What's In A Name?

Names are weighty affairs. They are more than identification tags or call signs. A man can be viewed in his name, a woman is characterised by hers and children are identified through theirs.

New York University professor of Speech Communication Frank Dance {he never danced around the subject!} wrote that humans “are the only creatures who can name.” Marshall McLuhan reasoned that “the name of a man is a mumbling blow from which he never recovers”.

A holistic make-up, names are life’s stable staple. In Knowing the Face of God, Tim Stafford enthused that “names are personalised little sounds that belong to us” and “they establish us as part of a large body of people, past, present and future”.

Biblical names revealed hope, prophecy, circumstances of birth, personal traits or foundations. The Hebrews of the Old Testament times believed that God’s covenant names revealed His divinity and dynamic, unique character. They counted on God’s name to give His people His power and blessing. Christians share this belief. A Christian’s petition to God is expected to answer in line with the character and spirit of Jesus hence his prayer ends thus: “in Jesus name”.

In The Beatitudes and The Lord’s Prayer for Everyman, William Barclay notes that “in biblical times, the name stood for much more than the name by which a person is called in the modern sense of the term. The name stood for the whole character of that person as it was known, manifested or revealed”.

Adam named Eve woman because she was his extension – GEN. 2:21-25. As strategic necessities expressed in whatever language, names assume universal appeal. The Lord of the universe was named JESUS because of His redemptive mission – MT. 1:21. Given or assumed, names are conversations historically. Pet and nicknames can evidence a special love or identification of a future assignment, for example Simon Bar Jonah to Peter. Covenant promotion moved Abram to Abraham, elevated Sarai to Sarah, upgraded Benoni to Benjamin, changed Saul to Paul and washed the sinner to biblical sainthood.

Value, varieties and patterns are evident in names. Name change at marriage is a meaningful business. The wife receives love, protection and provision from her husband. She taps into the benefits, privileges, rights, authority and resources of her husband’s family name.

In France, the most culturally minded nation in Europe, the state considers it unlawful to give any child any name that is not already held by a Catholic saint or a “well known figure in ancient history”. The courts specially denied one couple permission to name their child Cerisse i.e. Cherry. To Tim Stafford, the French position is correct because names “represent the inter-relatedness of the human family”.

On August 16, 2007, Li Yuming, the deputy chief of the Chinese State Language Commission told a news conference that the Chinese federal government legally resisted a Chinese couple’s attempt to name their child “@”. On the possible reason for this character as choice of name, Li explained that to the father, “the whole world uses it to write e-mail, and translated into Chinese it means ‘love him’”. Indeed, the English word “at” with a drawn out “T” in the Mandarin dialect sounds something like “ai ta”, or “love him”. Li held commercialisation and the Internet responsible for the new bizarre tendency in names by adventurous Chinese families. This may explain why foreign languages, Arabic numerals and symbols strange to Chinese minority languages have been banned from being used as names by the Chinese federal government.

Members of the British Royal Family don’t bother about surnames. They have prefixes that identify them properly e.g. king, queen, prince, princess, duke, duchess, etc. Americans are largely at home with royal prefixes as names, their republican ideals notwithstanding. Prince was a well-known rock star. Winston Lord was assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs in the Nixon presidency. Duke Ellington was a famous jazz artiste. Martin Luther King, a minister of the gospel was an icon of the civil rights movement. Billie Jean King was an unforgettable Wimbledon queen. Former King of Pop music, Michael Jackson appropriately took note of his exalted position in naming his two sons Prince Michael 1 and Prince Michael 11. Unsurprisingly, only Paris, the queen of cities is a good enough name for his daughter. Russians introduce last names first. Because of cumbrous patronymics, they use only initials for first and middle names.

Names can denote one’s canon of faith. Osama Bin Laden will never been mistaken for a Baptist minister or a Full Gospel evangelist. For some religious converts, name change can erase an old self. Names can evidence a relief from actual or perceived civil, racial or religious injustice. Thus Mohammed Ali knocked out Casius Clay. Names are religious bridge builders: Elijah Mohammed, Louis Farrakhan, Atanda Fatai-Williams, and Jubril Martins-Kuye. For intelligence informers against their own nations in the sponsor of foreign powers, name change can signal a flight from an unenviable past when they end their careers in a strange land. As an ode to life, man and his pet gladly get along on the highway of names.

Names could come as a fluid oxymoron. Nduka Onwuka is a Nigerian Igbo name that simultaneously deems life and death to be worthwhile! It is indicative of the staying power of fascism and communism that nobody is named after its yesterday’s murderous heroes. Angulu and Udele are Hausa and Igbo names meaning vulture! Ikumapayi and Onwubiko are Yoruba and Igbo names that try to assuage the terminator. Both names hope that“death will spare this one!”

Kashimawo is a Yoruba cautionary “let’s wait and see if this one will live”! Rarely but not exceptionally, names can incorporate chaos. A prominent family in Lagos is surnamed Savage. Nri is the renowned and acknowledged original settlement of the Igbos, a major nationality in Nigeria. Its monarch is Eze TABANSI UDENE, literally interpreted as “eat the faeces of a vulture.”

Some names seemingly evidence immorality, e.g. Dr. Livingstone. Immortal Emenike, a Nigerian insurance salesman thus finds Trinity Cemetery, Lagos a relaxation spot. “I like the serenity, the fresh air”, he exclaimed. Cecilia Fire Thunder, a 58 year matriarch in December 2004 became leader of the 46,000 strong Oglala Sioux Indians on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. She incinerated a man, Russell Means, in a scotching victory.

Twenty years before, a woman named Wilma Mankiller castrated the male folk of the Indian Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma when she was elected as their principal chief. Mammon is surprisingly, a major force in names, even in Christendom. Serpentine Gallery is in London. Talisman Energy is a Canadian oil firm. Dr. Martin Hellman is an American academic. Creflo Dollars is an American televangelist.

I have been privileged to witness the closest intimacy in names. Amorous liaisons have produced names. And it’s not just due to physical union, but from a marriage of ideas: BILLARY was the name the American press gave the intellectual marriage of minds of Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary. Addis Ababa, which means New Flower was set up in 1883 by Emperor Menelik in honour of his wife. Flora Shaw, the consort of British grand imperialist Lord Lugard coined the name, Nigeria, for Africa’s most populous entity.

What’s in a name? All things! Everything!
Pastor, historian and writer, JOSEPH EMEKA ANUMBOR is the author of The Intercourse of Troubled Thoughts, a critically acclaimed discourse on homosexuality, published by AuthorHouse Inc, Indiana, USA.

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Articles by Emeka Anumbor