• Daniel Kephart

Taking Names: The Story of Identity

The human naming impulse is among the most universal features of our species. Yet in the era of online-personas we have perhaps paid less attention to our names than ever before. It's time to change that.

In Hebrew culture, a great deal of significance was placed on two types of names: Given names and earned names. The given name was often seen as aspirational or occasionally prophetic. The Jewish prophet Hosea, for instance, was told to name his children "No-Compassion" and "Not-My-People" by God in order to symbolize the divine wrath against his wayward followers. Later, when Hosea prophesied the turning-away of this wrath, God instructed the Hebrew to rename his children "Compassion" and "My-People" signalling the return of harmonious relations with God.

The earned name, however, was reflection instead of prophesy. The earned name reflected the realization of previously unknown potential. The Celtic cultures of Europe enjoyed a similar naming practice wherein great or life-changing accomplishments would include the bestowal or adoption of a new name. Today we might think of these as nicknames, but that's not exactly the right concept. Nicknames, after all, usually designate trivialities. Earned names reflect more significant qualities. Richard I was known among the French, for instance, as Richard Coeur de Lion, "Richard the Lionhearted."

The loss of this naming impulse represents a real problem. Names are how we, as human beings, recognize the mythic significance and meaning inherent in both living creatures and objects. Some companies and organizations have begun to realize this need. It's not uncommon, for instance, to read in college admission brochures that professors will "know student by name" or "Here, you're a name, not a number." These marketing materials imply that students' inherent value will be recognized.

But it probably isn't the best idea to leave such an important task to corporations and megalithic organizations like the American university system. Choosing a name to "live up to" is often a better practice. Traditionally, royalty and monastics would adopt a new name upon the assumption of their higher responsibilities. The taken name would reflect a personal aspiration to achieve a higher ideal.

Now it might seem unlikely that any of us will be changing our name any time soon. That said, I cannot help but wonder, what name would you choose? Why? Why is such a name meaningful?

Know that, and you may well have a better sense of what you ought to be doing in life.

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