‘The meaning of a word is purely a function of how it is used’. Such is the theory of early twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittenstein; in the same way that a portrait is used to describe the likeness of a person, a name belies the function of language and is thus representative of reality. However, within the twenty-first century, is a name just a literal label for our self? How far does a name really represent just that: a name? In actuality, can our name define who we are as a person, and can you or I attain more knowledge about a person and their personality from what is inferred or created by their name?
William Shakespeare, writing over four hundred years ago, debated such issues in his famous play Romeo and Juliet. Juliet, whilst soliloquising on the balcony, debates the surrounding presumptions about names: “Tis but a name that is my enemy/What’s a Montague? It is nor hand nor foot”. She then debates the issue further: “A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet”. Such analysis of the description and association with what a name contains and creates is evidently not a modern conundrum. Yet it is telling that Shakespeare ensures that Juliet professes that her “only love sprung from her only hate”; whilst family allegiances are emphasised, it is telling that the name “Montague” is perceived as being too steeped in family meaning to allow any transcendence of assumptions associated with the name. A Capulet and a Montague remain firmly entrenched in the character and political allegiance that their family name has created, regardless of Juliet’s profession of nominative ambiguity.
In a similar vein, a name often belies a past story: the who, what and why we are named a particular name at birth by our families, or why we assume a nickname in subsequent years. It is little wonder that parents often disagree on what name to give a child; the meaning of names and publication of “Top Baby Names” annually by magazines such as The Guardian heavily suggest that a name has implications for the first impressions of a person, even if this does not necessarily shape their character. Further, a nickname is often created by oneself because of the personal traits which one wants to portray. Conversely, a nickname can be foisted on someone; yet this is usually in association with the semantics of the name rather than to do with character. Writer Will Self, in a recent article for the BBC, describes how at primary school, a critical formative period for nominative association, his surname was appropriated by other children, being called “Self-ish” repeatedly in the playground. This may or may not have been a trait of his character; yet it is far more likely that the name was too tempting for young children to pick up on as an object of humorous semantic creativity.
Social stigma can often be created as a consequence of nominative determinism; such stigma can be created at an early age, as is evident with the case of Will Self. However, it is most probable that a name is intrinsic in creating the initial first impression, but that following this the name is dependent on the person to display their character regardless of what the name belies. Nominative determinism, whilst more prevalent in modern society with continual ability to present a name differently multiple times through different forms of media, only goes so far. Theoretically, then, a name should just be a name; yet in practice, as a consequence of societal interaction and thought over what a name infers about a person, in modern society a name cannot avoid having some impact on the first impression of a person. Perhaps, however, it is wise to heed some of Wittenstein’s philosophical advice; often, a name really is just a name.
Image: Philip H. Calderon/The Anthenauem