COLUMN: What's In A Name?
Published: Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 20:10
Not long ago someone pointed out to me that many folks my age introduce themselves with simply their first names. Leave last names for when we swap contact information, I suppose. But as a result, I have since then been attempting to introduce myself with my full name. The mouthful, Patrick Angiolillo—once described as “schizophrenic” by a high school Latin teacher—is a combination of two culturally quintessential names: Patrick (a hearty testament to my Irish heritage) and Angiolillo (its final “o” a sure sign of my Italian roots). How much someone can tell about me in a matter of two words!
While watching Charade last week, this notion of names fresh on my mind, I was struck by one scene where Cary Grant’s character says to Audrey Hepburn’s character, “Well, the man’s the same even if the name isn’t,” to which she sternly replies, “No, he isn’t the same!” Grant’s character had been giving Hepburn’s a host of false names over the course of several days and finally she was fed up—and for good reason. To know someone’s name is to be able to say something concrete about them. To be able to give a name to them is to be able to claim something about who they are. When we think we know someone—who they truly are or what their character and personality is like—and we find out they are not who they claim to be, we are aghast. Think of any classic twist in a horror movie plot where the protagonist stutters “Bu…but…you’re…ah!” (cue slasher scene!). The idea alone is enough to unsettle the nerves, and it is only amplified by knives and murderous intentions in a horror flick.
I think how we introduce ourselves—what we choose to be called—is integral to who we are. If we want to be known by a diminutive of our name, or by our middle name, or by a nickname, we are deciding how we wish to be known to the world. In doing this, we are, in a sense, writing our own narratives. If we choose to change our name, or to allow someone to call us by a different moniker, we are taking our stories in any of a host of new directions. A friend of mine freshman year introduced himself as Jordan (his first name), but by sophomore year he was introducing himself as Ben (his middle name). I had one of those “does not compute” moments the first time I was in the room when he did this. After much confusion between other friends and I, you could hear any combination of Ben or Jordan being used to address … well … Ben, or Jordan, or Ben Jordan. In making this change, Jordan was making a decision about how he wanted to be known and who he wants to be.
Examples of the importance of names abound in literature. In the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the head nurse—a mean and mechanical woman—is named “Nurse Ratchet,” befitting her character. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s name signifies his stagnation—his character’s stasis in the story (his being “held” in place). And in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf was at one time the Grey and at another the White—and how such a simple change in color can reflect such a magnificent change in character! Though these are fictional instances, they each speak to the notion that our names truly do, in some way, reflect who we are.
On a very practical level, there is something special about knowing someone’s name and having your name be known. It feels good, I have to admit, when someone I met once, quite a time ago, can recall my name with ease and ask how I am doing. It is practical, sure—and maybe remembering the name of that Deloitte recruiter at a cocktail reception months later can score you points on an application—but on a fundamental, human level there is a satisfaction with being able to give a name to someone (just as it is to give a name to something). To be able to identify a person, call them out from across the Quad, or pick them out in a photograph by name. These things speak to our innate desire to know and to be able to claim what we know. To upset this desire is to spell disaster … or a new name. So here’s to knowing Patrick Joseph William Angiolillo. What’s your name?
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.