Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What's In A Name?


That's the dominant headline on the front page of our local sensationalistic rag, also known as the Winnipeg Sun. The writer is chastising a local union for trying to protect the identities of some of its members involved in a current public inquiry. From my perspective, the newspaper wants to know the names of these individuals so that they can be tried and vilified in public even though they have not been charged with any criminal offense, nor are they on trial.

Seeing this headline (and suspecting the motivation for it) on the heels of a conversation with my son regarding his name yesterday evening, I started thinking about names. What's in a name? Why do we give our kids the names we do? Why did my parents give me the name I have? Is every name significant? Has every name been assigned after careful thought and consideration? Is there power in a name? Does a name come with inherent vulnerabilities? Is it important for us to know the meaning behind our names? Should I be concerned about protecting my name?

Yesterday, my son told my wife and me that he is going to legally change his given name from Neil to Cornelius. He has already begun to use the 'new' name at work. His rationale for taking this step is clear and logical. The name 'Cornelius" has familial significance.

Both Neil's mother (my former wife) and I had a grandfather named Cornelius. In fact, the name Cornelius shows up at least seven times in our family trees (based on the information I currently have). We named our son Neil in recognition of the name Cornelius in our family histories.

Why Neil, instead of Cornelius? We wanted to protect him from teasing that would likely come from Cornelius being shortened to "Corny". When we were considering what name to give to our first son we contemplated naming him Cornelius William because the name William (actually the German Wilhelm) also occurs quite frequently in our family trees. This idea was nixed fairly quickly because we foresaw our son being teased and possibly ridiculed with the tag 'Corny Bill'. (Now there's an example of vulnerability in a name).

So we named our son Neil Jonathan. We thought Jonathan was fairly close to 'Johann' which is another popular name in our family trees. I like the name Jonathan because it reminds me of a biblical character who exhibited what it means to be a friend.

Neil values his heritage and clings to everything and anything connected to his family history. His apartment is cluttered with stuff that has some kind of family meaning. He values his heritage but is not very diligent in his research or accurate in his memory of family history details. I have often thought I should record the information that I know to be accurate so that I can pass it on to our kids. I suppose that's a meaningful writing project that I could embark on. I have thought about it and have some notes and a completed family tree poster which became outdated when one of my brothers remarried last summer and my step daughter got married early last fall.. Do I rework that chart?  it ended up being a poster that was 40 inches high and 10 feet wide. Reworking that would be a lot of work. What would be the point of that? We certainly don`t have wallspace big enough to display a poster that size. I can`t think of anyone else in my family that would display something that large. So what`s the point? It would be a lot of work that would only be rolled up and stored in a closet somewhere. It would also only be current until the next family birth, marriage or death, etc. Seems like it would be a wasted effort, although it would keep me busy for quite some time.

Ooops. I better get back to the subject I started with - names. I warned you I was a tangential thinker.

Carrying on with Cornelius. I also need to educate Neil on the significance of the name 'Cornelius' in scripture so that he understands why the name is so prominent in his Mennonite roots.

Neil thinks 'Cornelius'  is a cool name. He did thank me for not exposing him to the risk of teasing with the name "Corny". He does get teased with 'Corny Bill' by his siblings on occasion because I related the story of how Neil got his name at the family dinner table on at least one occasion. Siblings being what they are, they jumped on the opportunity afforded them with this information to have some fun. The teasing only happens around the dinner table (as far as I know) and I only recall it coming up in the midst of much bantering and laughter. On another note, I pointed out to Neil that the name 'Cornelius' may not have had the risk we anticipated because shortly after his birth a young man named Cornelius Bennet came to prominence in the NFL and young, sports-minded boys of that time would have probably considered 'Cornelius' a cool name.

Neil told me that when he informed his mother about his decision to change his name to Cornelius she responded with positive enthusiasm. I didn't. In fact, when I think about it I didn't really give him much of a response. I suppose at some level I felt disappointed because I interpreted his decision as an indicator of a lack of valuing of the name we had chosen for him (even though I understand his rationale). But I was mainly preoccupied with how my parents would react to the name change, especially my father.

My father, who died a little more than six years ago, had a problem with the name Cornelius. That was his father's name and their relationship had been a stormy one, and unfortunately, they never seemed to reconcile before my grandfather's death. Neil was born about one and a half years after my grandfather's death. When we told my parents the name(s) of their first grandson we also explained why we chose those names. I don't remember my parents saying anything about our choice of names at the time but I vividly remember my father addressing his infant grandson as Jonathan the first time I gave the baby into his hands. I'm sure I'm the only one who heard this and I remember the emotions and thoughts that rose in me at the time. I felt angry, disappointed, disrespected, and sad. I was angry and sad at what I saw as my father's childish, petulant, and immature behaviour; disrespected because of the obvious and deliberate dismissal of the carefully considered decision we had made in naming our son; and I was saddened that my father chose to bring the garbage from his relationship with his own father into his relationship with his first, and (for twelve years) only grandson. I know my father was pleased to have a grandson, and was proud of him, yet he always seemed to maintain a distance between himself and Neil. In fact, when I think about it, I got the impression that he kept a distance between himself and both of my children. I attribute a lot of this to the fact that the relationship between my father and myself was tense at the best of times, and my father had little or no use for my former wife, especially after our separation and divorce. It wasn't until I took my whole family to see my father when he was in the hospital for the last time (less than four months before his death) that I saw him look at all of us, especially his grandchildren, and heard him utter the words, "I love you all". I'm glad he said it, but saddened that it took until almost the end of his life to do so.

So... what's in a name?  What is a good name? We often hear the phrase, 'x' made a good name for themselves. What does that mean? Is it important? What do people think when they hear my name? Do I really want to know?

Is there power in a name?

Why did the people of Israel have so many names for God? Why should we not take the Lord`s name in vain?

What is the name above all names? Why?

Again... What`s in a name? Something to make us go hmmmm.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
   and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father. 
Phillipians 2: 9-11

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