The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

If you don’t know who Dana Busbiber is, by the time you finish reading this post you will.  She happens to be an inner city public school English literature teacher in Sacramento, CA who believes that we should no longer educate our children by teaching Shakespeare because he is “a long dead British guy.”  Ms. Busbiber goes on to say that the only reason that “Shakespeare is great is because ‘some white people’ declared him to be.”  That’s an interesting thesis which unfortunately fails to reflect the fact that themes such as young love as set forth in “Romeo and Juliet” and honor and betrayal as written about in “King Lear” and “Hamlet” are as meaningful and important as they were four hundred years ago when the Bard first penned those plays.

A brief example of the “relevance” of Shakespeare comes from his play of the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.  The play is, of course, the inspiration for the 1957 musical, “West Side Story,” written by Arthur Laurents with musical score by Leonard Bernstein.  Without that “long dead British guy,” would these artists have ever thought to create a story about the Jets and the Sharks and would we have those liltingly beautiful songs, “Maria” and “Tonight?”  Quite possibly not.  And, for that matter, would I have the title of this post, lifted unflinchingly from that same play?

Now that we’ve dispensed with the Busbiber bimbo, let’s turn our attention to the real subject and the title of this post, what is in a name?  Apparently, quite a lot.

Whether it is Judaism, Hinduism or a number of other religious traditions, having the power to “name” things is to give the person possessed of that power control over the thing so named.  In Genesis, God gave man the power to name the animals, and that power conferred the ability to have dominion over them.  And mankind has been busy naming things ever since – including our offspring.  Sometimes with unintended but fairly predictable dire consequences.

One of my classmates at the University of Chicago had the first name, Nimbus.  A nimbus is a luminescent halo or gray rain cloud and we all thought that Nimbus’ name was a good source for a chuckle.  Until we learned that he had a brother by the name of Zippo.  Apparently their father had served in the U. S. Army during WWII and attributed his survival to the unfailing ability  of his lighter to light, allowing him to escape through a pitch black corridor of a burned out building and avoid a platoon of Nazi troops.  But on the scale of 1 – 100, by today’s standards, Nimbus and Zippo barely register.

Twenty-five years ago, I had gone to my bank to cash a check to replenish our small petty cash fund.  Because this was a “business” transaction, I had to wait in the far shorter line for business customers than the regular long line to which the hoi poloi were consigned.  This was a good thing.  Furthermore, wanting to cater to its business customers, the bank regularly assigned its best tellers to the business line to provide those customers with a better experience.  As I waited my turn I happened to notice that the window was being manned by a new teller whom I had not seen before.  I glanced at his nameplate which rested to the side of his window and restrained a deep-seated laugh as I read his name, “Epluribusunum.”

Normally, whether it is a bank teller or a wait person, I try to pay attention to their name tag and use their name in addressing them as a way of acknowledging them as an individual.  That just seems to me a matter of common courtesy.  But I knew that before I got out the last syllable of Epluribusunum I would be laughing and that would be rude, so I conducted my business with this very efficient young man and just wished him a good day as I left his window and the bank.  While I was in line I was trying to think what an appropriate nickname for him might be, which further added to my sense of laughter.  But then I still have difficulty understanding how we turn Charlie into Chuck or Elizabeth into Betty.

You don’t need to be an Einstein to know that when a person is named “’Nshaquetha” or “Latonyethia” or “Epluribusunum” there is greater than a 99.9% probability that she or he is darkly complected.  And while I applaud their mothers’ originality in coming up with these monikers, I really do believe that these uniquely individual names serve as a hindrance to many of these children in their growing up and in their adult lives.  There is a reason that in many countries, including France, Germany, Japan, China, New Zealand and Iceland, among others, names must be selected from an approved list or a name which is not on that list must be submitted for approval before the child can be called by that name.  The United States has few if any such restrictions.

While most of the western world uses a system of naming using surnames as an identifier, the Icelandic people use a rather different system which was common throughout Scandinavia and is again being reintroduced in several of those countries.  It seeks to provide family connection by using a patronymic and in some cases a matronymic system.  That is to say, there are no surnames but a child is identified as his or her father’s son or daughter (or mother’s) by adding either “son” or “dóttir” to their father’s (or mother’s) first name.  Thus, if Jón and Birgit had a boy whom they named Eifur, he might be called either Eifur Jónsson or Eifur Birgitsson.  In the case of a girl named Helga she would be either Helga Jonsdóttir or Helga Birgitsdóttir.

There is a charming simplicity both to having specific names which we may confer on our children and to the Icelandic system of providing relationship attribution through the use of one (or in some cases both) the parents’ names to the newborn.  But as I think about it, with the growing number of unwed mothers and hard to find fathers in the United States, it probably wouldn’t work here.

To those of you have earned it, “Have a Happy Father’s Day.”  And to those of you who contributed in that effort, enjoy Dad’s day as well.

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