What’s in a name?

…a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Names matter. As much as Shakespeare would have us believe otherwise, there is a lot to be said for names, and much that they say themselves. For a trite example, check out the sales of Vauxhall Novas in Spain, where the name means ‘doesn’t go’. For a more serious one, imagine having known someone for several years but not having found out their name. Awkward? Would you really feel able to say that you knew them, when in fact such a basic, encompassing fact as the term by which the world identifies them is missing? If someone declined to tell you their name, would you feel they were keeping their distance?

Would you be offended if, after your marriage, your partner tells you that the name you’ve known them by for the past half-decade is actually a fiction? Would it make you feel they were somehow a ‘different person?’ What about the uses of names in different settings – ‘Mr Teacher’ is deferential and respectful, and maintains a distance that ‘Dave’ doesn’t quite manage. Similarly, a name has power in conversation – if someone prefixes a sentence with your name, that sentence carries a certain weight which otherwise it might not bear. Dropping a name into conversation focuses attention.

And then, of course, there are name stereotypes. What does Jane look like? Is she a beauty or is she a ‘plain Jane’? What exactly does Tracy do for a living? Tell me that’s what you expected. Read a bit further down. That’s right, she’s also the lead singer of a band. Despite the illogical nature of it, we still somehow attribute things to names that can have no basis in reality. It’s incomprehensible, but it’s fact. It’s human nature.

Funny thing is, of course, that Shakespeare is right. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Whether the stereotypes associated with a different name would make us want to sniff it to find out is quite another matter.

I bet you’d imagined a red rose, too. Stereotyped much?

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