Names and Personal Identity

By H. Edward Deluzain

This year, more than 120 million babies will be born on earth. Those who survive will sooner or later undergo the initiation process of receiving a name. At one time anthropologists thought that some groups of people were so "primitive" and unorganized that they didn't use names. We now know that the anthropologists were mistaken and that the idea came about because research fieldworkers were not able to get inside the minds of the people well enough to understand the customs and taboos that required that names be kept secret from strangers (Feldman). The truth is that names are a part of every culture and that they are of enormous importance both to the people who receive names and to the societies that given them.

Despite their universality, there is a great deal of difference from one culture to another in how names are given. Among most preliterate peoples, names are determined according to very definite and specific rules. Generally, in cultures with a keen sense of ancestry, children get their names from the totems and family trees of their parents. In some cultures, names are taken from events which happen during the pregnancy of the mother or shortly after the birth of the child, and in others, names are divined through magic and incantation. In some cases, the name given at birth is only the first of several names a person will bear throughout life. When this happens, the new names are given either to mark important milestones in life or to ward off evil spirits by tricking them into thinking that the person with the old name has disappeared.

Regardless of when, why, or how often it happens, though, the giving and receiving of a name is an event of major importance. Quite frequently the significance of names is emphasized by elaborate rituals that almost always have deep religious meaning. One rather dramatic example of this is the naming ceremony of the Khasi people in Africa.

Among these people, children are named within a day of their births. The ceremony begins when a relative of the child prepares a sacrifice by pouring rice meal into small dishes and filling a gourd with rice liquor. After an invocation, the relative pours the liquor into the rice meal while reciting a list of names. The name the child will have is the one the relative recites during the pouring of the drop of liquor that takes the longest to leave the bottle. Once the name is "discovered" in this way, they anoint the baby's feet with the meal-and-liquor paste, and the parents and relatives eat the paste. Then, after swinging it over the baby three times, the father leaves the group to bury the placenta (Charles).

The gore of a placenta flying through the air and the mess of a baby smeared with rice paste may not correspond very well with western notions of what a ceremony is supposed to be. Yet, an objective observer might well remark that some of the things Christians do in christening rites, which are generally considered solemn and dignified, are not all that different from some of the elements of the Khasi naming ceremony. This is especially true of the baptismal ceremony of the Catholic Church. Although in the eyes of the Church the rite of baptism is not primarily a naming ceremony, the giving of the baptismal, or Christian, name is certainly a part of it.

In the Catholic baptismal ceremony, the priest meets the parents, godparents, and baby at the door of the church building, and the first thing he says is, "What name do you give your child?" After the parents answer this and other questions, the priest invites the parents and godparents to trace the sign of the cross on the child's forehead, and then they move into the main body of the building for the rest of the christening.

After a reading from one of the gospels, special prayers, and the recitation of part of the Litany of the Saints, the priest anoints the child with holy oils. Then follows the pouring of water on the child's forehead three times, which technically constitutes the actual baptism. A second anointing with oil occurs, and the parents receive a white garment to put on the child. The priest then lights a ceremonial candle and presents it to the father or godfather on behalf of the child. The ceremony concludes with additional prayers (Rite of Baptism).

Modern Christian theologians speak of baptism as a sacrament of initiation into the church, and in this sense it serves basically the same purpose as naming ceremonies in preliterate societies. In Christian thought, baptism is a cleansing or reclaiming of the soul of the child, and this takes place under the name the child receives in the ceremony. Among preliterate peoples, the act of naming is a bestowal of a soul on the one who receives the name (Charles). In either case, though, the effect is the same: the person who receives a name thereby receives an identity and a place within the society.

This bestowal of name and identity is a kind of symbolic contract between the society and the individual. Seen from one side of the contract, by giving a name the society confirms the individual's existence and acknowledges its responsibilities toward that person. The name differentiates the child from others; thus, the society will be able to treat and deal with the child as someone with needs and feelings different from those of other people. Through the name, the individual becomes part of the history of the society, and, because of the name, his or her deeds will exist separate from the deeds of others.

