Throughout history, language has developed in parallel to humanity. It has played a fundamental role in how we humans communicate. We use language to express love, hate, longing, and disappointment. At no point in history has there been a universal language that has united humanity. We remain divided by language barriers that, although are crossable, present a massive obstacle in our attempts to connect with our fellow humankind.

Within this chaotic system however, there exists a constant. In every language, in every culture, on every continent, in every household, something binds us all together — names. The practice of giving someone a primary name to which they respond is so crucial to language and culture that we seldom think about what it means. Only in recent years has the journey to understand how powerful names truly are begun.

What’s the first name you ever get? It’s, well, your name. It’s what everyone calls you. But is it? Is the name your parents chose for you the one you hear at work? Is it the same name you hear called when you get home to your own family? What about your friends? 

It’s commonly understood that you’re not really “allowed” to give yourself a nickname — it must be assigned to you by someone else. That tells us our first thing about names — they’re not solitary. One might think your name is your business, but in reality, it affects everyone around you. That’s not to say others have control over your name, but names are, in and of themselves, indicative of one’s relationship to others around them.

Take my name, for example: Brianna. That’s what’s on my birth certificate. So that’s what people call me, right? Absolutely not. Of everything that I’m called, my “real” name is probably the least-used rendition. If I go to class, I might be “Miss Lindsey;” Iif I hop a door over to the library, I might be “Bri” by any classmates who recognize me. If I go home, I’m everything from “Bama Lama” to “Clown.” Are these my names? Yes and no. They’re not on any official paper — no one could sue a “Miss Broski.” But I’d argue that what’s more important is not what legal documents say, but what you respond to. If I get called Brianna, I assume a formal attitude, because that’s what I associate that name with. But if I hear “Bam Bam,” from my mother, I’m most likely coming downstairs for dinner. 

The point of this argument is that names are not empty vessels of summoning. Names encapsulate the spirit of how we identify. If you had to respond to a negative phrase, if you were expected to answer to the name “dummy,” it might be silly at first, but time would wear down the humor, and you would begin to associate your identity with the connotation of that word.

We live in a world where impression is king. How we feel is directly impacted by others’ impressions of us, and names are one of the most powerful ways through which we mediate these impressions. So whether it’s a birth name, a chosen name, a nickname, or anything similar, there’s always more to what you’re called than is on the surface. Birth names are gifts, titles are agreements, nicknames are often inside jokes. We are composed of thousands of stories, and names are how we express those connections to our brethren.

We often hear the phrase “what’s in a name” thrown around to signify how little an impact what we call something has, but the truth of it is this. What’s in a name? Everything.

Tagged: name perception


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