It’s a word we use so often, I doubt many of us give it much thought. When someone calls it out, we say, “Here!” We offer it with a handshake when we meet someone new. And, of course, we sign it over and over and over again.
The simple truth is this: We cannot escape our names.
In “Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare penned the famous quote: “What’s in a name?”
And, indeed, what is in a name?
I have always loved names. Growing up, I would ask for baby names books for Christmas. Then, I would pour over them, looking up names of everyone I knew.
For instance, my name means “princess.” (Maybe that’s why I love Disney movies?)
My brother’s name means “appointed,” and it’s also the name of the ancient Egyptian god of chaos (which I’ve teased him about from time to time).
But as fascinating as I find name meanings, what’s even more interesting is how certain names just seem to fit.
For instance, I couldn’t imagine myself as anything other than “Sarah.”
Sure, the argument could be made that I’m just used to it. But I really can’t picture being an Athena, or a Ruth, or a Mia.
Not that those aren’t great names. I’m sure the Athenas, Ruths, and Mias of the world couldn’t imagine being a Sarah.
Of course, names do not solely define a person. For example, I’m sure not every Sarah in the world is an introvert who likes to write, but that doesn’t mean “Sarah” suits them more, or me less, or vice versa.
But, regardless, names are a central part of life. They are the first worries of new parents. Learning to write them is one of childhood’s greatest accomplishments. They are on every document and in every conversation. And, in the end, they are what adorn countless graves in cemeteries.
In fact, the only thing that follows a person as closely as a name is his or her shadow. And even that disappears in the dark. A name, however, is omnipresent.
In the book “The Lightning Thief,” Rick Riordan wrote that “names have power,” and I would have to agree with that.
After all, whatever role a name may or may not have in defining us, something in our subconscious tells us not to tread lightly when it comes to names.
This is especially true when it comes to choosing a name for a child.
Nearly every culture has some custom for name-giving, from baptism to Namakarma Sanskar (a ritual in some Hindu cultures).
Even our society, centered on technology and science, still reveres the power of a person’s name.
For proof, look no further than mainstream media.
How is the maniacal ghost Beetlejuice summoned? By repeating his name three times.
When confronted with a moral dilemma, what does the protagonist in “Les Miserables” ask? “Who am I?” he sings. “I’m Jean Valjean!”
In the BBC series “Doctor Who,” what secret does the Doctor tell only to his wife? His name.
And, in the Harry Potter books, the villain is so terrible that he is known simply as what? As “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”
So, yes, we know that names have some sort of power.
They mean something different to each person who wields them, based on that individual’s personality and past, and they are something that continues to fascinate us.
I learned that fact long ago when I took a baby names book to school. As my friends gathered around, their expressions would say it all.
They would be surprised at their name’s meaning, of its variations, and of its origin.
Even children realize the importance of a name. It is — to paraphrase a quote from the Harry Potter books — a person’s “past, present, and future.”
So, even though years have passed and technology has advanced, the answer to Shakespeare’s question, “What’s in a name?” is still far from simple.
Because, what is in a name? In all actuality, quite a lot.
Sarah Allen may be reached at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @SarahAllenHTG.