Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable. ~W.H. Auden
In one of the storytelling circles I attend, the host often asks new listeners what their name is, and the story of their name. I’m always fascinated when people don’t actually know what their name means, or what language it’s from and the translation of the word. I concede that it is a bit strange how few names in English have an obvious correlation to the language, such as Rose, Opal, Ruby, Pearl, April, May and June. In fact, right now I can’t think of any male names that fit the pattern. Perhaps it’s the storyteller in me that can’t wrap my head around not needing to know. As far as I”m concerned, names matter. Maybe it’s because I was named after my paternal grandmother, who died when my father was only four-years-old. She was a woman unique to her time, as she owned and ran three hair salons during the depression. Someone my father’s boyhood memories could not expand on. My grandmother Leah’s dark eyes called me, mutely, from sepia-toned photos. I felt the only connection I had to her was our name.
How could I have known how deeply one’s name is connected to their identity, to their humanity? I didn’t know it, but I sure felt it.
Names matter. During the transatlantic slave trade, captives were routinely striped of their names, and forbidden to speak their mother-tongue, or any language not understood by their captors. link The same tactics where used against First Nations and Inuit children attending Residential Schools in Canada. link In both cases there were times when the renaming or un-naming also became numbering. Some of your may know of the numbered tattoos that inmates of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp were given during WW II. What is less well known is that in the 1940s Inuit in Canada’s north were given identifying numbers, on identity tags, numbers that were often used instead of names. All such dehumanizing practices have the potential to leave scars, the kind that can’t be removed by lasers. link
When I was in JK, my mother was summoned to the school because the French teacher had a problem with my attitude. I remember refusing to answer to her in class because she insisted on calling me “Lay-ah” as opposed to “Lee-ah” as I was accustomed to hearing. To put it in perspective, I was a very compliant child, most of the time. So getting in trouble at school was something that rarely happened. I found the teacher’s refusal to pronounce my name correctly (when it was clear to me she could) intensely insulting. My name was not French and I didn’t see the point of making it so. Then the little green warrior inside me stood up and roared, and I explained to her once, that “Lay-ah” was not my name. After that I remained silent, stone-faced, and refused to respond when she called on me. As an adult I wish I could go back and stand behind my four-year-old self, with silver pom-poms, cheering, “Give me an L, give me an E, give me an A, give me an H!” How wise and brave that little girl was! I don’t remember the outcome (and my Mom has forgotten this story) but I look fondly on the memory of that rare show of defiance. (Ironically my great grandparents and my grandmother spoke French, so they probably would have pronounced her name the way my teacher did, but I didn’t know that at the time). Of course I was too young to understand that not everyone has the luxury, of silence, of defiance. How could I have known how deeply one’s name is connected to their identity, to their humanity? I didn’t know it, but I sure felt it.
I wish I could go back and stand behind my four-year-old self, with silver pom-poms, cheering.
Names matter. Names have power. Names carry history and meaning, tell stories, speak of our lineage and reflect something of who we are. Learning to remember and pronounce someone’s name is a matter of respect. Listening to their story opens the path for deeper communication.