Practica – What's in a name activity

What is in a word? Let’s start with our names. Where do they come from, what do they mean? Everybody has a name. In some cultures, names are chosen in anticipation of a child’s birth; in some other cultures a name is not decided upon until later in the child’s life. Culture has influence on how names are given, not just on the choice of a name.

My name is George, “Earth Worker” or, simply, “Farmer” from classical Greek. It was my father’s name. He was named after his uncle, so it has strong connections in the family. I never really had a nickname, though there was an embarrassing nursery rhyme, dating from the 17th century, sometimes sung to me by childhood chums, which ran: “Georgie Porgy, pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry…” In high school German class, I was called “Ge”, short for Georg in German, but as it sounded like “gay” which was fast becoming the popular term for homosexual, so it quickly disappeared.

Heidi was a recent intern of mine, a Finnish woman named so because her pregnant mother was reading the story by that name written by Johanna Spyri that I am sure many of you are familiar with. My next intern’s Vietnamese name was Kim (Gold) Ngan (Silver) Dau (Bean).

Names in some Western countries are assigned using a saint’s name or even the name of the saint on whose calendar day one was born. Many Dutch have the interesting habit of posting a calendar in the loo so you can study whose name's day is in the offing while going about your business.

Many fanciful legends, dragon slaying and all surround my given name George, which stems from a martyred Roman military officer in the persecution of Diocletian. Statistically it seems that Mohammed is the world’s most common given name for men, with its connotations of religious inspiration in an Islamic tradition. Culturally today, your name could even get you invited for a much more thorough and troublesome search of your bags by airport security in some places.

Many of us are named after heroes and heroines or celebrities of ethnicity or nation. Attila is a friend whom I first met in Hungary. When I first met him I was surprised that that his name bespeaks heroism there, whereas much of the world hears it as villainous.

Women have frequently been given gentle, "cute" and diminutive names though, in recent times, many parents have chosen stauncher ones for their baby daughters. However, quite a few grown-up women of my acquaintance have resisted their given names and even changed them if they seemed too petty or too pretty. Caitlin, a student of mine chose her name as a feminist protest, feeling that her given name Kitty would not let people take her seriously.

Some names like Bubba and Bud and Sissy represent relationships in the family, in this case brothers and sister. In the northern US, however, Bubba is seen as a stereotypical word for a not-too-intelligent Southerner. “Hi, ma’ name’s Bubba and ah’m gonna be yo’ brain surgeon today,” is a one-line biased Yankee joke, told with a drawl about those coming from south of the Mason-Dixon line. Thus, regional or ethnic culture may give flavor to one’s name.

Some names represent a particular Zeitgeist or a period in time, for example in the hippie era in the USA, children were named after flowers like Apple Blossom, after plants, like Heather or after the geography, like Waterfall or Mountain Man, some reminiscent of Native American names. Popularity of certain names may thus be a clue to an epochal values narrative.

Kwadwo (Monday)
is a colleague of mine of African origin. He was born to a tribe that names their children after the day of the week on which they first see light. In some cases, they may acquire other names later as their character develops and suggests.

No one is immune from being named, so looking at family names as well as given names can be a very useful starting point for exploring one’s cultural identity narrative. Family names can be fraught with meaning, context, history and cultural priorities. And can be even more telling in our identity narrative than our given names, bestowing dignity or opprobrium on their possessors, either because of their direct meaning or what they sound like. Nguyen is common as part of a family name and it resonates nobility in Vietnam, for example. Celebrities, actors and movie stars often choose market value laden monikers to hide the baggage or lack of pizzazz found in their real names.

Sometimes names are translated from one language to another as a part of acculturation, Thus, someone born Prazdnik (праздник) may change her or his name to Holliday. Native American names, Sitting Bull or Prairie Flower as translated, are often seen as curious by folks who may not even be aware that their own monikers are translatable with similar effect.

On the other hand, to establish belonging and dignity, people may choose or be given the names of famous or respected characters or celebrities. Black slaves, who had only given names, when freed, often adopted what they sensed would help them fit in. Many chose patriotic US family names or even new given names, like those of the founding fathers and early presidents of the Republic, Washington, Franklin, Madison, etc.

Simonovič was my family name and it has a long interesting, perhaps legendary story starting with a Napoleonic trooper whose given name was Simon. He was wounded or left behind or perhaps even gone AWOL when Napoleon retreated, and he settled in the Krajina region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His name became a patronymic in then next generation. However in the immigrant-despising climate of the Northern Ohio Western Reserve we got tired of hearing “Simonovich the son of a bitch”, so we shortened it to Simons. Among my acquaintances, I have such folks as Krapp, Ho, and others whose schoolmates made them suffer from how the spoken sound of their names reflected less dignified images.

In certain places, law may forbid names because they belong to characters seen to have left a stain on history, Adolph for example, or it is feared that bearing an offensive or embarrassing name will somehow harm the child. Gender ambiguity can be a factor in some laws, as well as the limited number of characters that can fit in the computer field used by public administration. At Ellis Island immigration center in New York, an officer who could not pronounce Walentynowicz may have scratched it out and put Walters in its place, altering a family narrative, just as my mother, born Genowefa (White Wave) Domanska did her own editing to become known as Jennie Miller for better social acceptance.

Family names may thus indicate:

  • A place of origin or roots (van den Berg, Newton, de la Fuente, Romano).
  • Descendancy, e.g., patronymics (Bjornsdotter, Simonovič, Ivanova, Johnson, Fitzpatrick, O’Brien, etc.). In Spanish cultures a child may bear both parents’ apellidos, e.g. Inés Jimenez-Llorente (the name of my excellent professional Spanish language translator).
  • Marriage into a family on the part of a woman adopting or adding a husband's family name.
  • Profession or occupational class, e.g., Schmidt (Metal Worker), Wainwright (Wagon Builder), Holzhauer (Woodcutter) – this was my donauschwabische grandmother’s maiden name, which she sometimes humorously upclassed by pronouncing it as Hohenzollern).

Nicknames and honorifics may be assigned sometimes kept throughout life and may figure strongly in one’s identity narrative, based on one’s deeds. Mustafa Kemal became known as Attaturk (founding Father of Turkey). I knew of a Bonesetter McGurk, so named because he gave his Irish co-workers emergency first aid in a mining disaster. Less lucky, the Byzantine emperor Constantine V was nicknamed Copronymus (Defecator) because he fouled the baptismal font. This stinky name stuck as, according to his political opponents, he also fouled the public administration.

Tomorrow I will post some ideas of how you can use these rich parts of ourselves in Practica, i.e., how can we make use of this phenomena of naming effectively in intercultural training.


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