Saturday, July 17, 2004

A Rose by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

So, in a nutshell, are Montaigne's feelings about names. The idea of a "good name," as in reputation, is not attached to the name itself but to the person who bears the name. Therefore, according to Montaigne, it is silly to name your children after those with great names. Names are merely pen strokes shared, perhaps, by hundreds of others.

What can stop my ostler calling himself Pompey the Great? When all is said and done, what means or links are there which can securely attach that glorious spoken name or pen-strokes either to my ostler, once he is dead, or to that other man whose head was severed in Egypt, in such a way that they can profit by them?
It is more advantageous, thinks Montaigne, to have a fine name "which is easy to pronounce and to remember, since kings and the great can then recognize us more easily and less willfully forget us." In the end
It is those who survive who are moved by the sweetness of those sounds; stirred by a desire to rival those dead men, without reflection they mentally attribute their own emotions to them and deceive themselves into thinking that they too will be able to feel them in their turn.
And it is still true today, isn't? Why else do we name our children after famous people? A parent hopes that by naming their son George Washington Ingbertson that he will grow up to be president someday. Or that by naming their daughter Marilyn Monroe Morgenstern that she will become a famous movie star. In reality it serves only to embarrass the child on the school playground. I remember several years ago some guy getting his name legally changed to Trout Fishing in America. As much as we might like to say and think that names mean nothing, I wonder if Trout had a hard time finding a job, or if he ever got tired of explaining his unusual name? No one wants to be a Plain Jane or a Nerdy Neddy, but I'll wager there are few who would like to be a Trout either. It is easy enough to change one's name these days, but not many actually do it, even the ones who hate their names. Yes, we shorten our names or use nicknames. I have an uncle named Clarence who prefers to be called Chuck. Meanwhile my dearly beloved James will not answer you if you call him Jim. As for me, I'll answer to Stef or Stefanie and I have given up on trying to correct people who misspell it with a "ph." Strangely though, I have had many people who know me well and whom I've just met, call me Stacy. I have yet to figure that one out. When corrected, these individuals usually say something like, "you look like a Stacy." I wonder if there is a book somewhere with names and pictures to go along with them and it is only a matter of finding which picture we look most like to know what our names should really be. Mine should apparently be Stacy. Though I've met people named Stacy before and I don't look like them. Perhaps their names should have been Stefanie? Montaigne is really talking about surnames in his essay, but we no longer live in a time where family names determine your destiny. Okay, so sometimes they do, but for most of us they don't do much. Once we've made it out of school we find ourselves in a society that functions mainly on a first name basis. And maybe it's an American thing. An egalitarian statement of sorts. Because whether you're a Rothschild or a Smith, aside from the size of the bank account, we're all just people. Your name might be able to open a door, but it won't do the work for you. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On the Vanity Of Words"