Name As A Part Of Identity

What does a name reveal about a person? I find it interesting that when someone asks, “Who are you?” a very general question that we could choose to answer in so many different ways- whether by stating our likes, dislikes, or other things that make up a part of who we are- we most often answer with our name. Somehow in our minds we think we can translate who we are to someone else through a name, a mere one or two words. It almost seems foolish attempting to convey ourselves through a few words, but in truth, why wde do it, is because it works. Why we answer the question “Who are you?” or “Who are they?” with a name because it does convey who we or someone is, or at least how we see them to be. Names, what people call themselves or how people refer to another, can reveal how a person sees himself, how they perceive others, and what a culture values.

Have you ever asked a child to name something? When I was small, I would name the stuffed animals my parents would buy me based on how I saw them. I named a dog Woofy because dogs barked a lot. I named my my panda Spots and my tiger Stripes. Naming objects and animals by how they appear is not a practice used only by children, as many nouns in English originate from a description, such as the word Octopus which means “eight footed”. A person knows that a name represents the identity of someone or something whether they acknowledge this fact or not. When someone asks to be given a hammer, they use the word, hammer, to identify an object. When a person talks about another, they use the person’s name to identify him. While people often have little choice of the name given to a person or object, small modifications and adjectives helps people express that they think about the subject. One example of this is found in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

Maurier uses the fact that Rebecca was the only person besides her cousin to call her husband by Max rather than by Maxim to mislead the reader into thinking that Rebecca and Maxim were very close and fond of eachother. Later in the book, Maxim reveals that he hated His late wife, Rebecca, up to the point that he killed her. This begs the question, then, why did Rebecca call Maxim by a shortened name, a name that shows familiarity with another person? Remembering that Rebecca’s cousin, Favell, who openly hates Maxim, also calls Maxim Max gives the reader insight on why Rebecca could have done so also. On page 326, Favell mocks Maxim, saying, “Steady, old boy, steady. No need to get rattled. I don't want to smash you, Max. ” Favell talks to Maxim like someone would talk to a dog and calls Maxim by a name that pet owners commonly name their dogs. Perhaps this is why Rebecca did the same thing. Every time Rebecca would say her husband’s name, she would see Maxim as below her, something she could control like a pet. This example from Rebecca shows how details on what someone calls another reveals how they perceive a certain person or thing.

Names not reveal how a person perceives another, but they also reveals what a society values. For many Asian countries such as China, Japan, and Vietnam, the family name comes before a person’s given name, contrasting with the western naming system where a given name is put before the family name. Putting the family name first represents overriding importance of the family or group compared to an individual. This idea coincides with the eastern value of the group and one’s lineage over the individual, while western culture celebrates individuality and somewhat romanticizes the idea of leaving one’s family to find one’s personal identity. To add to this idea, Dalton Conley describes the differences in the way people can name their kids in France versus the United States in his article “Raising E and Yo…. . ” Conely tells that in France, the name of a child is picked from a list while in America, any combination of letters and numbers could be a possible name. The difference in the two naming systems reflects the differing values of America and France: while France strives to maintain and create a homologous environment, America values creating a diverse culture.

Names can also reflect the effects of social change. Conely notices that names that once was male-dominated are becoming more popular female names, while the opposite is true for male names as once a name becomes a popular name for girls, the number of boys with the name greatly decreases. A grater push in western society to represent girls obtaining characteristics that were once considered male traits, such as strength and power, may be the cause of the shift in girls being given once male- dominated names. However an underrepresentation and unpopular idea of males having feminine traits may cause parents to rethink naming their son a feminine name. Data on the most popular names in a culture and how the list changes over time can represent trends such as these and reflect the values of a culture. Since a person is most commonly named by their parents, we mistake dismissing a name for something that reveals little about the person the name addresses. In truth birth names do reveal more about the values of the parents rather than the child, but the way the child accepts, rejects or modifies the name can give us insight on how the person wants others to see him and how he sees himself.

