What’s in a Name?

September 23rd, 2020

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” – Confucius

“It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty for giving lovely names to things.” – Oscar Wilde

The girl we love has picked out a name for her unborn son. This is exciting for the young woman, and for Karin and myself. I suspect it doesn’t mean much to her kid, at least not yet.

A while ago, at a Zoom meeting, Zen Master Dae Kwang spoke to the members of our sangha about names. I am not probably not quoting him correctly here, but he said,

“The sky doesn’t call itself “sky”. Things don’t have names. We give them names.”

He’s right. Things, and people, do not automatically come with names. We give each of them a name, or names. A name is not the thing itself. A name is just an idea. However, it can be a profoundly powerful idea.

I think about my name, Frank. Does the name actually mean anything? Is it just five letters put together in a random way? What difference does a name make?

My name means “free”, but that can be ambiguous. I was actually given the legal name of Francis, which derives from Latin, and means “Frenchman”. I’m not French, as far as I know, and being called “Francis” made my childhood more interesting than it needed to be. My father named me Frank/Francis because it was a family tradition. Every first born son in the family, for five generations, has been named Frank. That shows a complete lack of imagination.

The name has baggage beyond just the family tradition. Historically, there have been famous people bearing that name. St. Francis of Assisi is a case in point. My name has echoes from his life. In fact, my family went to Assisi in 1998 to visit the birthplace of St. Francis. Our current pope consciously picked the name Francis, apparently hoping to channel some of the saint’s love and compassion.

In Holy Scripture a lot of ink is used to record the names of people. In fact, the writers of the Bible often take the time and effort to explain why somebody is given a particular name. For example, in Genesis it says that Eve had a third son “and named him Seth, saying, “God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.” Later in Genesis, Sarah laughs when she is told that she will have a child in her old age. Hence, her son’s name is Isaac, which means “laughter”. In Jewish history, and probably in most of the ancient world, names meant something. They were important.

Why?

Going back to Zen Master Dae Kwang, he stated that the name is not the person. But maybe it is. Perhaps giving a name to a baby is an intuitive recognition of who that child is, and of who he or she will become. Does the name describe the individual, or does the person eventually become that name? Does a name change our perception of a person? Does a name change a person’s perception of themselves?

There a verses in the Bible that indicate that God knows our true name. For instance:

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” – Isaiah 43:1

In a way, a parent acts a bit like God when he or she names their child. The parent is saying, “I know you”. This may not be at all logical, but I think it’s true. The name given by the parent might be more a reflection on the adult than the child. In a sense, the parent may be naming themselves as much as they naming the baby.

The girl we love is naming her son “Asher”. That’s a good Jewish name. It means “Happy” or “Blessed” in Hebrew. A friend of mine from the synagogue mentioned that, depending on the pronunciation, it also sounds like the Hebrew word for “I sing”. Considering all of the trials and struggles this young woman has already endured in her life, the name seems very appropriate. She deserved to be blessed, and so does her little boy.

The Zen Master is right about names, but I feel in my gut that names also have a strong and subtle power. I can’t explain it. I just know that they make a difference.

Asher’s name will make a difference in his life.

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