In industrialized countries, parents must register a child's birth and record the child's name. In this way, the child's name becomes part of the public record of the society. The birth certificate the parents receive when they register the child's birth becomes a kind of ticket or passport to some of the essential services the society offers its members. For example, the public schools in the United States require that prospective students present birth certificates when they register for classes. If a child doesn't have a birth certificate for some reason, the school system feels no obligation toward the child until the parents produce a birth certificate or provide some other type of verification of the child's legal name and date of birth.

As mentioned earlier, the symbolic name contract requires that the society recognize and provide for the needs of individuals, at least in a general way. From time to time, however, certain individuals and groups feel that the society has failed to live up it its part of the bargain, and they sometimes respond by abandoning the name and identity under which they entered into the original contract. Such was the case in recent years with the radical Black Muslim organization. These people believed that the social and political system in the United States had failed them and that racist attitudes and practices of American culture had victimized and oppressed them. They responded by adopting a new culture that they thought would better meet their needs, and, in the process, they changed their "white" names to Black Muslim names.

As seen from the other side of the name contract, by receiving a name, the individual implicitly accepts membership in the society and agrees to follow its rules and customs. In the United States, the practice of within our penal system of forcing convicts to exchange their names for prison numbers emphasizes this aspect of the naming bargain. In doing this, society says, in effect, that the convicts have broken the contract with civilization that their names imply. They have separated themselves from the community by breaking the rules; thus, they are no longer entitled to the identity and social privileges their names give them.

Certain relatively closed societies within the larger society use a similar sort of practice when a member breaks the rules and has to be expelled. For example, some college fraternities and sororities strike an expelled member's name from the rolls with indelible ink to make sure future generations of members will not discover who their ex-sibling was and, presumably, not follow his or her example. In the closed society of the Virginia Military Academy, where conformity to rules and time-honored traditions is a sacred obligation, they mark the conferral of non-identity on cadets who violate the school's honor code with a mini-pageant that rivals the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. As Frank Rose describes it in Real Men, "Once [the cadet] has gone--in the very early hours of the morning, as it usually happens--his departure is announced by a low drum roll that grows steadily in intensity until it is broken by a boom on the bass drum. As the drum rolls and the intermittent booms continue, the members of the honor court march through the arch and up to the topmost stoop. From there, they work their way around and down, their president pronouncing as they go the name of the disgraced cadet, the charge on which he was convicted, and the admonition never to utter his name again."

From a strictly objective viewpoint, blotting out a person's name in a club registry or forbidding cadets to mention a name in the future does absolutely nothing to change either the person or what he or she did. However, the link between name and identity is so strong and the importance of the symbolic name bargain so great that we genuinely feel that actions of this type somehow have the desired effect of making the person a non-entity.

The names parents choose for their children also reflect the relationship between name and identity that the symbolic contract seals. This is particularly true of the names of twins, for whom the establishment of a unique identity is often difficult. Parents tend to think of twins as a single person who happens to have two bodies, and they often choose names for them that reinforce the idea that the twins have a single, shared identity.

Robert Plank, who studied names of twins, discovered that the names fit into three patterns and that the names in two of the patterns show unmistakable similarity. The most common pattern, which occurred in 62f the cases Plank studied, was the use of names that begin with the same letter. This included such names as Richard and Robert (Ricky and Robby), Joseph and Judith (Joey and Judy), Louise and Louisa, as well as such names as Paul and Paula and Patrick and Patricia. The second pattern involved names that had different first letters but where similar in sound, rhythm, or rhyme. Such sets of names as Tracy and Stacy, Billy Joe and Penny Sue accounted for 17f the sets of names. Finally, Plank found that only 21f the sets of names were different enough from one another to be considered dissimilar. Identical twins, who are always of the same sex and who look so much alike people have trouble telling them apart, fare worse than fraternal twins in the similarity of their names. For, as Plank found, almost 90f the identical twins had similar names compared to roughly only 75f the fraternals.

