We all came into the world possessing nothing other than our own name. But that name was not of our choosing: It was rather a decision made for us by our parents for reasons of their own. We’re obliged to live with their choice (though not always) for the rest of our lives. It belongs to us and we strive, as best we can, to protect and defend “our good name.” Of course, it is somewhat upsetting to discover, as almost always we do, that others, unrelated to us, bear the exact same name. We manage to get over this, recognizing that we are, after all, unique.
While it is true that we can, on our own, adopt an alias or pseudonym, our names are, for the most part, imposed upon us. Take nicknames (or pet names) for example. Parents bestow them on children, friends join in with their own inventions, while the press often delights in creating alternate identities. Now nicknames are in fact often endearing, help humanize and personalize others; still they are largely unalterable and attach indefinitely, people ordinarily unable to shed them.
Looking back in time we note how people have long been at the mercy of name “assigners.”
• Women who married typically were obliged to surrender their maiden names and assume their husbands’ surnames.
• Slaves arriving in America came with African names, which were usually cast aside, replaced by those imposed by their new owners.
• Native Americans were encouraged by legislation in 1887 (Dawes Act) to abandon tribal lands and loyalties, assimilate and assume standard American names. Jim Thorpe (hardly an Indian name) did, nevertheless, make a name for himself.
• On occasion officials on Ellis Island misunderstood the statements of nonEnglish-speaking immigrants and transcribed names they imagined they heard.
• The Nazis, in an effort to thwart Jewish name changing, ordered that every male Jewish name include “Israel”, and every Jewish woman “Sarah.”
• Celebrities in the U.S. were widely encouraged to replace given names and adapt those with more “universal” appeal.Thus Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas; Carlos Esteves. Charlie Sheen; Margaret Hyra, Meg Ryan; Mark Sinclair, Vin Diesel; and Joaquin Bottom, Joaquin Phoenix.
There has, however, been a reaction, a re-assertion of individual agency. A more fluid landscape of gender identity has given rise to name changing to reflect emergent realities. Jewish Americans, once inclined to name changing in order to gain acceptance into “proper” society, have generally ceased such practices. Celebrities Ben Stiller, Sacha Baron Cohen, Adam Sandler, and Jeff Goldblum represent this recent development. Many African American names now reflect an awakened sense of group pride and shared heritage. Married women no longer automatically surrender maiden names, either retaining them or blending former and current surnames.
When Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” he might not have realized how complicated and revealing that question would become over the years.