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What’s in a name?

by Dr. Stephanie Ellis

In this first week of school, as I meet new groups of students, I always go through my roll and ask students their preferred name and how to pronounce it. And it never fails – at least one student will correct a mispronunciation on my part with something like “just call me Jane – it’s easier.” And it never fails – I’m sad about that.

What’s in a name? In a constructivist way of thinking, words are just sounds that people, over time, have given a certain shared meaning. But isn’t a name different? Whether you love yours or hate it, have changed it legally, or go by a nickname – the name you go by is a part of your identity. And it belongs more to YOU than it does to other people. Your name isn’t just a random set of sounds that over time people came to recognize you by, as if others (besides your parents!) have any say in what you ought to be called. This has been YOUR name for some time, and it has more meaning to you than it does to someone else.

I don’t have a traditionally difficult-to-pronounce name, so maybe I’m not the best person to judge. But when I hear “oh, just call me _____” – I hear a diminishing. Why can’t the burden be on ME to learn to pronounce your name as you do? Why do you need to accommodate me (or anyone) with something so personal?

And God has some thoughts about your name, too …

Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us;
the Lord has forgotten us.”
“Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child?
Can she feel no love for the child she has borne?
But even if that were possible,
I would not forget you!
See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.
Always in my mind is a picture of Jerusalem’s walls in ruins.
Isaiah 49:14-16

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
Isaiah 43:1

The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life.
I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.
Revelation 3:5

I don’t mind getting out of my ethnocentric head and doing the work of saying your name properly. I want to honor you for exactly who you are and want to be. I don’t want to diminish you.


2 Comments

  1. Randy Wilson says:

    What a great way to think about this common experience. It really is a psychological experience – communicating our names to one another – it is a dimension of self disclosure, perhaps the first but maybe the most intimate? Reciprocation is vital – help me to get it right, to say it right, to remember it right, to not make those common mistakes others have made.

    This post makes me think – you’ve hit another nail on the head! Thank you.

  2. Brittany Christiansen says:

    Words cannot express how much I love this post. I have always felt the same way whenever someone either at school or work says “that’s fine” or “just call me whatever you want” but have never been able to truly put words into why this doesn’t sit well with me. It is all about honoring the person that someone is and is worth the effort to learn how to say someone’s name properly. People’s names are such an essential part of their identity. LOVED this post.

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