What’s in a Name?

mel_by_WillemXSM“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” -from The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2), by William Shakespeare

This famous line spoken by Juliet during her illicit rendezvous with her unsuitable paramour speaks volumes not just about her relationship but about the power we’ve given to names that perhaps shouldn’t reside there. If someone’s last name is Chan or Nguyen our minds are already searching for what we know about Chinese culture. If their first name is Tynisha or LaFawnda, we can’t help but imagine someone whose family originally derives from Africa. It’s human nature. But should it be? What really is in a name?

I remember when I first found the glorious internet. It was back in 1994 after I had graduated from high school never having access to the new technology. At college though, when I went to Temple University that fall, it seemed as if it had exploded all over the place. Suddenly, I had something called e-mail, and the college asked me what I wanted as my address. I could choose from virtually ANYTHING, so I took a day to figure out what I wanted.

romeo_juliet_name_quote_stickers-rffa76c82b5df4d69acf0cf3374e1a148_v9waf_8byvr_512It wasn’t an easy choice, either. Most people I knew were using some variation of their first name, their last name, or some combination thereof, while a few used a generic nickname with some numbers attached for good measure. Of course I wanted to be different; I wanted to have an e-mail address that stood out from all the others, so I decided to go with “roach@astro.ocis.temple.edu.”

I have absolutely no idea why I went with “roach.” I detest those bugs with every fiber of my being, but I thought it would make an impression. In fact, I used to tell a story that I was part of a punk band called the 12 Roaches, but that was patently untrue. It did explain the address, though, so I stuck with it. And when it came time to interact with others on-line I took on the persona of The “Roach,” this person who was too cool to let others know his real name.

That’s when it hit me: a name is powerful. After so many hordes of people I eventually communicated with in chatrooms, in newsgroups, and on mailing lists as The “Roach” begged to know my real name, I realized just how powerful it was. And I let a select few people in to the circle after getting to know them better through actually meeting them later at parties I threw or at concerts we attended together. It was amazing how grateful they were that I privileged them with my name, of all things.

996RNJ_Claire_Danes_019Generally, when we meet others for the first time we could be anybody. We could be Tony from Queens whose mom just died but he’s maintaining a false bravado because he thinks it’s what’s expected of him. We could be Enrique from Miami who dances at clubs in his spare time while on break from school where he’s studying to be an architect. Or we could be Harvey from Omaha who lives with his pet tarantula and only comes out of his house on odd-numbered days. But if we don’t want to give out our real names or our real circumstances, we don’t have to.

It gets even more complicated when we initially meet someone on-line. But no matter how easy it is to be someone else, our own names don’t lie. We’ve had those names since we were first born (and in some cases, even before), and they define us much better than we could even define ourselves. Our parents in most cases thought long and hard before they named us, and for some of us our names are the result of compromises struck between the two. They are our signatures, as intimate as others can get to us, and we can’t know other people’s unless they’re shared with us.

What’s in a name? For Juliet, names shouldn’t have meaning. They should just be placeholders for the people who bear them, only applicable as such, so that we can call them something when we address them. But even she realized as she was saying it to her beloved that there was no way it could be possible. Names have the power to do so much, or to do so little. It’s all in how we utilize them.


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