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What’s In A Name?

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Amer Sarfraz writes about the process of name-giving which is different in various cultures. Names may not be as important as people assume. A label assigned to identify us by someone should neither be of interest nor value to us. 

What’s in a name really, besides a cluster of letters or sounds threaded together to make a word. That is one viewpoint, because names also serve as an identity marker and a sort of compass for the rest of our lives through which people keep tracking us in time and topography.

A name can be a tag that rolls out, without any consideration, off our tongues. This is a use of language to describe who we are to others. Nonetheless, we are also a part of global culture that is mesmerised by memory and expectation. We do not realise that there will never be any other experience except the present experience. We may have our fascination with names and numbers, but just because we didn’t give a name to something does not mean it wasn’t there.

There are cultures where it is believed that a name contains spiritual power. It is regarded as important as the soul, and to proclaim it assumes power over the person or the spirit to whom it belongs. Whether taken from a parent or grandparent, some saint or a celebrity, a name can impose another person’s dream of what you should become. More than just a signifier used to address, educate, curse, or praise, a name defines and puts you in a cage of expectations.

Where I come, a new-born used to be named by an elder. This would be a grandparent or a learned uncle unless the family wanted to bequeath this honour to a patron. A full name included a first name and a surname or a family name. Those with more educated backgrounds and others by tradition preferred three names: first name, middle name, and a family name. It was made sure that an Islamic name (Muhammad or Ahmed) either came as a first name or surname for a blessing. In rural backgrounds, people were also named after seasons, saints, or by birth order. There was an unwritten rule that first names were not combined, and a subtle consideration for a name to rhyme when called out.

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It is fascinating how people name their children in other cultures. The Greek Orthodox Church has strong influence and children are named after the saints. The eldest boy is named after his paternal grandfather, and the eldest girl after her paternal grandmother. On the other hand, every new-born in Spain has two given names and two surnames. When a woman gets married, she keeps the same surnames. Japan is more interesting in this regard where Girls’ names denote virtuous behaviour, and boys’ names reflect their birth order. In Japanese, names that are pronounced the same are not necessarily written identically. The first names are only for who you’re married to, or if you’re being rude.

Times have changed, but in Ottoman times in Turkey, there were no surnames and father’s name was used instead. The children were named after their grandparents, with a tradition to give a second name to the child by grandparents. They were supposed to announce this name when the infant’s cord was cut; hence it was named “Göbek adı” (Belly name). Chinese usually give their new babies names made up of two syllables from the Chinese alphabet, each with individual meanings (there are thousands of characters in the Chinese alphabet).

Maya Angelou wrote, “Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names”. How would she feel if she knew that a Ukrainian man has himself changed his name to iPhone7? Or that a British celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver’s children, are named – Poppy Honey, Daisy Boo, Petal Blossom, Buddy Bear, and River Rocket. In Pakistan, people have started combining the first names; they also inflict excruciating pain on listeners because names neither rhyme nor resonate. This may be why some countries have a naming-law to protect children from being given offensive and embarrassing names.


For centuries, name-giving was determined by custom. The Industrial Revolution weakened the influence of extended family and literacy also spread. This caused the change as people came across a wider variety of names. Research informs us that new names enter towards the top of society, and work their way downwards. Poorer parents give their children a better chance of success in life by giving them names popular among the rich. When a high-end name is adopted widely, high-end parents begin to abandon it, and lower-end parents eventually follow.

Names may not be as important as people assume. A label assigned to identify us by someone should neither be of interest nor value to us. We could keep those nicknames no matter how annoying or embarrassing they may be. If we find we are in need of a proper name at any point in life, we may choose one for ourselves. Benazir Bhutto famously said at her wedding, “Benazir Bhutto doesn’t cease to exist the moment she gets married. I am not giving myself away. I belong to myself and I always shall.” She was unsure towards the end whether she kept her word. Her father may have preferred her to stay “Pinky”.

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