What’s in a name?

by Henrylito D. Tacio

WHILE reading a national daily recently, I came across an article about British actor James McAvoy. The Hollywood reporter was asking him if he had an “awkward moment” like the character he was playing in Starter for Ten, where he mistakenly called a girl by the wrong name.

I once called a girlfriend James in bed which was a little bit strange,” McAvoy disclosed. To correct the error, he called her by another name: Stephen. The reporter asked if he knew people with those names, the actor replied, “James is my name. I don’t know where Stephen came from. I was quite drunk.”

This brings us to the subject of names. “What’s in a name?” asked William Shakespeare, the father of English literature. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Giving child a name is very important. John Keats, in a letter to his sister-in-law, wrote: “If you should have a boy do not christen him John, and persuade George not to let his partiality for me come across. It is a bad name, and goes against a Man. If my name had been Edmund I should have been more fortunate.”

Novelist James Joyce penned: “I shall write a book some day about the appropriateness of names. Geoffrey Chaucer has a ribald ring, as is proper and correct, and Alexander Pope was inevitably Alexander Pope. Colley Cibber was a silly little man without much elegance and Shelley was very Percy and very Bysshe.”

At one time, I asked my mother why they named me “Henrylito.” It’s quite unique since they combined an English name (“Henry”) and a Spanish moniker (“Lito”). My mother explained: “The name ‘Henry’ was in honor of King Henry from a movie which we watched when we were still dating. But we thought the name ‘Henry’ was very short, so we added ‘Lito’ to make it longer.”

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,” observed British author Salman Rushdie. Henry David Thoreau added, “A name pronounced is the recognition of the individual to whom it belongs. He who can pronounce my name aright, he can call me, and is entitled to my love and service.”

In all languages certain names are traditionally used to designate men and others are used for women; a number of English names, such as Evelyn or Leslie, can be used for either sex. Names in themselves have no psychological significance, unless one associates a memorable experience with someone of a particular name.

Given names, known among English-speaking people variously as first names, forenames, or Christian or baptismal names, existed before surnames. Christian influence on first names has been especially strong. In some countries, Brazil, for example, a child must be given an appropriate Christian name before he or she can be issued a birth certificate.

Modern names often are derived from sources such as the names of the months (May, June), precious stones (Ruby, Jade), popular contemporary personalities (Sharon, Gloria, Paolo, Richard), flowers (Sampaguita, Cherry, Daisy), or figures in classical legend (Diana, Jason, Perseus).

Here in the Philippines, some parents try to create new names by combining their names for the name of their child. For instance, Rodrigo and Celeste may their daughter “Rodcel” from the first three letters of their names.

Names are not always what they seem,” said American writer and humorist Mark Twain (his real name is Samuel Langhorne Clemens). “The common Welsh name Bzjxxllwcp is pronounced Jackson.”

This must be the reason why some celebrities changed their original names. Among those who opted to do this are Anne Bancroft (Anna Maria Louisa Italiano), John Denver (Henry John Deutchendorf), Bo Derek (Cathleen Collins), Mike Nichols (Michael Igor Peschkowsky), Charlie Sheen (Carlos Extevez), and Stevie Wonder (Steveland Morris Hardaway). By the way, the real name of Albert Brooks is – would you believe? – Albert Einstein.

Milan Kundera admitted, “We don’t know when our name came into being or how some distant ancestor acquired it. We don’t understand our name at all, we don’t know its history and yet we bear it with exalted fidelity, we merge with it, we like it, we are ridiculously proud of it as if we had thought it up ourselves in a moment of brilliant inspiration.”

The likes of Marlon Brando, Ursula Andress, Humphrey Bogart, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Clark Gable, Dustin Hoffman, Clint Eastwood, Errol Flynn and Kris Kristofferson never changed their real names. “In real life, unlike in Shakespeare, the sweetness of the rose depends upon the name it bears. Things are not only what they are. They are, in very important respects, what they seem to be,” said Hubert H. Humphrey.

The following celebrities use their mother’s maiden name as their screen surnames: Charlton (Heston) Charlton, Buster (Keaton) Cutler, Bill (Clinton) Dwire, Paul (Newman) Fetzer, Frank (Sinatra) Garaventi, Johnny (Carson) Hook, Arnold (Schwarzenegger) Jedrny, Sylvester (Stallone) Labofish, and Bruce (Springsteen) Zirilli.

The following people are better known by their middle names: (Maria) Corazon Aquino, (Daniel) Louis Armstrong, (Ernst) Ingmar Bergman, (Samuel) Dashiell Hammett, (James) Paul McCartney, (Harold) Warren Moon, (Helen) Beatrix Potter, (Ruth) Bette Davis, (James) Dan Quayle, and (Marie) Dionne Warwick. “Any child can tell you that the sole purpose of a middle name is so he can tell when he’s really in trouble.” Dennis Frakes once commented.

Don’t sweat the small stuff when it comes to names. Allow me to share this story send to me by a friend via e-mail:

During my second month of college, our professor gave us a pop quiz. I was a conscientious student and had breezed through the questions until I read the last one: “What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?”

Surely this was some kind of joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times. She was tall, dark-haired and in her 50s, but how would I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank. Just before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our quiz grade.

Absolutely,” said the professor. “In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say ‘hello.’”

How true, indeed, is the Chinese proverb, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” As American president Abraham Lincoln explained, “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. (But) calling a tail a leg (still) doesn’t make it a leg.” — ###

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