The nomenclature of you

In the world of moniker-making, identity is the name of the game

Since Brendan Fell’s friends named him Ajax for his height which compares to the mythological Greek warrior, he has taken on the name as a part of his identity.
Since Brendan Fell’s friends named him Ajax for his height which compares to the mythological Greek warrior, he has taken on the name as a part of his identity.

As Shakespeare’s renowned heroine Juliet asked, “What’s in a name?” We often take names for granted, never thinking about what they might mean. But if you could choose your name, you might put a little more thought into those words on your birth certificate.

This was the case for Julie Shen, ArtSci ’08. Shen was given the Chinese name “Bofe” at birth, but before she started school in Canada her aunt decided it was time for her to take on an English name.

“Before I went into kindergarten my aunt gave me a sheet full of names and told me to choose one,” said Shen. “I closed my eyes and did a spin and it came out to be Mary.

“We both thought, ‘No, that won’t work.’ So I did it again and it came out Julie.”

Shen kept her translated Chinese name as a middle name, but has been called Julie ever since. Now, she feels like that name is a part of her identity.

“It’s just been me ever since I can remember,” she said.

Still, Shen feels a connection to her original name, which carries her family lineage.

“It was given to me by my grandfather. It follows a line of all the women in my family.

“The first part of our Chinese names are all the same,” she said.

Although Shen is happy being Julie, she said keeping her Chinese name might have been more unique.

“Only recently have I understood how special my Chinese name is.”

According to Sheila Embleton, conference chair for the International Council of Onomastic Sciences and vice-president academic at York University, names are something special we can pass on in our society.

“I guess [we pass on names] the same way we want to pass on other cultural things, personality traits and property as well,” Embleton said. “It’s a mark of belonging, I think.” Embleton said your name can tell more than just your genealogy. It can be a signifier for your ethnicity, age, social level, or even religion depending on what culture you’re from. Some names can reveal where you’re from, right down to the very region.

“It’s almost like dialects within a language,” Embleton said.

While a name can provide clues about your identity, it also gives some insight into the cultural or historical background you were born into.

If someone has the name Adolf, Embleton said, you’re going to guess they were born before 1940.

“A name can fall out of fashion just as it can fall into fashion.”

New names, particularly nicknames, can also arise throughout a person’s life.

“Very often nicknames or short forms are to show a kind of an in-group,” she said.

Brendan Fell, ArtSci ’08, is known to his friends from first year at Herstmonceux Castle as Ajax. This six-foot-four student was given the nickname because of his exceptional height, a trait he shares with Homer’s mythological Greek warrior Ajax the Great.

Fell has embraced the identity this name has imposed on him.

“It’s an ego-booster ’cause I’m like a mythical Greek warrior.

“I got into the habit of going around screaming ‘Greeks are dying!’ … a line from the movie Troy,” said Fell with a smile.

“The first nickname was Gigantor,” Fell said, going on to explain how this name was soon replaced with Ajax because his friend was a big fan of The Iliad.

For Fell, having a unique name is a reminder of an important time in his life.

“I like it a lot. It reminds me of first year, which was probably the best year of my life,” he said. “It’s often a throwback to the castle.”

This name is also something special Fell said he can share with the people he met at the castle.

“Everyone from the castle calls me Ajax so it’s an interesting way of distinguishing social groups,” he said.

Janice McAlpine, Queen’s Strathy Language Unit director, said in comparison to other cultures, Canadian names aren’t as meaningful.

“One thing I think is interesting is that so few of our names tell us anything,” she said. “We choose from a pool of names. In other cultures you don’t have to look up meanings in a baby book.”

In China, McAlpine said, people choose names from the regular Chinese vocabulary. In Canada, on the other hand, popular names come from celebrities and TV.

“My mom got my name off of a television talk show of the day. And I’m sure I’m nothing like her.”

However, McAlpine said Canadians are branching out in the way they choose names.

