Names, destiny, and freedom

A.M. writes:

I recall a past rabbi saying that names given to offspring are partly prophetic. While dutifully meandering through airport security not long ago, I noticed the name of the manufacturer of one of the new-fangled scanners was ‘Rapiscan.’

Apparently I am not the first to make this connection.

LA replies:

I agree with you that names are—I wouldn’t necessarily say prophetic, but influential on a person’s character. A man named, say, William, is likely to have a different kind of self-image from that of a man named, say, Toby. (There is an English columnist named Toby Harnden, the U.S. correspondent for The Telegraph, and Toby is not a nickname, it’s his birth name. I know this because I asked him about it once.)

Another way of looking at it (which some will find too mystical, but really is no more mystical than your idea) is that a child at birth already has a certain inborn character (and character is destiny), and his parents in naming him are being insensibly influenced by his character to give him a name that fits it.

At the same time, people sometimes are given names that they feel don’t fit them. I’ve always felt that a person has a natural right to change his name, if the one given him at birth is inappropriate to his individuality or to the way he wants to present himself to the world. That may sound anti-traditional, but one’s parents are not infallible. Also, people sometimes have surnames that are ugly and awkward, or, in the case of many children of immigrants, that don’t fit with the culture and language of one’s country. I think such people ought to adopt names that conform better with our language and culture. As with any other question such as this, there are degrees of difference, and people will disagree about what names are offensive and what are not. My touchstone is the columnist Michael Smerconish. That is a surname so ugly it ought to be outlawed. Sorry if that offends anyone, but that’s the way I see it. The fact that some distant ancestor of Smerconish’s in Russia or wherever adopted such a painfully ungainly family name doesn’t mean that their distant descendants in America are obligated to keep carrying it forward and imposing it on everyone. Some “traditions” are not necessarily good.

I also think that hyphenated surnames are ludicrous and an imposition on others.

- end of initial entry -

James P. writes:

Many of my son’s playmates have what I regard as idiotic first names, which often seem to say the parents can’t spell (e.g., “Kavin” instead of Kevin). I sometimes wonder what it does to the kid to saddle him or her with a freakish first name. What will be the kid’s destiny? Will there someday be a President Kavin? At some point, if there are enough bizarre first names out there, will we cease to regard bizarre first names as an impediment?

LA replies:

A chilling suggestion, which shows that your traditionalist antenae are out.

Hannon writes:

I agree with the points you make regarding names and name-giving. The entry reminded me of something I read years ago that said that names themselves have a significant connection with destiny. Accordingly, names like Richard, James, or Robert tend to be associated with more powerful and traditional trades like banking or law, while unusual names (Loren, Zoltan, Edwin) are linked with atypical and often more creative career paths. Similarly, common everyday names such as Martin, Mark or Keith can be expected in the majority of “in between” in jobs like mid level executives, bus driving, plumbing, and the like. I have found these generalities to bear out in the main and would add that people with really wacky names tend to behave accordingly.

Some interesting things to know would be with regard to women’s names (e.g., Elizabeth vs. Patty) and names within different ethnic groups. It is a most interesting subject and it seems it would be easy to compile statistics that would confirm or contradict the general idea of name patterns being associated with a person’s course in life. But it would be indirect evidence in a sense because what we really want to know is how others are “affected” by someone else’s name, similar to questions in astrology. Also, exactly what is the relationship between one’s self identity and one’s name? These subjects seems to attract little serious consideration in any field.

Sage McLaughlin writes:

You write that, “people sometimes have surnames that are ugly and awkward, or, in the case of many children of immigrants, that don’t fit with the culture and language of one’s country. I think such people ought to adopt names that conform better with our language and culture.”

This is just what my paternal grandfather did. An Ashkenazi Jew who was able to escape Germany in the 1930s because of some upper class connections (he was first string in the Berlin Symphony Orchestra), his given name was Werner Kwiat, pronounced “VEAR-ner KVEE-at.” This was difficult and strange for native English speakers in New York, so he changed his name to Al Werner. Al was the only American name he knew (besides being very simple), and he Anglicized the pronunciation of Werner to rhyme with Turner. The Kwiat family name simply vanished from his line, but since my mother was an only child, this was bound to happen anyway.

LA replies:

While I think that “Al” (which is a nickname, not a proper first name) was a bit too much of a come-down from “Werner,” I would say the change of surname was appropriate. “KVEE-at” would be a difficult name to have in America, a burden on others as well as oneself.

