“What’s In A Name”

I will give you treasures out of the darkness

And riches that have been hidden away

That you may know that I am the Lord,

The God of Israel, who calls you by your name.

-Isaiah 45:3

 “What’s in a name anyways?” Oddly enough, I have heard this question rhetorically thrown around multiple times over the past week with the resulting conclusion being that names are, at their core, meaningless. Now these instances I mention were all within different contexts and among different people, and I am not writing about an impeding “name crisis”, but it did get me thinking about the importance of a name. Below are a few qualities I jotted down about names that give them importance:

1.) A name gives us an identity:  The simplest way to identify someone is by their name.  Historically, great care and attention has been given to the naming of children. In many ancient cultures, a name told others not only who you were, but also who your parents were and sometimes even where you were from. Nowadays, we have “last names” that identify us with a particular family. Married women traditionally take on the last name of their husband to signify a “new identity” with their husband and his family (likewise, religious take on a new name to signify a new way of life and death of the old way).

2.) A name signifies office or authority: The Old Testament points to various names for God, some of which highlight or point to a particular identity of God (ex: Adonia = Lord and Master; Elohim= God as Creator and Judge). The name of God was considered so sacred during this time that the Hebrews found themselves unworthy to even speak the name of God (YHWH) aloud. As Catholics, we maintain the sacredness of God’s name by refraining from using the Lord’s name in a vain or profane manner. We also show reverence to His Holy Name by a simple head bow or full genuflection when God’s name is spoken aloud.

In contemporary times, we use prefixes and titles to denote a particular achievement or office, and we address them as such as a sign of respect (i.e. “Your Excellency”). However, for people, our titles point to something outside of the individual. What I mean is that we receive titles as a representation of a particular office and not of ourselves. For example, the title Bishop represents the Church and the Diocese that he leads; Lieutenant- the military and platoon he/she commands; Medical Doctor- the institution that administered the degree and the patients in which he/she treats; etc. To some degree or other, we can claim these titles are given as humanly achievements, but would be meaningless without the office or authority who administers each.

3.) A name is relational: The name for God, YHWH, was used to express God’s mercy and closeness to His humanity. Humanity can relate toward this interpersonal relationship within a name by merely knowing and using the names of people with whom we interact- we have some sense of their identity if we know their name. This past summer, I was tasked with calling over 90 facilities that the home office oversaw. Being a summer intern, nobody at any of these facilities knew who I was and questioned why I would be the one calling them. However, I found that by merely using my name and the name of the other person in conversation (“Hello, Marie!”), people oftentimes became a lot more trusting. A similar example when someone, who you were introduced to previously, remembers your name at a later meeting. Having your name remembered makes you feel important- that you really made an impression and that you are worth remembering!  

Treating people with dignity encompasses knowing their name. I recall from my Microeconomics class in which the extra credit question for one of the exams was, “What is the name of the lady who cleans this building?” It was embarrassing to know that we probably passed her numerous times throughout the semester and yet had no clue what her name was…Nicknames are another example of the relational aspect of names. The assigning of a nickname requires knowledge of the individual beforehand. Nicknames also show that you’ve moved beyond the formal introduction phase and have developed a personal and, sometimes, unique relationship.

Overall, a name give us an identity- an identity that does not rest in itself. When we interact with others, whether it be the cashier at Wal-Mart or the janitor at work/school, we should always remember that they have a name and identity that should be respected. Likewise, when we pray, we should always honor the Holy Name of Jesus. If we honor the Name of Jesus, we can only hope that our own name will be remembered when we approach Him when He calls us home…