What’s in a name?

Does it matter what our name is?

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

When I look into my wallet I find coins, cards and some other scraps of paper which enable a smooth transactional relationship with the society out there. Among these is a card which carries proof of my existence — my identification card. I exist, but that isn’t enough- I have to prove that I exist. The nature of the world is such that it is possible to exist without being alive, and be alive but not exist.

Our most personal and enduring identity is our name. This week, I thought about names and their significance, how they must have come into use, and whether in the coming times changing our names could become a popular means of asserting our own individuality.

The idea of naming individuals must have been born out of organisational need. Tens of thousands of years ago, a small tribe may not have felt a pressing need to assign a permanent marker of identification for individuals, however an expansion in the size of that tribe would have naturally led to basic logistical headaches. For example, if there’s a group of 30 people, how do you assign tasks and hold people accountable without a way of identifying and recording who is doing what?

It would have been too cumbersome to do this by referring to physical characteristics i.e. ‘that tall person there would sweep the floor while the short one next to him would go out hunting’. You can see how this would have descended into chaos in no time. Inevitably, they would have soon come together to assign a permanent marker for each individual which was specific to them. This may not have been a name but perhaps a unique physical mark of some kind which brought structure and efficiency to the tribe’s affairs.

Essentially, it all boils down to order and accountability — the fundamentals of any successful human society, though of course, accountability has only recently begun to stretch to those at the top.

Overtime as this method of assigning a permanent marker of identity acquired greater significance, it began to be used as a tool of not just identifying an individual, but also their lineage through one’s surname. Names began to be designed in a way that it provided one with an immediate idea of a person’s status by identifying the tribe they belonged to. This in turn enabled a more sophisticated level of organisation often resulting in segregation.

Our names have become such an intrinsic part of our identities that we seldom seek to change it. Some do change it but it isn’t by any means prevalent in our societies. We treat it almost like a biological truth which can’t be altered. Could this change? Could it become fashionable to rename yourself when you grow up? Just like we can alter our wardrobe to project a different image of our self, could it become a rite of passage that is used to assert one’s own idea of oneself?

It’s a strange question because there isn’t a driving need to do so (unless there’s a risk of discrimination). But it could one day be about symbolism; a coming of age act of taking charge of your own existence and denying history its power to colour how others perceive you.