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  • David Hendrickson

What’s in a Name?

In the 2016 film Arrival, we see an excellent example of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, often referred to as linguistic relativity. This theory postulates that the language that a person speaks drastically changes how they process information, thereby fundamentally shaping how they view the world. In the film, the protagonist is a linguist played by Amy Adams who learns to communicate with aliens and discovers something far more interesting in doing so. But while this concept is now generally discarded by linguists as pseudoscience — a fun concept fit for fascinating science fiction — we must consider the implications of the names that we bear and how they shape our worldviews.

One of the great cultural memes of our time is the phenomenon of unusual names that have begun to sprout up over the course of our lifetime. Comedian Trey Kennedy posted a YouTube video in 2019 entitled “Roll Call in 10 Years” in which he plays a 4th grade teacher who grows frustrated in his discovery that he has students enrolled in his class with increasingly modernized names like Crew, Jaxtyn, and Novah. The final straw is when he discovers that his student named “Zack” actually spells his name “Xaqueri.” This video pillories the increasing phenomenon within American culture that prizes uniqueness and individuality over a sense of tradition or even sameness. But is this truly a bad thing? In order to answer that, we need to understand what names are, what power they have, and what to do about it.

The importance of names is made immediately clear in the Christian creation story found in Genesis. God calls the first man “Adam,” literally translating to “man” or “red earth” in Hebrew, and the first woman “Eve,” translating to “life” or “mother of all living.” These names serve as titles that remind both the bearer and those around them of who they are and Whose they are. These names also serve to place Adam and Eve in a story about where they come from and where they are going. Biblical names continue this trend, emphasizing different characters’ roles in the grander story of which they are a part.

Adam is then charged with naming every animal in the garden of Eden. God has not only given Adam a name, but also the authority to name other things. But Adam did not name these animals “hippopotamus” or “chipmunk” or “Cleese’s wooly lemur.” Rather, these names come to us through the rich history of the evolution of our linguistics. “Hippo” is Greek for “horse,” while “potamus” is Greek for “river.” “Chipmunk” comes from an Ojibwe word, while Cleese’s wooly lemur is named after Monty Python co-founder John Cleese and his fondness for lemurs. God commanded Adam, and we have been carrying forth this charge ever since using the various linguistic and cultural cues and tools at our disposal.

In modern American society, much of the meaning of older biblical names has begun to vanish, or has vanished long ago. A name like Rebecca no longer means “to tie firmly” in our minds, and hasn’t for generations. Oftentimes we will think of someone famous that bears the same first name, such as Rebecca Ferguson. Depending on the context, someone may think of the biblical wife of Isaac. Instead, name association has taken on a life of its own. For example, someone that is a “Chad” is often thought of as a person of great integrity, or otherwise impressive or worthy of respect, normally with admirable although sometimes controversial views on a particular subject. Conversely, a “Karen” is a nattering person, often construed as a white woman, whose sole purpose in life is to complain about retail or restaurant workers to their management or otherwise involve themselves in other peoples’ business. Even for names without widespread meme-ification, many people hearing these names already have preconceptions about what kind of person someone with the name Brad might be, and potentially an entirely different conception for someone named Bradley. (You likely don’t associate either name with my father, Brad.)

"These names serve as titles that remind both the bearer and those around them of who they are and Whose they are."

Our society continues to fracture into increasingly niche individuality. Gone with the Wind has reigned as the highest grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation) due to many factors, but thanks in no small part to having little to no competition at the time it was released. The world population has quadrupled since its 1939 release, and yet Avatar still merely sits at second place, with only Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Force Awakens breaking into the top ten list while boasting 21st century release dates. These common cultural touchpoints are becoming less and less common. With the rise of social media and the proliferation of viral moments in excess, everyone can have their own personal celebrities that may elude not only their parents’ recognition, but the recognition of their classmate or colleague. Very few people reading this article might instantly recognize all of the names Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Drew Gooden, Trent Sherfield, or Doja Cat. Each is a celebrity in their own right, but generally to a somewhat exclusive audience. Diversity of choice means wonders for those that wish to maximize enjoyment. You get to watch Grey’s Anatomy while I catch up on the latest episode of The Mandalorian, and we’re both happier because of it. But this lack of common cultural ties may make us more inclined to find more unique names for our children or ourselves.

