What’s in a Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Shakespeare (or Christopher Marlowe, if you’re one of those) shared that sentiment in Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene ii, if you’re taking notes) before the turn of the century. The 17th century. I’m not sure how true that is today.

In a global culture of vanity plates and avatars, given names have given way to usernames, logins and — dare I say it? — personal brands. We go to great lengths to ensure that our roses have EXACTLY the right names; names which convey specific meaning(s). For, as attention spans shorten and speeches give way to sound bites, these made-up monikers need to “read” as quickly as possible.

“Paris-hilton-fan” and “Hillary-hater” send clearer messages than “Samuel J. Snodgrass.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Of course, bubblyteen13 can turn out to be a 53 year-old convict just out of prison, but that’s not where I want to go with this.

Hollywood has long been a place where Gladys Smith, Archie Leach and Carlos Estevez could become Mary Pickford, Cary Grant and Charlie Sheen. But the ability of the average American or citizen of the world to reinvent themselves has grown dramatically in the past decade. It’s a logical turn of events, since today we often know more about the cast of our favorite television shows than we do about our own neighbors. And if we don’t know them, they probably don’t know us. Reinvention is not only possible, it is tantalizingly close and readily available.

Jonathan Franzen touched on this in his fine 2002 essay collection, “How to be Alone.”

“It’s no longer the rule that you know your neighbors. Communities increasingly tend to be virtual, the participants either faceless or firmly in control of the face they present.” (p 49)

By creating and controlling our brands, we narrow — not broaden — our potential. They move us from the general to the specific. Words alone do nothing unless the reader/hearer connects the letters on the page or in virtual space to an image. If the image is false, the connection may be false as well.

And yet, in a global community, there must be some societal shorthand, a means of grouping the subsets into a manageable size. Without a shared vocabulary, it is nearly impossible to initiate conversation. And conversation is the lifeblood of true community. So there will always be a tension.

What I love about the blogosphere is the exponential ability to reach — to be in dialog with — a broader community of people, to interact over the cracker barrel of pooled information and shared experience in a casual, friendly environment. To be known by who I am as well as by what I create. The emails I’ve received in my ridiculously short blogging career are a testament to that.

Since we started with the bard, let’s end with the bard. As Polonius said to Laertes in Hamlet (I:iii):

“This above all: to thine ownself be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not be false to any man.”

So, if one of the highest human goals is the ability to know, and be fully known, than I’d like to be known — in person and in virtual space — as…

– Craig Hodgkins

That’s my take. How ’bout you?


~ by Craig Hodgkins on July 22, 2007.

4 Responses to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Choosing another name is the same thing as being known by what you create, you’ve just created something very, very short. Any time you create something you’ve moved from the general to the particular. Who’s Craig Hodgkins? He’s that guy who writes short essays on his blog. Maybe there’s a clever name there that could describe “short essay dude.”

    But of course we are much more than a single definition, which is why many stories and many names and many creations are what it takes to know a person…We are more than a single definition, but we are also defined by these paticulars…

    …but we must move from the general to the particular to be known by another, and we must move back out again (to the general) for many reasons. To be locked in the particular is to be sterotyped, locked into a unchanging pattern of relating (“oh yea, he’s that short essay guy”)

    It’s true that the rose is still a rose no matter what you call it, but you can’t understand and know the rose without giving it more names… like red and long and lovely and fragrant and sharp and beloved of women… the rose must take on these particular names for a time for a person to understand it.

    in all that, I am Matt McGill, define me to your delight.
    AKA one who doesn’t care enough about spelling and punctuation to proof read my thoughts… 😉

  2. Thanks, Matt, for your insight.

    Chateaubriand wrote: “Man has not one and the same life. He has many lives, placed end to end, and that is the cause of his misery.”

    In a perfect world, the many roles by which I am known (husband, father, friend, brother, son, writer, artist, humorist, pastor, teacher, etc.) would be placed not end to end, but combined in a sort of tossed salad, all “one,” but with individual flavors and textures coming through.

  3. who is chaterueusbrand? I thought there was misery in the world because we are all idiots in some **cough** most **cough** areas of our lives. Can’t remember the name for that.

  4. Chateaubriand was an 18th/19th Century French writer, politician, diplomat and namesake of the filet mignon cut of steak.

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