Buck O. writes:

Interesting topic. My neighbor’s young daughter is named Isabella. The other day, the list of the most popular baby names was published. Isabella was number one. I started to e-mail the story link to her mom, but I hesitated, then canceled the e-mail. I don’t know why, but. it didn’t feel right—somehow intrusive.

Naming children is a family matter (duh) and can be deeply personal and meaningful, or not. Some families take it more seriously and/or continue a tradition. My parents stuck with tradition. My mother and her three sisters shared a handful of names. My father and his three brothers,are all tagged with names right off their tree—James Diggs, Remus Buckner, James Stanley, and Stanley Uberta. My older brother is James Diggs, I’m Robert Buckner, my sister is named after my mother. Not a lot of imagination there.

My uncle Remus lived and died as R. Buckner. Story told—he make a real stink about me being named after him. I thank him often. How many people can say they had an actual Uncle Remus?

“Buck” has had its own issues. My middle school principle and math teacher thought that addressing me as Robert instead of Buck would correct my disruptive behavior. Of course it didn’t and it couldn’t, so that lasted only a few days. Did they actually think that all who knew me would now call me Robert, just because they said to?

There is no doubt in my mind that people get a first impression of you by your name. It’s a mixed bag. I’ve always disliked country music.

LA writes:

Speaking of which, a number of bloggers have long referred to me as “Larry Auster.” I had accepted this for years, but recently began politely asking them to refer to me by my formal name.

That’s the way it ought to be. For example, I personally knew the late Samuel Francis, and liked him (though we mostly fell out of contact after I dissociated myself from Jared Taylor in 1996.) I of course addressed him as Sam, and in communications with shared acquaintances I of course referred to him as Sam. But when I am writing about him as a writer, I have always (with a few occasional exceptions) called him Samuel Francis. As a general matter, I do not interject my personal acquaintance with him into my discussions of him as a writer. As a writer, his name is Samuel Francis.

But in our super-personalized culture, the paleoconservatives all refer to Samuel Francis familiarly as Sam Francis. The paleoconservatives, like everyone else, have lost the distinction, indispensable to a civilized order, between the public/impersonal and the private/personal. Or, rather, they have eliminated the public/impersonal, leaving only the private/personal. For them, everything is personal.

LA continues:

A serious conservative movement, unlike the various unserious conservative movements we have now, would launch an effort to demand that the media refer to public officials by their proper names. A society simply cannot have a mature outlook on politics when it automatically and systematically refers to every governor, senator, and congressman by his nickname (assuming he has a nickname). I wince every time I see the governor of New Jersey called “Chris Christie,” or the governor or Arizona called “Jan Brewer.” Her real name, the name under which she took her oath of office, is Janice Brewer.

And Christopher Christie is a good name, a distinctive name, a wonderful name for an American politician. Chris Christie is childish sounding. We sound childish and unserious as a society when we say it. Conservatives ought to argue for adopting a serious public culture again, which means resisting the hyper personalized, liberated culture that we now have. But of course most conservatives inhabit that culture as the fish the sea, so it’s an uphill battle (to mix metaphors).

At a John Tanton writers conference in the mid ’90s, I made the point that a society in which slovenly or ultra casual dress (e.g., T-shirts) was the norm, could not possibly be serious about a difficult issue like protecting its borders. A woman at the meeting said this was ridiculous. But I was right. You can’t be radically liberated and unserious in your public culture, dress, and mores, and be serious about defending your country and your culture from mass legal and illegal immigration which is being demanded in the name of equality, freedom, and opportunity. To defend its existence effectively, the society must have standards higher than equality, freedom, and opportunity. In short, it must cease to be ruled by liberalism. Which does not mean that liberal values are to be eliminated, but rather that they must be guided and contained by higher values. Up until circa 1960, America still had such a society (though of course liberalism was far advanced by that point, making the complete liberal takeover that occurred from the Sixties onward very likely).

A much larger problem in this regard is television, including advertising. A serious conservative movement would make the reform of that disgusting medium—our society’s single greatest purveyer of extreme cultural decadence—a top priority. At present, the mental ugliness normalized by TV is not even on the conservative movement’s radar screen.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

Vladimir Nabokov seems to have shared your sense of name-as-destiny. The protagonist of Lolita is not the eponymous nymph, but the luckless adjunct-professor Humbert Humbert. And then there is the clueless Professor Pnin, of Pnin.

Jane S. writes:

I’ve often thought of writing an essay on the name “Jane.” Probably because of “Jane Doe,” it is thought of as a common name, but it is not. I rarely meet another Jane. Other variants—Jan, Jean, Joan—yes, but Jane—no. It probably hasn’t been popular since Tudor England.

