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What’s in a Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet [II, ii, 1-2]). When Juliet utters these words, little does she know how wrong she is, both in the play and generally. Every name has a particular semantic load, and its meaningfulness can be enhanced by its relative transparency, both as to constituent structure (if any) and its iconic potential. In the event, the beauty––here, the goodness of fit––is definitely in the ear of the beholder.

Languages and cultures differ quite widely in the latitude they countenance as to onomastic structure and use. With reference to fore- and surnames, there are cultures (like Indonesian) in which persons typically go by only one name (cf. some performers in Western cultures). If they regularly allot more than one name to their members, there may be a range of variability, such as middle names beside first and last names in Anglo-Saxon and Romance countries. Russian occupies a unique place with its de rigueur triplet of forename, patronymic (father’s name modified by a suffix), and surname, the latter two differing––within morphological limitations–– according to the sex of the bearer (e. g., the daughter of Mikhail Konstantinovich [Michael, son of Constantine] is always known as Avigeia Mikhajlovna [Abigail, daughter of Michael], regardless of a change in surname through marriage, etc.). Some cultures (like Hungarian and Japanese) impose a reverse order of given and family names compared to that of Western European ones, viz. last name preceding first name.

What is interesting in the American context is the huge variety of naming practices, owing to the fact of the multicultural population and the historical persistence of certain patterns inherited from bygone eras, such as giving the offspring the mother’s maiden name as a forename. The upshot is an impression that any combination is possible, but this is not strictly so. Jews, for instance, adhere traditionally to Biblical forenames preceding obviously Jewish surnames, although this custom is undergoing fragmentation so that one now encounters formerly unthinkable combinations like “Kevin Shapiro” or “Scott Goldberg.” And the Anglophone Chinese, particularly in Hong Kong, have, of course, long masked their proper given names with Christian ones.

Depending on knowledge and sensitivity to language, each speaker of American English will have a reaction to or evaluation of the particular combination of names borne by someone else in the culture, ranging from neutral to marked. The unusualness or rarity of a surname, for instance, may elicit questions as to its provenience.

Returning to the Shakespeare lines with which this post began, one should note that “Rose” is nowhere to be found among the hundred currently most popular girls’ given names, having been elbowed out by argosies of Tiffanys, Courtneys, Kimberlys et al. Tant pis!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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