What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes.
– Romeo and Juliet
Names, Shakespeare suggests, are mere indicators of things: their essence remains intact, regardless of their use. The rose smells as nice, regardless its name, and Romeo retains his perfection. However, there is more to the name than just the reference to a thing.
The majority of species communicate using a variety of technics, such as sounds, antennas or body movements. They express feelings, concerns or illnesses. Communication allows them to be part of a pack or a herd or a flock. Just like all other animals, humans use communication to be able to form groups which, with the passing of time, transformed from the small hunter-gatherers’ societies to the large and highly complex modern nations. One of the major factors that enabled people to create those more complex forms of communal life is communication.
Nevertheless, the name-generating process has strong cultural and political references. Such an example is the naming of places by the colonial forces: the America got their name by Amerigo Vespucci. This was the first sign of conquest of the continent by the Europeans, both in the physical and the cultural sense. Another example, in the same continent, is the reference to Native Americans as “Indians”, which resulted from Columbus erroneous assumption that he had arrived to East Indies.
At the same time, names can function as manifestations of political change or as efforts to rupture the connection with the past. In 1932, the British Mandate of Mesopotamia changed its name to Iraq. In 1945, the Dutch East Indies changed its name to Indonesia. In 1821, New Spain became Mexico. In 1972, the already independent Ceylon decided to change its name to “Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka”. The same process has been observed in the local level, with cities changing their names to much the phonology or the local language or adopting completely new names to indicate their new, liberated status of their countries. “Bombay” became “Mumbai” (just like dozens of other Indian countries), New Amsterdam is globally known today as New York and after independence, Nova Lisboa became Huambo. Another notable example of a city that kept changing names depending on the historical period and the language of its masters is Istanbul or Constantinople or Byzantium or Augusta Antonina or New Rome.
Names carry a very strong significance to people: they indicate familiarity and possession. They habitually name things that they own, but not those whose existence they ignore, because, to them, they don’t really exist. They name their dogs to form a bond with them, but not the pigs or goats that will be consumed after being raised for a short period of time. They change adopted children’s names to create imaginative bonds between the children and the family. They also name the people that they meet in order to define them, categorize them and position them in the social ladder, in order to indicate if they are their masters, their equals or their inferiors. They use nicknames to suggest proximity or inferiority. They use honorifics to suggest respect. The Japanese language is an excellent example of the functioning of language to reflect the social structure of society, as the words used manifest the social circle that the interlocutor is position in relation to the speaker.
Political correctness has brought a new meaning to the value of words, as the vocabulary has become a minefield. There are words that should be used and words that should not be used. Special phrases must replace widely used words, especially in reference to race, physical and mental limitations and gender. In an unequal world, there is still the belief that discrimination could be undone starting from changing the name of things or situations. However, this often leads to equally unequal measures, depending on the group challenged or the type of reference involved.
There is a lot to the name. There is power and struggle and intentions. It reflects the way we see the world and in that sense, they way we see ourselves. If we thing that the building is tall, it is tall in relation to us. Thus, we are small. If we think that another human being is better than us, then he can easily become our “master”, both in the name and in the actual sense. If we declare to the world that we are free from the past, then we are still struggling within, but we are trying to forget. However powerful the name is though, knowledge is even more powerful, the type of knowledge that will make us realise why we charge a specific object or situation with a particular name. This type of empowerment will allow us to not only embrace or change the name, but respect its meaning, its role in our proximate world and its impact on our identity.