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Posted by on Apr 1, 2009

What’s In a Name?

What’s In a Name?


The question of names has been on my mind recently. My son and his wife have a new baby. He’s our first grandchild. So naturally, the question arises, “What do you want to be called?”

It’s a question of some import. For the rest of my life, I will be known by the name chosen for this child to use in speaking to me.

Choice of a name would seem relatively straightforward except for a few complexities of life. For example, my mother’s mother wanted to be called “Gammy,” but I was the first grandchild and I couldn’t get that word straight. The closest I could get to it was “Grammy,” so for the rest of her life, she was known as Grammy by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren from four families. So reality number one is that whatever choice I make, what I actually come to be called will depend on whether or not my grandson can say it!

Another reality is that there can be certain traditions within families for naming of grandparents. I think of my own grandmothers and great-grandmother, as well as of the other older women whom we addressed as Grandma. In my family, we had a different name for each of them. It made it easy to know exactly which woman was the subject of our conversations within the family. They all knew each others’ title as well, so communication was very clear.

Then there is the question of which language to use for selecting a name. Both Spanish and English are spoken in our nuclear family. Only English is used in my daughter-in-law’s family. So if one grandmother is to have a Spanish title, I would be the one.

The preference of the parents of the child also enters into the picture. In this case, my son has asked that I use Spanish with his child. So my title would be Abuela or Abuelita. I wonder if Lita would be easier for him, but that’s a step even farther from standard names, so probably not the best choice, though I find I rather like it. I also like Grandmama, but that’s definitely not Spanish!

I find myself thinking that it’s all very much like the reality of some non-industrial societies in which names are given to people but the person to whom the name is given does not tell it to anyone else. If asked, “What is your name?” the response is, “What would you like to call me?”

In a way, that’s really how most of our names work anyway. We don’t choose the names we are given by our parents. The pet names we give each other within the family are not chosen by any of us. Some of them we might prefer would go away – somehow be forgotten forever. The only names we really get to choose are ones that denote a change in identity related to a change in social position. People may change their last names when they marry, for example. Within the Christian community, those old enough to choose for themselves may select a new name for Baptism or Confirmation. Sacramental names don’t carry the force of law in civil society, but they do tell something about the individual who chooses them if selected thoughtfully, with consideration of what the name might signify about one’s new role or calling.

So, unlike the Divine name, which within Jewish tradition no one may speak because no one is allowed to have or claim any control over the Lord and Creator of all, each of us has a name by which others call us. By knowing our name, they have a claim on our attention and care. They can make demands of us. They remind us that we are all part of the same family – whether it is our small nuclear family, or our larger extended families, or the family of all humans in the world. I find myself thinking, I guess I’ll wait and see what I’m called and that will become my new name. It will reflect a new relationship with the world and my community. And that’s OK.

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