How our society views names is quite indicative of many larger phenomena. Schools, bridges, and military bases around the country are being renamed because the people they were originally named after are increasingly deemed as morally problematic. Even figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both hugely influential figures in the founding of America, have come under increasing scrutiny for the sin of owning other humans — a commonplace act in their time, but unthinkably wicked to Americans today. Oftentimes, we name locations, structures, or vehicles after people to honor their legacy and preserve their cultural significance for time immemorial. We often do this with children too, naming our new loved ones after old loved ones or significant historical figures.

In Shel Silverstein’s iconic poem-turned-Johnny-Cash-tune “A Boy Named Sue,” we follow a boy who has been given the unfortunate girl’s name Sue by his absentee father. Tormented and bullied all his life, Sue grows up with a chip on his shoulder. One day, he accidentally comes across his father in a saloon. A fight immediately ensues, and before Sue can kill his father, he learns that his father gave him the name Sue to toughen him up against the big, mean world. His father intended on being absent, and thus knew that giving his son an unmasculine name would help him learn to deal with hard things in life from an early age. The two reconcile, and as the song closes with the line, “And if I ever have a son, I’ll name him… Bill or George, anything but Sue! I still hate that name!” It’s a very funny song, I promise. Go give it a listen sometime.

But these points raise a few important questions: How do we thoughtfully name our children for the future? How and when do we become renamed? And how do we accept the names we have been given? Careful readers will note that this is bringing the Serenity Prayer to bear in the realm of names.

Regarding the first question, there is no right answer, per se. Part of God’s charge to Adam is not what to name the animals, but simply that he should. Our society increasingly values originality and authenticity, which is why we see commonplace names increasingly being spelled like Kaytlynn, Rylee, Emmalee, or Jaxson. My sister’s name is Keighty. Are these names wrong? By common English spellings and cultural norms, sure (although seemingly not for much longer). Elon Musk, the wealthiest man in the world, recently named his child XÆA-12. I have no idea how to pronounce that, but this name is imbued with meaning to Musk personally. As Christians, we are called to be in the world, but not of it. Therefore, Christians ought to take great care in considering the implications of the names we give to our children, recognizing that with great power comes great responsibility.

God does not just name people. He also renames them. When God makes a covenant with Abram and Sarai, He gives them new names to go along with their new lives: Abraham and Sarah. Jacob, after wrestling with God for a blessing, is renamed Israel. Names carry our identities, and when God makes a covenant with us, He fundamentally alters our very identity. We have not simply entered into a new contract, but into a very new mode of being. Wives increasingly decline to take the last names of their husbands. This point is by no means intended to serve as a polemic against prayerful consideration on such subjects, and it is important to note the miserable baggage that the twisting of Scripture has wrought on relations between men and women. Rather, this point serves to highlight the spiritual significance and purpose of consenting to a new renaming covenant under God’s direction that invites celebration, not subjugation. God is interested in winning our hearts over to Him, not in forcing us to follow His rules, “or else.”

As the iconic Voltaire quote goes, “In the beginning, God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” When asked what God’s name is, He repeatedly declares that “I AM that I AM.” He graciously provides us with many possible solutions, including Yahweh. But ultimately, while our attempts to label our Creator is in our very nature, God’s name yet eludes us. So, too, do the final names that He will give us. Just as God makes a covenant with Abram, Sarai, and Jacob and renames them in the process, so too does He call us by our heavenly names to the world to come. Our cultural contexts are all unquestionably important to us and help explain why we are the people that we are. And yet ultimately, these contexts pale in comparison to a Final Context in which we are promised new and better bodies along with new and better hearts. Perhaps such a promise might come with a new and redeemed name provided to us from Above.

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