By Any Other Name
“What’s the difference?”
“One is my name; the other is not.”
– Star Trek: The Next Generation, Data correcting a woman who mispronounced his name
I’ve posted before about languages and the politics therein, as banning or not speaking languages has a similar although magnified impact as banning or not reading books. It is a loss of knowledge, ideas, and history, whether an intentional destruction or an accidental loss. Recently, I happened to stumble upon a blog dedicated to telling personal or family stories about reclaiming one’s name in the wake of colonialism and it seemed relevant, if more personal. The Reclaim Your Name blog features stories from people, be they Irish, Inuit, Maori, or Navajo, about their experiences with personal or family names being changed, assigned, anglicized, or standardized and their attempts to reclaim them. You can add your own story to the blog.
There is so much politics surrounding names, be it cultural, familial, national, etc. This tension has fascinated me ever since I was little, from Data claiming his own identity to the scene in The Secret of Roan Inish where the schoolmaster publicly humiliates a boy for speaking Irish to Julie of the Wolves to the classroom injustice of My Name Is Maria Isabel to reading The Namesake in college. It was in the second Julie of the Wolves book, Julie, that this fascination really took hold.
In Julie the main character goes by Mijax amongst her tribe and Julie elsewhere, correcting her white step-mother when she calls her Mijax. However, when Peter, a future love interest, calls her Mijax, she does not correct him and later wonders why she does not. My young mind was fascinated by all of the issues here. First of all, there were people with more than one name. People used certain names with certain people and other ones with others. The part with Peter adds a new level of complexity, as his exception brings up the question of how Julie defines tribe, family, and herself. Peter is not her tribe, but he is part of a tribe she builds for herself. In this series (and Inuit mythology/tradition itself), names also carry somewhat of an otherworldly power, as to name a child after someone is not merely an honor in Inuit tradition but a way of imbuing them with the spirit of their namesake. This form of reincarnation via name choice is echoed in everything from the naming rituals in Lois Lowry’s The Giver to certain Jewish traditions.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that this moment reading Julie fundamentally changed my life, as it sent me down a lifelong path of various passions. Anthropology, mythology, etymology, languages, literature, writing, history: all of them come down to a love of stories, of words, of names. At the end of the day, I am a child obsessed with names: the names we remember, the names we forget, the way names change, what names are, what names mean, what the story is behind a name.
Later on, my love of fantasy led me to Elfquest, The Inheritance Cycle, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Books of Pellinor, and numerous others, all of which use Truenames, Secret Soul Names, and sacred/ancient languages in which words and names have real power. These stories took the concepts I first latched onto in Julie and used them in increasingly supernatural, literal, and sometimes kinky ways. Fantasy is full of names that give people power over other people or other things.
I don’t think that magic is confined to the genre. Names, words, prayers, hymns, oaths, songs, speeches, and all manner of spoken and written words have power over us or hold meaning for us in nearly every aspect of our lives. They have power because we give them power. These words mean something to us, whether its an individual meaning or as a shared cultural symbol or experience. Even singing a song from a Disney movie can connect people across nations, cultures, and even languages with a single shared childhood experience, no matter how different our childhoods were.
Recently, my obsession with names and the politics, traditions, and tensions involved was rekindled while researching a series of books I am writing. The books deal with characters from numerous cultural backgrounds, many of which struggle with issues of identity in the wake of colonialism, globalization, war, cultural exchange, industrialization, regime changes, and an increasingly connected world. When I began to research Inuit naming traditions and got lost in the fascinating political history of Inuit names, it reminded me of the little girl reading Julie. Of the girl who found the political issues surrounding language more interesting than magic, shapeshifting seal-people (though those are pretty awesome too).
When I found this blog these stories spoke to me, though I am not Navajo or Maori or Inuk. We all have stories behind our names, whether we know them or not. We all struggle in some way or another with our identity. Names, even if increasingly picked because they sound cool, still mean something.
Our names are the most basic and complex gift we have. They are the most fundamental way we have of defining or redefining ourselves. They hold power, whether for us or over us. Changing a name can help us reclaim our heritage, remember a lost loved one, start a new chapter of our lives, sever a tie with an estranged family member, or celebrate a new relationship such as adoption or marriage.
So, what’s in a name? Anything and everything you bring to it or take from it.
“Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic. They are potent forms of enchantment, rich with the power to hurt or heal.”
– Albus Dumbledore