In his article, “What Do Names Tell Us? Part II — Last Names, ” Jefferson Fish discusses what names can represent about an individual from a cultural standpoint. Fish finds first and last names that communicate the same message, or in other words, are from the same culture, for example, Zhang Wei, communicates an emphasis in culture. On the other hand, a first name that is consistent with popular culture, but has a last name part of a different culture, such as James Zang, communicates an emphasis in the surrounding or popular culture rather than one’s ethnic culture. This information can be applied to “The ‘F Word’” where the author, Firoozeh Dumas, an American immigrant, describes her struggle with her name. Tired of being ignored and picked on, Dumas choses an American name, Julie. While her choice to change her name from an ethnic to a popular name could represent Dumas embracing popular culture according to Jefferson Fish, Dumas presents her younger self’s choice as what she thought as a necessity to be treated equally. Fish explains that changing names could be due to societal pressures, which seems to be the case consistent with Dumas’s. By changing her name, Dumas shows a change in how she wants to be seen. Dumas presents how her switch in name helped her to achieve equal treatment by being invited to more outings and getting more job interviews, but in the process, Dumas describes how she feels fake. This feeling could stem from the fact that her American name did not reflect her values and identity. When Dumas later decides to go by Firoozeh instead of the popular name she had chosen, this represents a shift in values from wanting to be similar to popular culture in order to be treated more equally to admiring and embracing her ethnic background. By switching back to her birth name, Dumas reveals her values that she would rather be treated slightly unequally with others in order to have a name that correctly reflects her identity. In truth, our identity is not wholly our genetics, but we choose who we are. One example is the choice of embracing one’s ethnic culture or embracing the culture that surrounds them. Choices like these make up a part of identity: how we want to be seen, how we see ourselves, and how we want ourselves to be. Names can mirror these choices people make and reveal a part of their identity and values. Like Dumas, the main character in Rebecca also changes her name; however instead of changing her name to fit in with the popular culture or to represent her identity, she does so in response to marriage.

The concept of changing one’s last name during marriage is so common to our society that the reason behind why it is done often goes unquestioned. This tradition can represent a change in identity for the party who changes his or her name. While the main purpose of having the same last name is to represent how two people come together, becoming more similar in identity, the practice of a woman taking the last name of her husband can be linked to sexism, as a woman takes on a part of her husband’s identity while the husbands name and identity stays the same. However, this fails to be a problem for the main character in Rebecca, because the main character has no name before she is married. The first name of the main character is never reveal which represents a lack of her own identity before she married Maxim. After her marriage, the main character's purpose focuses on making her husband happy, an identity which is reflected in what she is most often called, Mrs. de Winter. This new name is sometimes confused with the late Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. Having the same title of Rebecca may be the reason why the main character longs to have the same characteristics Rebecca possesed. The main character is forced into a role which she cannot play, constantly being overshadowed by Rebecca. In a certain scene in the book, du Maurier allows the readers to see the importance of an identity as another character, Mrs. Danvers, almost achieves coercing the main character into committing suicide by reminding the main character how unimportant and unloved she is and how she could never be Rebecca. Because the main character’s identity is entirely based on the love of her husband, she believes without being pleasing to her husband, she has no purpose. Without our own identity, without our own name, we are at the mercy of others to give us an identity, to tell us who we are, a dangerous practice that can so easily go wrong.

Perhaps it is foolish to answer the question “Who are you?” with a name if the person has no idea who you might be. Telling another solely your name does not reveal what you value or your beliefs. However, giving someone your name represents a potential start to a relationship. People connect recurring memories about another with the identity of a person. This identity - the combination of a person’s likes, dislikes, beliefs, culture, dreams, motivations, relationships, experiences, genetics, and choices- is what they connect to the person’s name. Names don't hold all the answers about a person or society, but they might lead you discover something about them you never would have known without knowing a name’s importance and the fact that it mirrors identity. In the words of Lucy Stone, “My name is my identity and must not be lost. ”

15 July 2020
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