about what kind of power we had shaping our children’s lives at that moment, and how it reflected the power we would have to shape their experience in so many ways.

Naming is no small thing. Shakespeare could try to dismiss it, but a name is more than the sum of its letters and syllables, and I don’t care what anyone says: a rose by any other name really might not smell as sweet. I think that holds whether we’re talking about a person or an idea. In the Bible, when God gave Adam the (kind of fun-sounding!) task of naming the creatures in the Garden of Eden, the job came with strings attached; Adam now also had the responsibility of helping to care for God’s creation.

When we name a situation, we take some ownership of it, no matter how trivial. If I call a room a mess, I’m now acknowledging it should be cleaned. (Heads up, kids.)

Of course, names can also be a way of wiggling out of a situation. How many people have you known who have wanted to avoid labeling a relationship so as to avoid the expectations that might go along with it?  How many job titles have you seen that downplay a person’s workload in order to justify a smaller paycheck? Sometimes the power of a name comes with withholding the name altogether.

I guess another way to think about this is the importance of calling something what it is. Consider how the press is becoming increasingly emboldened to name hateful rhetoric as “racist” rather than simply “controversial” or “racially charged.” When we’re willing to use the words that accurately describe a thing, we engage with what it really means, and what its impact really is. It’s not as though racism in American politics is new, after all. That more and more people are willing to call it out, however, is a fairly recent development. Movements that are routinely referred to by more than one name — consider pro-life versus pro-choice — underscore how powerfully labels can reframe the entire discussion.

I’ve named very few political movements, but I did name those kids of mine, and that can be a political act, too. The first few times people began referring to our newborns by their names, I almost felt like saying, “I mean, you know we just made that up, right?” Soon enough, though, their names stopped sounded like something we selected and simply became who my daughters were. Their names fit them. Of course, that’s not always the case, so my daughters are lucky in that sense, but if it hadn’t worked out that way, the good news is they also have the power to rename themselves if it comes to that. When I see my daughters and others of their generation calling out aspects of our society — things previous generations ignored or actively enabled — I feel hopeful that as they name the world we’re giving them, they will also take on the responsibility of caring for it.

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as well as on NEPR and WBUR. Follow her on Twitter:

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