What’s in a Name?

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Montaigne on the other hand, really thinks there is something in a name.  He has a certain preference for names in their original language. He takes issue with those French writers of his time, writing in Latin, who Latinize French names: “I have often wished that such as write histories in Latin would leave our names as they find them and as they are; for in making Vaudemont into Vallemontanus, and metamorphosing names to make them suit better with the Greek or Latin, we know not where we are, and with the persons of the men lose the benefit of the story.”  He does not, as Juliette does, exclaim out of unquenchable love, and rage and wail against the imprisoning bars of naming convention.  He, rational stoic that he is, rather identifies what those arbitrary sounds mean, even more than their mere definitions.  Ezekiel and Malachi to him are more than just common names for men, but names of men born during the Reformation, as opposed to the more typical French names of Charles, Louis, and Francis.

However, I sometimes find myself agreeing with Juliette’s line of thinking, although typically it’s not to rationalize my forbidden love.  Usually, my line of thinking is what’s in a word? And this thought is usually to deflect the brunt of others’ dangerously or viciously wielded words. But this what’s in a word is a dangerous leap, because suddenly we’re not talking about exchanging one surname for another, we’re calling the whole semantic structure into question.  A heady thought that doesn’t even spark a conversation normally: just polite laughter becoming uncomfortable laughter, visions of doom, and silence–the thread of the conversation suddenly broken–no, not even broken–vanished, consumed by the abyss of semanto-linguistic darkness.  You want a scary thought for Halloween?  Imagine a world where there was nothing in a word–or a name.  Where I couldn’t wax poetic about the scent of a rose, because–what’s a rose? what’s a scent?  Where Shakespeare doesn’t exist, his importance deflated since not one of his words is special nor their meaning enhanced when grouped into a sonnet or a play.

So truly, words do seem arbitrary–a few syllables of sound to express anything that our mind can imagine: a rose, fear, Halloween, an abyss, an essay.  Pick a word and say it over and over to yourself.  Play. With different inflections. Play. Play. play

Why those particular sounds? Just because. Or not just because. Whatever helps you sleep at night.

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5 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. rangermike50 says:

    I wish the name “Virginia Cavaliers” had attached to it an image of triumph rather than futility!

  2. To quote the poet Robert Hass in “Meditation at Lagunitas,” “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” How’s THAT for Halloween?


    • jamesrnelson says:

      hm, at first I read your comment only in my little email notification informing me that someone had commented on my post. In doing that, I didn’t see that you had included a link to the poem you were referring to. Without context, my mind was blown by the simple statement, “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” Context helps though. Blackberry, for him, means more than the fruit; it contains within it all of his memories of his relationship with this woman, who, though he seems dismissive of (by merely saying that she was “a woman I made love to” and “it hardly had to do with her”) in my opinion, he must have loved tenderly and known well.

  3. Kyle says:

    I imagine that most of us would have an unflattering initial judgement of someone who introduced themselves as Adolf. And that seems to me to be the potency of a word – that it acts as a vessel for some experience. The smell of a rose would not likely be perceived as sweet if you didn’t know it was a rose, having spent so much of our lives being told sweetness is the scent of a rose. So maybe initially the collection of sounds that lend us a word are arbitrary, but we’re pretty far away from when that could be said of roses.

    • Kyle says:

      Also Lagunitas is close to SF, if you guys were looking to mediate there and get the full Hass experience (wink wink, nudge nudge). But it’s a suburban neighborhood now, not really too much to see.

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