The point of all of this is not that parents of twins are vindictive toward their children and purposely give them names that will confuse other people. Instead, the point is that the parents instinctively feel that their twins share an identity and hence should "share" a name. Sometimes, though, it seems that parents are unable to resist the temptation for humor when it comes to naming twins. For example, a woman in London named her twin daughters Kate and Duplicate. When a clergyman refused to baptize the second one, the newspapers picked up the mother's cause and editorialized in support of her right to give her children any names she wanted. A couple in Dubuque, Iowa, named their twins Bing and Bang, and Dick Gregory, the comedian and civil rights leader, combined his two callings by giving his twins the middle names of Inte and Gration (Smith).

We find an awareness of the link between name and identity in everyday speech, particularly in the words we use in making introductions and in identifying ourselves when we answer the telephone. When we introduce ourselves, we usually say something like, "Hi. I'm John Smith," and when we answer the phone we probably say something like, "Hello. This is Susan Johnson speaking." Occasionally, before a group of strangers, we might use a more distant form and say, "My name is Carol Jones, and I work . . .," but we almost always reserve this style for situations where our function or job is more important than who we really are. On the other hand, we would probably never answer the phone by saying, "Hello. My name is Pat Wilson," nor would we introduce someone else with an expression like, "Mother, this person's name is Beth." The reason we instinctively choose "I am . . ." or "This is . . ." is that we intuitively associate our identity and the identity of the person we are introducing with a name.

The same idea applies when our name is mispronounced. Most people take great care to make sure they pronounce another person's name correctly, especially in introductions. The reason for this concern is that people generally resent the mispronunciation of their name because mispronunciation amounts to a distortion of their identity. Accidental distortions are annoying, but mispronunciations and distortions of a name on purpose are sizable insults, especially if they result in unflattering puns. Martin Luther used this tactic to belittle one of his enemies, Dr. Eck, by purposely writing his name as Dreck, which means filth.

Freud saw psychological meaning in the accidental distortion of a person's name. He noticed that aristocrats seemed to mispronounce their doctors' names more often than other people did. He interpreted this as one way the aristocracy had of keeping physicians in their place. Doctors might have power over the life and death of their patients, but they couldn't compete with the aristocrats in political influence and social prestige. By unconsciously distorting the doctors' names, the aristocracy said, in effect, that the doctors were not important enough for them to bother pronouncing their names correctly. Shakespeare used this idea in King John. In the first scene, Philip Faulconbridge learns that he is really the bastard son of Richard the Lion-Hearted, hence the son of a king. King John, Richard's brother, changes Philip's name to Richard Plantagenet and grants him the honor of a prince and nephew. In a soliloquy following the name change, the new Richard says, "And if his name be George, I'll call him Peter;/For new-made honour doth forget men's names" (I, i, 186-187). Freud and Shakespeare both recognized that the relationship between name and identity is so strong that the misrepresentation of a name amounts to a misrepresentation of the person (Smith).

The sense of personal identity and uniqueness that a name gives us is at the heart of why names interest us and why they are important to us as individuals and to our society as a whole. In spite of their importance, though, most people know very little about names and about the effects they have on us an on our children in everyday life. In a very real sense, we are consumers of names, and we have a need and right to know about the psychological, magical, legal, religious, and ethnic aspects of our names.

Works Cited

Charles, Lucille Hoerr. "Drama in First-naming Ceremonies." Journal of American Folklore 64 (1951): 11-35.

Feldman, Harold. "The Problem of Personal Names as a Universal Element in Culture." American Imago 16 (1959): 237-250.

Plank, Robert. "Names of Twins." Names 12 (1964): 1-5.

The Rite of Baptism. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1970.

Rose, Frank (with photographs by George Bennett). Real Men. New York: Doubleday, 1980. Excerpted in Esquire 93 (1980): 38-44.

Smith, Elsdon C. Treasury of Name Lore. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

Copyright ©1996 by H. Edward Deluzain. Permission is hereby granted to print this file and to disseminate it in hard copy or online, provided it is not changed in any way.