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What’s in a Name?

How one’s name shapes identity and the course of a life.

 Wikipedia/Used with permission
"This is Not a Pipe," Belgium artist René Magritte (1928-29)
Source: Wikipedia/Used with permission

A name “is like an elongated shadow attached at our heels,” Mavis Himes writes in her new book The Power of Names. How do our names impact our lives?

The fact that our name is given by others external to the self “at a first moment and then must be interiorized at a second moment, has certain implications,” claims Himes who is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in Toronto. Our name, like a gift or curse, initially defines us in relationship to those who have given it.

Our first name marks our singularity among the family. When a child is given the same name as his father or mother, how does this influence their identification with that parent? How does the suffix II or III, Jr that follows the full moniker complicate individuation and emotional separation?

A replacement child is a child conceived after the loss of a child or relative and is given their name. The Greek, necronym literally translated as “death name,” refers to a name shared with a dead relation. In many instances, the bereaved parent is struggling with unresolved mourning. The parental couple has an internalized image of the child who has died and they “deposit” this image of them “into the developing self-representation” of the next-born child. In other words, the replacement child is a “reservoir” where the mental images of the dead child, which cannot be let go of, can be kept alive for the family.

The replacement child may unconsciously accept certain tasks and be motivated to excel in a specific field or area of life in order to protect and maintain the memory of this image of the lost person, of what is psychologically pushed into them through complicated grief. The child could be haunted by the memory of their namesake, the pressures of survivor guilt, or treated with over-protection from caregivers. Sometimes this individual is experienced as the reincarnated or resurrected dead sibling. Artists Vincent van Gogh and Salvador Dalí both had deceased brothers of the same name and some clinicians argue they were treated as “resurrected” children, a particular form of replacement child.

Our surname defines us in relation to our parents, customarily the father. Patriarchal relations of kinship have used prefixes and suffixes to indicate “son of”: Wilson (son of William, English), Anderson (son of Andrew, Scandinavian), Fitzpatrick (son of Patrick, Anglo-Norman), Stefanović (son of Stefan, Serbian), MacAllister (son of Alexander, Scottish) and Fernandez (son of Fernando, Spanish). This tradition enforces family structure, with the father at the head, and reaffirms identification with one’s ancestry. When the paternal surname wields precedence over the maternal surname how does this impact a female’s sense of authority and voice? How does the structure of the nuclear family affect a women’s thinking about herself, the pursuit of her own wants and her quest for identity? A matronymic family name, one inherited from one's mother or other female ancestor, is uncommon.

Spanish poet, playwright, and theatre director García Lorca used a combination of paternal-maternal monikers, as do may couples today in the creation of double surnames, is frequently referred to by his mother's less-common surname: Lorca.

Family names often announce ethnic affiliations and cultural roots. They are an ethnic marker or, as Himes describes it, a second layer of skin that reveals ethno-religious roots and geographic origins: O’Reilly, McAlister, Van Brunt, Tang, De Lucca, Romanov. Himes claims one aspect of being Jewish is linking oneself to a sequence of historical events spanning over five thousand years and ties to an ancient community of dessert wanderers who had no home – were "nomads" -- but had the law (nomas in Latin), and the name (nomen). With few possessions in hand, Jews clung to the word – the book – and the law, a set of values, beliefs and implicit moral codes.

Name changes are made, both voluntary and involuntary. These are names foisted on a community by the State as through legislation imposed by governments of Russia, Prussia, Australia, and Western Europe to regulate their Jewish populations in last several centuries. During Kristallnacht (1938) Hitler instituted law #174, which stripped Jews of their actual names and forced them to adopt a name considered recognizably “Jewish” from a published list of names: men were assigned the middle name Israel and all the women the middle name Sarah.

Many immigrants have chosen to change family names motivated by the desire to hide one’s ethnic identity and avoid discrimination, to assimilate to a host culture, or enhance business opportunities. Sometimes, Himes suggests, a name change is a way of burning “the bridges to the diaspora legacy.” Letters are dropped, the original surname abbreviated, cut off, reshaped.

Our president’s German ancestors rebranded the family name from its original "Drumpf,” which sounds like a Dr. Seuss character with its awkward combination of consonants to a name associated with trumpet, triumph, cards that outrank others in bridge. But consider: Trump also evokes the French tromper meaning to fabricate or deceive. Along these lines, American singer and songwriter Alice Cooper insists President Trump is “the worst celebrity golf cheat.” HBO comedian John Oliver campaigned to deflate the lexical potency of this name change with his slogan "Make Donald Drumpf Again.”

New names sometimes aim to extract one from a traumatic family history. Himes cites the words of one of her own patients: “I live within the confines of my screwed up family matrix, and my name is simply a relic, all that is left of a washed-out historical fact.” Some women transfigure themselves in the after the end of a marriage and forge a new identity through a symbolic name change.

It’s a wonder this unfortunate moniker wasn’t changed, that of 20th c philanthropist and art collector, Ima Hogg (1882-1975). Named after an epic poem penned by her uncle, this woman confronted a lifetime’s array of questions about her name, which she tried to downplay by scrawling it illegibly.

Himes expresses the longing to create her own “signature,” to authorize her own life narrative unbound from the name she was given with all its history. A name is a house, but not always a home or place where one feels the freedom to be oneself. The book emphasizes the tension between self-determinism versus semantic determinism. Yes, to some degree we all live with the conflicting demands between our individual wishes and our obedience to what Himes calls “familial patriotism” and our “deference to dead elders.” How do we honor our heritage without being yoked by it? Can we ever be free of our name? Our ancestry and our intergenerational past is, for Himes, at times, “a prison from which we wish to escape.”

How is our name bound up with our fate? Does it in some ways direct our future or contain something of our essence? Nomenclature seemed ironically predictive of the fate of former American politician Anthony Weiner. In subtle and unconscious ways did his appellation lead to the sexting scandals where he shared sexually explicit photographs of himself with followers via his public Twitter account?

Himes recalls the Roman proverb “nomen est omen”: the name is destiny, a common belief in the ancient Western world. Yet there is the name we are given and then there is what we make of it. Erikson Homburger, the psychoanalyst who defined “identity” as one of the eight stages of psychosocial development (1959), reinvented himself in adulthood as Erikson, in honor of his unknown biological father as he gained United States citizenship. Each of us makes and remakes the meanings we attach to our name, imputing it with our own interpretations and private associations. The meaning of a name is not glued to it.

And we are also more than language animals. Some essential aspects of who we are and what we will become, doesn’t make it into words, falls between them, and exceeds our vocabulary. I am not my name anymore than René Magritte’s surrealist painting of a pipe is identical to a pipe itself: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe.) The lines that intersect in this two-dimensional plane to form the image of a pipe on canvas are not equivalent to an actual pipe as a three-dimensional, literal object.

Lyrical, searching, Himes’ book grabbles with how we are both bound by and transcendent of the collection of phonetics one offers with a handshake when introducing oneself.

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Himes, Mavis. The Power of Names: Uncovering the Mystery of What We Are Called (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

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