A few years ago, there was a (perfectly detestable) movied called “Closer,” but there was a scene I greatly enjoyed between characters played by Clive Owen and Natalie Portman. He meets her working in a strip club. She introduces herself as “Jane.” They have this go-around where he keeps demanding to know her real name, and she keeps telling him it’s Jane. It turns out, it really is Jane. The point being, he doesn’t believe Jane could be anyone’s real name.

Philip M. writes:

From a British perspective, it has always seemed very strange to me that some Americans have names like ‘Michael Jones III’.

As a child when I saw this on film credits I had this weird feeling that America must be full of film-making royal families.

LA replies:

Well, that comes from the custom, common among Anglo-Saxon Americans, of naming sons after the father. The son is Michael Jones, Jr., and his son is Michael Jones III. While the custom does’t bother me, it has always struck me as slightly odd. To name your son with your own exact name suggests that you want him to be exactly like yourself, not to be an individual in his own right. But there may be good reasons for the custom that I’m not familiar with.

Daniel H. writes:

I’m in the headhunting business. I recruit computer programmers, so I get a lot of resumes from Chinese. It is my experience that most Chinese job-seekers adopt an English language first name (Indians never do this), which they use on their resumes. One time a resume landed on my desk: Lucifer Tian.

I did speak to him on the phone and as I recall his command of English wasn’t that good. I was lazy that time, didn’t want to tangle with anybody, so I didn’t question him on why he chose Lucifer. I eliminated the idea that the man was just a wise guy because, after all, he was looking for a job. I suspect that some Chinese acquaintances played a mean trick on him by suggesting the name Lucifer when he asked them for advice on an American name.

BTW, I wish I had been around to suggest a name for Sage McLaughlin’s grandfather. Let’s go from Werner Kwiat to Vernon Wyatt. Sounds real ol’ timey American.

LA replies:

Interesting idea. The problem is that sensible immigrants with excessively foreign names want to adopt names that are more Anglo than their original name, but not so completely Anglo that their immigrant/ethnic background is concealed entirely. “Vernon Wyatt” is a good name, but sounds so old-timey American that it would seem as if this German Jewish immigrant was trying to put himself out as something he wasn’t. The name would not fit him. “Al Werner,” on the other hand, is reasonably familiar and easy to pronounce, but has a slightly foreign ring suggesting the immigrant background. Sage’s grandfather thus harmonized his foreign origin with his adopted American identity.

A.M., the original commenter, writes:

Yes, a concordance between name and character is always a curious occurrence.

I find it bizarre that people speak of “baby names,” when the child will carry it for life; perhaps this adds to the shenanigans in naming offspring. Have they always been known as “baby names?”

Speaking of pet peeves, I have only contempt for those who give their children traditional names with untraditional spellings. An English teacher of mine had a brother named “Kris,” apparently because one parent was Jewish, and to name him “Chris” would obscure this. More often, as with the name “Natilea” (discovered elsewhere in a forum comment), these monstrosities come about because the parents want to be “creative” but are too cowardly to go whole hog and give a name like “Rainn.” Equally bad are the androgynous names for women—Alex, Sam, Spencer, Pat, Dana—of all the names around, these seem the most predictive; their bearers are often unfeminine. [LA replies: Yes. That is top evidence for the central assertion in this thread.]

I once worked at a retail store, with my first name prominently displayed on my shirt. I desperately wanted to replace it with Mr. and my surname, or simply “Sir”—being called by first name must be preceded by an introduction and a handshake; anything less is patronizing.

Regarding the decadence of television, I had gone without television for some years, aside from a few shows downloaded to my computer. I’m a young man, and I recently moved into a household where others watch frequently, and it struck me as utterly distasteful. Female news anchors hardly resemble women at all in their tone and comportment, ads are ugly and repulsive at any volume, nothing is realistic lest stereotypes be perpetuated, and white men are everywhere feckless fools.

Worst, it seems many like to have the TV on at all times, as background noise, thus the presence of TVs in ostensibly social venues, like restaurants and cafes, as well as the home. It’s simply mad, reminiscent of Harrison Bergeron, the Kurt Vonnegut short story where the gifted are never allowed to think in solitude, their thoughts incessantly interrupted by buzzing and ringing. [LA replies: While I don’t like Vonnegut, we should be grateful for his anti-extreme liberalism material, which may have helped keep some of his liberal readers remain more moderate rather than going over the edge.]

LA writes:

The discussion continues in a new thread.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 06, 2011 11:15 AM | Send

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