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On Naming: Social Investment in Minor Details

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Names by themselves may be empty, but the act of naming…” – from Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

What’s in a name? Does the foundation for identity rest in the name our parents provide us? Freakonomics has a chapter that looks at names and traces the lives of two siblings, a  Loser Lane and a Winner Lane. The boys lead very different lives and, perhaps to no surprise, Loser Lane became a more respectable member of society likely due to his daily challenge of living down his name. Winner Lane is said to be a career criminal and a tragic mix of irony and sarcasm to his name.

At the most basic level, our names are foundational data points for human relations. “What’s his name?” when asked of us, seeks a reference point of discussion. In knowing our name a speaker can direct his or her words to us and plot an interaction. This is the purely objective level of a name: it exists solely as a reference point to distinguish us from others. “Hey look, there’s bill down in the front row!” our friend can offer to a neighbor when he spies us in a crowd.” Our name distinguishes us from others.

Subjectivity enters the picture when we consider the meaning behind the name. Arranged in a specific order, the sounds that compose our name are loaded with subjective details. We have notions of the types of names that leaders have, the names of common criminals or of celebrities from culture. We understand names in context of relations. Who else has our name? Has anyone with our name done something horrible or great? What type of people commonly have our name?

We are often victim to our names. A name that has poor connotative connections may lead strangers to unfairly judge us. If tasked with this unfortunate situation we must work harder to prove our independent value. In some sense we strive to move beyond our names, to expand beyond the basic level of our names and establish the details of our personality.

As Pynchon’s great novel suggests, the name itself may be absent of meaning but the act of naming is significant. A parent with the power to create life assigns a wealth of details by which a new individual interacts with the world. Poorly chosen names can drastically alter a child’s formative years and cull forth needless bouts of stress.

Names are an example of the minor things in life that have significant influence on life. Though minor and limited in scope, society invests an incredible amount of meaning in names. Likewise we pull out copious amounts of data from names and plot our initial reactions with strangers on the basis of names.

 

 

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