What’s in a Name?

Most names are classifications. I window-watch the heaving mass of green and gold and say “tree,” and this name places the thing in a mental “class” of similarily heaving objects, the class of “trees.” Rock, sling, giant, corpse — all these “names” are fundamentally classifications, names that allow us to understand a thing by referring to its species. But a personal name does not refer to a species. There is nothing about the name “Michael” that groups its named object into a class.

Many names are both classifications and descriptions of their object. Armchair, weeping willow, eyeball — these names effectively describe their object at the moment of naming it. But there is nothing about the name “Michael” that describes to me the particular person named Michael.  Sure, names have meanings — Michael means “Who is like God?” — but these are mystical, and are not employed as descriptions of the particular person who carries the name. I do not know michaelish people.

Neither are personal names any sort of definition. Definition places the object defined in relation to other objects, marking off its edges and pulling it from its background. The tree is “a plant having a permanently woody main stem or trunk, ordinarily growing to a considerable height, and usually developing branches at some distance from the ground.” This does not tell us what the object “tree” is, it only relates it to other objects. The tree is related to “plants,” to “wood,” “branches” and the “ground,” each of these ideas in need of their own definitions, and so on, until we arrive upon the suspicion that a dictionary is really just a spider weaving together strands of relation between objects, and it is only childhood ignorance that thought we could open up a dictionary and find what a thing is. Definition does not tell us what something is, definition tells us about something, and here the word “about” should be taken with an understanding of its Old English root, ymbutan, meaning “in the neighborhood of.” Definition describes its object’s neighborhood. But naming is not definition. Naming makes no pretense of tying an object to other objects. “Michael” tells me nothing about his neighborhood.

Personal names are odd. And yet, our experience of other people is not just that they happen to have names, but that they ought to have names. It is somehow imperative to the very nature of a person that he is named, an offense to his dignity if he is not. So I suppose the question is simple: If a personal name neither describes, defines or classifies, what in the human person is indescribable, indefinable and unclassifiable, and yet, absolutely present, demanding the recognition of a name?

Namely, the person himself, that is, the subject he is. The particular you-ness of you.

Human beings are subjects, the I’s who speak, do and know, not merely the me’s spoken to, done to, and known. I am a being with an unrepeatable internal life that “looks out” about the cosmos, a life totally uninhabitable by anyone but myself. Since my subjectivity cannot be known, it is — in itself — indescribable. Since my subjectivity is my own, that is, utterly unique, it cannot be classified into a larger group.  Since my subjectivity transcends the world of objects — the world of things acted upon — by freely acting, it cannot be defined, that is, placed in right relation to the world of objects.

Human naming, then, is a recognition of subjectivity. The word “Michael” does not define, describe, classify or categorize the person named Michael. It signifies the presence of that which can never be fully known. The presence of a name preserves and expresses the mystery of the named person by signifying him beyond the world of objects, of things observed. As such it is a sacramental, for it presents the unpresentable through sign. This is not all it does, but I think it is part.

  • Theodore Capaldi

    How does this relate to the human tendency to name animals?

    • http://flailingdad.buzzsprout.com/ Rob Maxwell

      I don’t think it relates at all to the human tendency to name animals. I think what he was trying to get at is not the reason we have a name, so much as the reason we feel we OUGHT to have a name, and that it’s an injustice to not have one. Humans name animals, yes, and cars, and plants, and many other things, but some don’t. Some just call their dogs, “dog”. To some that’s an injustice; but not to all.

      Marc isn’t telling us what naming “does”; he’s not giving us its “function”. He describes it as a sacramental: something which “signifies” the subjectivity. And he’s referring to only human naming; the main difference being the unique subjectivity of human beings.

    • sirsam

      Animals certainly don’t name animals. To name something, one must have a name, that is, already be a subject in one’s own right.

      • Agnes

        Recent research with regards to dolphins and whales suggests otherwise.

  • Mary

    Very interesting. However, I DO think that names have power. The naming and renaming of a person in the Old Testament was a very powerful thing and their name often signified something intrinsic to them in relation to God. Which is why I think parents, especially Christian parents these days, need to be MUCH more discerning with their choice of names rather than bending toward trend or even taste.

    • Barfly_Kokhba

      Not just in the Old Testament. Personal names and re-naming are equally significant in the New Testament. Simon Peter would be a good example (Petros/petra).

      God gives Adam the authority to name other living creatures smack dab in the middle of one of the most important narratives in all of Scripture: the creation of Eve in the Second Chapter of Genesis. In the narrative, God’s granting Adam the chance to name living creatures seems to be presented as a sort of test for Adam, before God actually allows him to have another human companion. The two actions are intimately connected. And it is Adam himself who names her “Woman.” (Incidentally, this same narrative can be seen both as implicitly alluding to an evolutionary process and presenting woman as the pinnacle of living creation, since the narrative begins with the “lowest” life forms and works its way up, with man being penultimate and woman being the ultimate living creation.)

      It was apparently common practice, in the days when infant mortality was more common, for parents to give the same name to a child as a previous baby who had died in infancy. This might seem odd from the modern perspective, but the reasoning was that both infants were in fact the same soul attempting to incarnate in different earthly bodies. Hence the name belonged to the soul, not the body, and if one body expired too soon then the name was simply applied to the next body.

      • Mary

        Very true. And in many other non-Christian cultures as well. I’m thinking right now about how descriptively Native Americans traditionally named their children.

  • Brian Donohue

    Some questions.

    1. Human naming is not per se “a recognition of subjectivity.” Theodore asked the right question: What about other animals, which are non-persons (“persons” as you’ve seemed to demarcate the term)? Presumably the subjectivity you are interested belongs peculiarly to persons. Now when I call, “Pepper,” I mean my brother’s dog, not another dog. In fact, Pepper is unrepeatable, incommunicable, irreplaceable, etc. Am I thereby recognizing subjectivity? Dogs do have a kind of subjectivity, consciousness, etc. (There’s something that it’s like to be a dog, a la Thomas Nagel.) Then again, someone can name a doll, a car, or a laptop, where no subjectivity is supposed, unless it were projected, say, by the child upon the doll. Here, the function of the personal name appears to remain the same across the spectrum, whether a human or an inanimate thing is being named. Could you point out the functional difference?

    2. Why couldn’t personal names be individual labels for human beings, like college housemates who mark off their food of identical kinds with their own names (two jars of peanut butter; one reads “BD,” and the other “JR”)?

    3. It seems that if one were, in the case of a person (so defined by you), to cut away the classifications, descriptions, and definitions, one would be left with a vacuous name (a pure label after all?). That is to say, what we mean by “Michael” or “Marc” is bound up inextricably with the fact of his humanity (a classification, perhaps somewhat definitional), as well as relation to surroundings (Michael S. comes from place A, from family B, whereas Michael T. comes from place C, from family D, etc). These aren’t strictly descriptive, but neither is “BD” with respect to the jar of peanut butter.

  • Joe Ransom

    John Blacksmith or Marty Fisher may have once upon a time taken those names because of their occupations. Likewise names may have once told us where a person hailed from. To an extent we can still make assumptions of a person’s religion or race or geographical origin from a person’s name. For example, Paula Goldstein or Mohammed Ahzallah or Lo Loc.
    Did Jesus’ name tell us something about him?

    • Jaye Baldwin

      There are also those people whose Christian names are functions, e.g., Princess or Moon Unit. I have always had the feeling that this was an aberration of nature but couldn’t express why; your article has helped me elucidate the reason behind my antipathy toward such names.


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