“Up until the last 30 years or so there were 50 names in Canada and the United States that accounted for a huge portion of names,” she said.

“We’ve pushed beyond that and people are looking for different names for their children.”

English professor Scott-Morgan Straker became familiar with the study of onomastics in his studies of medieval literature and history where the power of naming can be seen in the conquest of land. Many people at this time believed if they could name something, they could control it.

Naming was so powerful that when William the Conqueror took over England in 1066, naming and recording all the places in his new land, people thought it was the end of the world and called the book in which the names were recorded the Domesday Book.

Straker said we have a belief that ultimately a name doesn’t matter, but we get so used to thinking of ourselves in connection to our names that it’s really difficult to make a name change work.

“The emotional investment involved in doing that is actually a lot greater than people think.”

He was also forced to think more consciously about naming when he had children, he said.

“I spent a lot of time on parenting websites ... and picking a name is very difficult,” he said.

Straker said naming a child is probably the only time most people really think about naming. When you look at the etymologies of names, you begin to consider if you really want to label your child in a certain way.

“You can choose a name to declare belonging to community … or you can expressly avoid that,” he said. “Whether the child ever thinks about that is another matter.”

Names also have special meanings for particular people, he said.

“We associate names with the first person we know who bore that name,” Straker said.

“Your relationship with that person gives the word a connotation.”

In the past few decades, parents have also had more of a choice when it comes to passing on surnames, Straker said. Some parents have abandoned patrilineal naming and began passing on family names from the mother’s side, hyphenating both names or even putting the two names together.

The problem with this is having to deal with too many names when passing surnames on to the next generation, Straker said.

“I figure we’ve got one generation to sort that out,” he said.

However, this dilemma could actually be seen as an improvement in how we give names.

“It will mean a freeing of the process,” Straker said. “My children will choose what surname to pass on.”

This freedom in surnames presents a whole new dimension in naming.

“What’s gained is the erasure of this patriarchal naming. ... What’s lost is you’ll lose the ability to trace your genealogy,” Straker said.

When parents choose a name, they’re also most often identifying the gender of the child with that name. Straker said there has been a trend in using surnames as first names to eradicate gender markers, but it’s hard for names to escape gender entirely.

“Even when names are chosen deliberately to get away from gender they end up being gendered.” For Straker, this trend is indicative of the importance of gender distinctions to our culture.

“Cultural traditions do their best to naturalize gender. ... Naming is a part of that process of naturalization.”

Straker said the difficulty in getting rid of gendered names points to how fundamental naming is to our notions of who we are.

“We actually do believe names are intrinsic to the person.”

What’s in a name?

Top five male Canadian names in 2005:

1. Ethan: Originating from a wise man in the Old Testament, this name suggests you’re solid and enduring.

2. Joshua: This name is rooted in a Hebrew word meaning salvation. In fact, the name Jesus is derived from this name.

3. Matthew: This name is a Greek translation of a Hebrew name meaning “gift of Yahweh,” or “gift of God.”

4. Jacob: This name, also appearing in the Bible may mean “supplanter.” However other theories suggest it means “may God protect.”

5. Nathan: The biblical Nathan was a prophet whose name meant “giver.”

Top five female Canadian names in 2005:

1. Emma: This name comes from a German saint and means “whole” or “universal.”

2. Emily: A strong competitor for the number-one name, “Emily” is actually derived from the male Aemilius, meaning “rival.”

3. Olivia: This name was actually coined by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, but experts think he might have gotten this female moniker from the male Oliver, rooted in the Latin word for olive tree.

4. Hannah: Hannah was a mother in the Bible whose name means “favour” or “grace.”

5. Madison: This first name actually came from a surname meaning “son of Maud.” However, it apparently was only popularized in recent years after the movie ‘Splash’ (1984), in which the main character adopted Madison as her name after seeing a street sign for Madison Avenue.


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