The ancient Romans had a word for it—three, actually: Nomen est omen. Literally, “the name is ominous,” that is, full of deep meaning. The Hebrew word for name, SHEM (שם), also means “nature.” So, when the Third of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures forbids one’s taking the Lord’s Name in vain, the meaning is much larger and more significant than simply using a synonym for the Deity in a profanity. Rather, it’s more like living so as to disrespect the Creator, others, and ourselves. On a more temporal note, when we have just met someone and they remember and use our name while we have forgotten theirs, we have a feeling of embarrassment, even shame. It’s as though they value us more than we value them. Oy!
Names figure in many traditions as well. In the ancient Hebrew folkways of my ancestors, when a child fell ill, it was customary to change its name. Why? Because the Angel of Death was thought to be a bureaucrat who would have an index card with the old name and would thus be unable to find the child and take it to the world of the dead. In some Christian traditions, children are given new names at their Christening, and we remember that Jesus changed his disciple Simon’s name to Peter, and Saul famously became Paul. Native American children are often given names to enhance certain desirable qualities. My younger daughter, Christine, came home from Kindergarten as Tina. Apparently, there were three Christines in her class, so to avoid confusion, the teacher assigned one to be Chris, another Chrissy, and the third, ours, Tina. Then, when she was thirteen, she told her mother and me in no uncertain terms, “From now on my name is Christine!” Today, 38 years later, that’s still how she is called.
When I was born in 1939, my parents named me Stephen Michael Feldman. In the Jewish tradition of the day, immigrant children like my mom and dad would name a son after one of their mothers. Since many of our grandmas were Sarahs, lots of Jewish boys ended up with names beginning with “s” like Samuel, Sheldon, Stanley, Sherwin, Simon, Saul, Sol, and—yes—Stephen, though never until recently Sean, Skyler, Scott, or Sullivan! Then in 1966 my Indonesian spiritual guide at my request renamed me “Reynold.” For me, he added, the name meant “one whose feelings are firm.” Personal names, he said, were, when spoken, really prayers for the individual to grow into their biggest and best selves. Years later I received for myself that my name was now Ruslan, a Turko-Russian name related to Islam and also Aslan, the Lion King who symbolizes Christ the King. How cool, I thought, as a Jewish-Christian Sufi to have a name that brings together the religions of both Jesus and Muhammad! Finally, in 2009 my then-girlfriend and now wife wondered how to introduce me to her New England parents. Reynold was too formal and Ruslan too weird, so, with my consent, she renamed me “Ren,” a name which many now use. So, what’s in a name? Obviously, a lot.