Thursday, February 28, 2008

What's in a Name - Part 3

Since this thematic horse isn't quite dead yet, I thought I'd beat one more post out of the very fascinating subject of names.

In some cultures, names are considered to have their own magic: knowing the name of a person or thing is believed to give you some level of power over that person or thing, and so true names are kept secret...which may be why we're sometimes reluctant to give out our real names in some contexts (consider that most of us use screen names while online, or don't give out our full names to people we meet casually in bars). In an age when identity theft is a serious problem, there really is some magic in the knowledge of a name (or, especially, a social security number).

How do we get our names? In the U.S., the convention is for people in general to have three names: first (Christian or given), middle, and last (or family). The first name is often the name of the parent or some respected relative or other figure, and the family name is obvious, but the source of the middle name is somewhat more flexible: it can come from the name of a relative, a friend, or someone we want to honor. It can also be ... well ... different. Some people don't have a middle name, and some have only an initial (U.S. president Harry S. Truman is an example of the latter - the "S" doesn't stand for anything, it's just an initial). Sometimes there's name overkill when one middle name just isn't enough: the heir to the throne of Great Britain, for example, is named Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor. Russians have a first name, patronymic, and family name, the patronymic middle name being derived from the father's name; thus, Ivan's son Peter would be Peter Ivanovich, and his daughter Larissa would be Larissa Ivanova.

Reader Mike commented on the first of these posts that it's also tough to have a first and middle name (Robert Michael), then be called by your middle name (Mike) tends to confuse people. Sometimes, though, this is done by choice when an individual doesn't really like his given name: one of my college friends was named "Claude Robert," but signed his letters "C. Robert" and preferred to be called "Bob." We often called him "Crobert" just to irritate him.

The family name can also have its own issues. The tradition in this country for many years was for a woman to take the name of her husband's family upon marriage; however, many women, particularly those who are established professionals, now choose to either keep their own family name or combine it with the husband's name through hyphenation. In some Latin cultures, combined family names are also common. And sometimes, people just don't like their family name, and opt to change it legally to something else: I once knew an individual named "Raper" who legally changed his name to something less inflammatory.

The order in which names are presented is culturally determined. In the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, the order is first name, middle name, family name; but in China and much of the Orient (and in Romania, go figure), the family name comes first. Thus, Chinese president Hu Jintao is President Hu, not President Jintao, and gymnast Nadia Comenici would be found in the phone book (and formally addressed) as Comenici Nadia.

Names can also lead to great fun (or embarrassment), as we saw yesterday. One of the funniest comedy routines ever done was the classic "Who's on First" baseball team lineup by Abbot and Costello. If you've never heard this wonderful (and perfectly clean) routine, you can read the transcript and hear a recording here. There are also several versions of a takeoff on this routine, involving President Bush being briefed by Secretary of State Rice prior to a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao; you can read the transcript of "Hu's on First" here.

And so we come full circle to our original question: what's in a name? Actually, there's quite a bit to a name, and it's interesting to think about it.

But we're done now, and tomorrow we'll think about something else.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



John A Hill said...

My wife--Chris, is actually Linda Christine. She kept her family name so we have different last names. The kids have her family name as their middle name.

Anonymous said...

Here I am again with my "cutesy" pen name anonymous because I'm unable to make the momentous decision of what screenname to use.

Ah, names. I'm surprised there are only 3 posts on this topic. Your linguist background is coming out!

Another aspect that has recently gotten under my skin re: names is the tendency among some cultures to use the same names over and over. Recall the family introduction scene in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", where virtually every grandkid (male and female) was named "Nick/Nickie" in honor of the grandfather. I've gotten into genealogy lately and want to smack the generations who not only used the same names, but didn't even have the sense to change middle names! Can we please have some variety here? It's the opposite of the current trend to create one's own word/name for a kid that no one will know how to spell, but it's terribly frustrating to genealogists.
Have a great day, Mr Bilbo.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

My mum's name is Emma Jane and she goes by her middle name, in fact a lot of people in my family are like that.

NathanRyder said...

I really like this Abbot
and Costello inspired sketch, involving a meeting between stupid Lego spy James
Stud and Dr. No... :)

That Bush and Rice parody is sublime too, but the original "Who's On First?" sketch is one of my personal favourites.

Amanda said...

You've done a fantastic job on all 3 name posts.

I've kept my own last name because I don't really like the sound of Richard's. It is Kok and I just couldn't take it. Actually, Richard doesn't particularly like it either so Aaron actually has the surname Kuok. Which is the same Chinese character but in a different dialect. So all 3 of us have different surnames.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

'Who's On First' is a classic. Parents can be cruel how they name their child.

Mike said...

There can be a naming contest for Anonymous right here! All you have to do is post all your personal information (don't forget your ss#) and we'll come up for one for you.

Call me with any questions. My number is BR549. If junior answers hangup.