16-34 Segment 2: The Importance of Names

pregnant woman trying to choose a name for her baby

 

One of the most important things new parents have to consider is what to name their child. A lot of history and tradition can go into the choosing of that moniker and our guest has researched how we pick names and why they are important. She also discusses the religious and ethnic considerations of naming and why some people decide to change their names.

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Guests:

Dr. Mavis Himes, psychoanalyst, clinical psychologist and author of the book, The Power of Names: Uncovering the mystery of what we are called

Links for more info:

 

The Power of Names:

Marty Peterson: Roosevelt, Trump, Freud, Einstein, Columbus…your brain associates these names with very specific character traits within seconds. Even names that don’t imply someone famous, such as Chris, Kayla, Brad or Samantha, can bring feelings to the surface. Maybe you’re wary around “Jim’s” because someone called Jim teased you in school. Maybe you’re drawn to people named Lucy because Lucille Ball’s show was always on at your house growing up. Names seem to have a huge affect on all of our judgments, but you probably don’t think about why. Psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist Dr. Mavis Himes has used research and personal experiences to uncover the power that names seem to have on us for her book, The Power of Names: Uncovering the mystery of what we are called. Although we judge people based on what they’re called, names say more about someone’s parents than they do themselves…

Mavis Himes: The first name is the “given name,” it’s a gift, a donato from one’s parents and parents take a lot of time in considering what they want to name their child. It often satisfies their hopes and joys and expectations and desires for their children, so people name their children after a literary figure, and artist, a musician, someone they love and would love their children to aspire to, or a favorite name. They like the sound of it or often, in certain traditions, we include the name of a relative – either a living or deceased relative depending on your tradition. And man is the only species, because we have generative language, that names and in that naming we call the child into existence. It’s what takes us from being a biological animal or individual into being what I would call a human being.

Peterson: Names can also be chosen to reflect religion. Names such as Matthew, Mary and Adam are known for being Christian and can be found in the Bible. The number one name among Muslim boys is “Muhammad,” after the prophet and founder of Islam. In Jewish tradition, naming works a bit differently…

Himes: As someone of the Jewish faith, we have an English name, secular name that’s often the first letter of our Hebrew name. My name was “Malkah” beginning with an “m” and my mother says she liked this name “Mavis,” she knew someone with the same name, and that became my name.

Peterson: In other cultures, elaborate naming rituals are part of their tradition. Ancestors are talked about at these celebrations and play a part in the naming of a child. Names also appear to them in dreams. However you’re “called into existence,” Himes says a lot of time is always taken to consider what your name will be. Surnames are the exception…

Himes: The surname carries our ancestral lineage, our tribal past if you want, our clan in the old days, and so it connects us to our family tradition and our bloodline. But it was really in the 1400s when people, for tax purposes and paying taxes – for civil service if you want – needed to keep a census of people and who owned tax, people began to own some land and it was a way of keeping track because they ran out of first names. So people started to receive names often by a town.

Peterson: Surnames not only connect us to our ancestors, but also create a kind of “code of ethics” for us to follow…

Himes: I think there’s a kind of pride in the surname in particular in our line. The name is a house that we’re given in which we begin to live and we need to make it our home. We need to inhabit it; we need to shed the name of all of the impositions, restrictions, identifications that are imposed on it. And by that I mean, you know parents who, for example, say, “Oh, we’re the Watsons, or the Smiths or the Rothschilds or the Kennedys and we do things a certain way.” This was very true in feudal times and I think we are moved away from it because in old times the name was very much associated with the land, with territory, with a badge, with heraldry, I mean there was a lot connected.

Peterson: One thing that’s not so easy to shed is the prejudice against foreign names when it comes to education and employment in North America…

Himes: I believe it was a Harvard study that showed that people with foreign-sounding names had less of a chance in terms of university and job applications. But think of all the, I mean even in today’s climate, it’s a prime example of what’s going on with refugees and immigrants. So if you carry today a name like “Mohammed” or “Aljube” or “El Kazir,” that today is a real problem, just in terms of the social fabric of society right now and the issues that are going on. North America is such a melting pot, we’re so culturally diverse, and yet life is easier if you have a name that sounds quite Anglo Saxon.

Peterson: Teasing plagues young children, and hearing their name as the punch line to every playground joke can follow those who bear foreign names, such as Bogusz, or simply “different” names, like Memphis or Apple, for life…

Himes: I think when parents name children with unusual names, I mean there was the culture of the 60s that we started seeing all the nature names, all the unusual kind of exotic different names, and then I think things settled down and we’ve come back to. I mean it may sound cute or unique for the person naming it, but that’s a very difficult name

Peterson: Some children dislike their name so much that they will change it, even if it’s just temporarily, to avoid bullying and discrimination from their peers…

Himes: Names kind of take on a life of their own and I think it depends, also, on how we wear them and how, with pride or with disdain or with frustration. And I think as a young child, I think it’s one thing. I think as an adult we can revert back to and be proud of certain names, even though they are unusual sounding and could be played with in a kind of teasing way.

Peterson: While teasing and bullying are popular reasons to change your name, there are several others. Take, for example, Norma Jean Mortenson, better known by her stage name, Marilyn Monroe. Celebrities and other people who depend on the media for their careers, such as authors, will take on pen- or stage- names that are catchy and more appealing. Himes’ family has gone through a name change as well, but for different reasons…

Himes: My name, for example, Heimovitch was my father and he was one of nine siblings – seven boys and two girls – and the seven brothers decided in Montreal in post-war, in the 40s, decided for, there was a lot of still anti-Semitism, there was a lot of Anglo-Franco conflict – Anglophone-Francophone – decided to Anglicize their name, to take away the Jewish sounding, again for business purposes, to blend in more. So there were many people who changed their name for that reason as well.

Peterson: Much like children who change their names until adulthood, those whose parents took on names that deviated from their heritage may later go back to tradition…

Himes: Children whose parents changed their name, even though the parents did it for the sake of the children so they would have an easier time, they wouldn’t experience any prejudice or racism or whatever, the children are saying – some children – “Well how come you weren’t proud of your name? Why did you cow-tow? Why did you try and conceal your ethnic roots?” And so many of those children now have decided to revert to the full name. I thought about it myself, but decided to keep my surname shortened.

Peterson: While many women nowadays are opting to keep their maiden names in some form, 70% still take on their husband’s last name after saying “I do”. This dates back to times when women belonged to men after marriage. While children have a literal attachment to their mother, a connection to the father is proven through taking of the last name. We even name cars, diseases, buildings and body parts, which begs the question: do we do this to show ownership?

Himes: There’s something very essentialist about knowing in old times, to know one’s name was to take on the power of that person. But when you talk about “naming rights” I think there is a different kind of a power. It’s a power of ownership, of status, of wealth, of possession that goes back to the Biblical notion of naming things that we create and invent and attaching our name to it as a way of identifying who the inventor, who the creator is. Kind of mimicking the Biblical story.

Peterson: Dr. Mavis Himes talks more in depth about her journey with her name, and many more aspects to naming and its effects, in her book, The Power of Names, available now. She invites listeners to visit his website at MavisHimes.com where you can find out more about her and her work. For more about all of our guests, log on to our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Emily Parker and Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.

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