Monday, November 16, 2009

What's in a Name?

That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Everyone knows those lines. Juliet meditates on the problem of names, wondering whether they're just arbitrary, like a garment that adorns, but doesn't define, a person. She wants Romeo to be more than his family--wants his family name to be something he can doff like a hat, "and still retain that dear perfection which he owes/Without that title."

So what is "in a name?" Let's start simple here. First names are certainly arbitrary, aren't they?  When you read the name "Emily" or "Sam" you don't get any sense of a person's values, appearance, or way of talking. The only thing you might get is nationality, since those are "American-sounding" names. Names have other associations, however. When I was looking for a name for my (as yet unborn) son,  my husband nixed one name because it was the name of a kid who'd committed suicide in his dorm, and I vetoed another because "it sounded like a dumb kid's name." Obviously there's no meaning inherent in sounds--but it's hard to find a word or name that hasn't accumulated some cultural baggage. There was a girl in my seventh-grade class whose last name was "Nipple." Can you imagine? Now obviously this name probably started out as a foreign name, and got anglicized into "Nipple." But how awful. Even at age twelve, I felt really bad for her. Some names seem weird when paired with other names--my paternal grandmother's first name was Margaret, so when she married my grandfather she became "Margaret Margherita," which is sort of like "Humbert Humbert" (for those of you who've read Nabokov). I inherited her first name as my middle name. When I got married, the invitation read "Gayle Margaret Margherita." My friends and colleagues mused among themselves that this must be "some bizarre ethnic thing," i.e., giving your kids redundant names.

Anyway, is Juliet right? Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Could a man, for example, send his inamorata "a bunch of long-stemmed turds?" Well, of course. If "turd" didn't mean what it does, it could certainly mean a fragrant, multi-petaled flower. But words are cultural constructs. Ask any German whether she'd buy a bottle of "Canadian Mist" whiskey, for example. Doubtful. I wouldn't buy a French wine that was called "Chateau de Pisse" either. And I've always thought "poubelle" was a wrong name for a trash can. It sounds like an endearment. "Come here, my little poubelle..."

These days there's a whole field--social linguistics--devoted to these questions, but they're not new.  Will certainly thought that language had power--every utterance, at least on the stage, is a kind of conjuring. But what about in real life? What's in a name?  A lot, according to the arbiters of politically correct speech. Certain names/labels are "demeaning," and can't be spoken anymore. Take the word "retarded."  When I was a kid, it meant someone with Down Syndrome. We didn't know the term "Down Syndrome." Actually, the word "retarded" just means "slowed down." You're tardy, you get there later than everyone else. But over time, it lost all other meanings but this one--a person with Down Syndrome. And of course it then became a slur. When you wanted to tease your little brother, you called him a "retard." And so what was once a description became an insult.  "Retarded" is now banished from our speech in all but a few instances. But banishing a word, making it "unspeakable" gives it immense power. It becomes a magical word, then, capable of absolute destruction. Here's another, particularly disturbing example. Despite the fact that the word "niggardly" has absolutely nothing to do semantically or etymologically with the "N" word, it can't be spoken anymore. Simply by virtue of its sound, it's been banished to the realm of "magical speech"--it's become a word with malevolent power. Just hearing this word, it seems, can make people cringe, burst into tears, or write vitriolic letters demanding political purges. In fact, a Washington, D.C. city government staffer lost his job for saying this terrible word. Which, by the way, means "stingy."

When did we become so emotionally frail that we can't hear certain sounds? Or even certain insults? Is it really good for people to grow up protected from all disturbing words? Forbidding people to say them doesn't mean they aren't thinking them, does it? In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, books were burned because they "upset people," specifically people who saw themselves as belonging to a minority. Not just racial minorities, but "dog lovers, cat lovers, lawyers, chiefs, people from Oregon..." and so on. Personally, I don't want to be friends with people who use racial slurs. At all. But I'd rather they reveal themselves. Know thy enemy, say I. When I was a kid, some neighborhood bullies took to taunting our family with this cute little ditty: "Margherita, wash your feet-a, the Board of Health's across the street-a." It must have bugged me, because I remembered it. But it didn't kill me. And it made me aware that there are some really stupid people out there. We live in a society, however, that (increasingly) valorizes--even celebrates-- victims.  This is what Nietzsche called "slave morality." If we never have to stand up for ourselves, use our own words to combat slurs, labels and stupid stereotypes, we become morally feeble. One could argue that this whiny trend, as manifested in absurdities like the censoring of "niggardly," is the mark of a decadent society.

On the other hand, words do have power to hurt people--sometimes terribly. I'm certainly not arguing for the return of horrible words that none of us wants to hear again. Just this morning I was reading in the paper that the Supreme Court refused to consider a case for banning the name "Redskins"--the name of the Washington NFL team. And come on, this is an awful name. Can you imagine any other racial slur--and this is a racial slur--used as the name of a famous sports team? It's absurd. I don't think it should be legislated--I'm of a libertarian bent, myself--but for goodness' sake, they ought to use some common sense and sensitivity and change it. And as for the N-word--that's a word with a terrible history, and of course no one should use it as a name or a label. But should it be given such magical power that no one can even utter it, as, say, an example of a terrible word? Because that's where we are now. It's not a word anymore--it's become an incantation, a curse, a one-word evocation of historical trauma. When in fact it's just a nasty word that's a marker of ignorance and intolerance. Let's not give it any more power than that.

Of course some words can be used as slurs, and still hurt, but no one would argue for removing them from the language. Case in point:  I grew up with four younger brothers. One of the worst things they could think to call one another was "woman."  I can't tell you how many times I heard "you woman, you're such a loser" or "don't be such a woman." Now, of course, we have the ubiquitous "man up," which means something similar. Homosexual slurs were popular also, as they are among all boys of a certain age. But as the only girl, I heard that "woman" as a shameful term, a mark of inferiority. And it pissed me off. I did not, however, make a big deal about it. My mom would have just told me to quit being a whiner. In retrospect, that "woman" bothered me a lot more than the "Margherita" chant. It was personal, and it came from family.

It's certainly true that the place where words have the most power to hurt is in the private sphere. One of the most moving lines in Othello is when Desdemona, after being called a whore by her beloved husband, asks "am I that name?" Is that terrible word who I am? The people we love have the power to imbue every word with magic, for better or worse. A girl who grows up being told she's a slut, or a loser, or a moron will either be those things or spend her whole life trying to prove she's not. A boy who's told he's lazy, or fat, or clumsy will remember those words forever, even when he's the trim, athletic CEO of a major corporation. As children we live in a more theatrical world. Every word conjures a possibility--it becomes a guardian angel, shepherding us through hard times, or a demon we spend our whole lives trying to vanquish. Labels are mighty long-lived things. Time was that some labels could never be lived down--they had to be reclaimed and redefined, as Hester Prynne does in The Scarlet Letter when she makes her badge of shame into a work of art.  In King Lear, Edmund re-appropriates the word "bastard," giving it new, malevolent power. In the days before government agencies legislated language, you had to either own your label or admit it owned you.

So, what's in a name? Nothing and everything.

Next:  Vows! Echoes! More words!

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