Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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What’s In a Name?

February 21, 2023

Junius Johnson

What’s in name?” Juliet asks. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”[1] If we take Juliet to be right, then our names are nothing but convenient carrying cases that allow us to take our intuitions about the world along with us. I don’t fuss too much about my shopping bags: they’re just meant to get the groceries home, and for that purpose one will do as well as another in most cases (yes, I think about the environmental impact and what-not, but that’s external to the task I want them to do, which is to carry groceries). And that’s what our words do: help us to reference the same things in speech, to convey information that could just as well be conveyed with other words, or in some cases, without words.

Let’s not be too quick to hand Juliet the victory, however. At the very least, she’s wrong about Romeo. It turns out to matter a great deal that Romeo’s last name is Montague. Literally any other last name would not have been a problem. She may want to be a nominalist and empty words of their power, but she is caught up in a tragedy that turns entirely upon the incompatibility of their names. She of course sees this: even she is not arguing that his name doesn’t matter, only that he should divest himself of it. It “is no part of thee,”[2] she argues, yet the action that follows in the play proves her to be false: he may love her with a rapid infatuation only the very young can know, but he is every inch a Montague.

But is she right about the rose? Of course not. While it may be true that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, it wouldn’t be a rose. The poetry of the rose is not exhausted in its lovely form, beautiful smell, and appley flavor; there is poetry to the name itself, which is why the name has remained largely unchanged for 3000 years across several languages. There is poetry to the very word “rose;” and if that poetry is not any part of the actual flower so named, it is nevertheless based in something true of that flower. Indeed, whatever it is in the flower that grounds the poetry of the name “rose” is more truly the truth of the flower than the graceful curves or bewitching scent. I would dare say that the sensory rose is but a consequence of the intellectual one: roses smell so sweet and look so lovely because of the truth of the flower, which is truly touched upon without being exhausted in the name “rose.”

What then is the power of human naming? It does not go so far as God’s naming, which calls things that are not as though they were (Romans 4:17, ASV). Just as we can’t create from nothing, but only from what God has previously made and has hidden in creation for us to find, so we cannot name from nothing, out of pure whimsy. Or rather, we can do so, but it is just a game. True human naming is serious business.

Human language is not free: it is fettered by a curse of the strongest sort: the curse of Babel. This makes it impossible for two people to really understand each other except for brief flashes, and always only partially. The deepest experiences we know of communion in common meaning—the shared joys of friendship and love, the common excitement of two enthusiasts, the all-encompassing blanket of a grief observed among family and friends—actually fall quite short of mutual understanding to a degree we can never know and yet can never really ignore. Nevertheless, when we want to lock something down, we reach for a name, and that is very interesting: names are our attempt to grant permanence to things.

Sometimes, when I am affected by something and those around me can tell, they ask me what I’m feeling. This is of course the act of friendship, which ever longs to enter into the interiority of the other and commune there. But I often find myself reticent: because to respond to their request would require me to name what I am feeling or thinking, and I find that I am not ready to do that yet. It’s too soon, and it would be hasty to begin naming it. But why should I fear premature naming? Because I know that once I name it, I will become attached to that way of thinking about it. While in one sense nothing stops me from changing my thoughts about it, in another, it becomes quite a lot harder to change that way of looking at it once I have named it.

Naming is a demarcation: it is a process of shutting down numerous pathways in order to pick one. This it has in common with every creative act, because this belongs to the very essence of creation.

Once we say “let there be light,” everything incompatible with light has been ruled out of existence. (Darkness is not incompatible with light: it is its corollary without being its equal or, in a proper sense, its opposite.) We experience this continually: putting the key in Bb major means that it cannot be in C; having a character say that cool thing means there are ten other cool things he can’t say; saying “yes” to this one woman is saying “no” to every other one.

That means that I can name my reticence to name in such moments: to name something is to codify and even ossify it, to lock it into this one way of thinking about it out of all the possible ways. And I always want to be careful of moving too quickly from the many to the one, because the space of possibility is fruitful. If I only think what has ever been thought before, I will only ever do what has been done before. But to think something new, to see the world in a new way, requires resisting the old categories long enough to see what other pathways, now grown dim almost to the point of imperceptibility, we might have taken, and might still take. Naming sets a course, and I don’t want to chart my course before I have a good sense of the lay of the land.

This is not to denigrate naming; in fact, it is, in some sense, to elevate it. We need names to give us purchase on things, but names are spells, and we are such poor wizards that we are often charmed by our own incantations. Like Pygmalion, who fell in love with a statue he had made, or like his modern incarnation Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, we are prone to worship the beauty we have created rather than the beauty it points to. If we’re not careful, our names will sweep us away.

You can see why names have been given such great power in so many cultures around the world. We all remember the first naming, in that weird, dim way that we remember so many things from our pre-history. It is a funny thing and one of the chief duties of culture to gather up racial memories. In this way, every culture remembers the flood, though perhaps none but one gets the details right; every culture remembers the serpent who didn’t slither and was crafty above the other beasts of the field, though he has been embellished, transformed, and romanticized countless times. And we also remember that first moment of naming, when God brought the animals to Adam “to see what he would call them,” and “whatever he called each animal, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19, ESV). Right at the beginning we see that names are powerful. Perhaps they don’t shape the world (God had already created each animal after its kind); but they shape how we see the world, and close off multitudinous ways of seeing the world.

But we are not Adam. Adam named with a unique and virtuosic freedom, because before him there were no other names. Uncursed by Fall or Babel and encouraged by a God fresh from His work of creation, Adam could name in the joy of innocence and the authority of true humanity. It is not so with our naming. We are twisted by the Fall, we are confounded by Babel, and we are abusers of authority. Our names, even when we have the purest of intentions (which are never fully pure in this life) become oppressive monoliths, traps for the feet of the poor and the widow, swords sharpened to strike at the righteous. If this is so, we ought to be hesitant to name: for the wicked fall into the snare they lay for others (Psalm 57:6).

Should we not name, then? Should we abstain from putting this evil into the world? But we can’t. The only way to refrain from putting evil into the world would be to stop acting at all, because we are evil, and our every deed is tainted by that depravity. But were we not to act, we would become guilty also of evil, for sometimes action is demanded: thus we pray to be forgiven both “for things done and things left undone.” To do no evil we would need to unmake ourselves, which lies not in our power, and which would itself be an evil, because God does not will to unmake us. No, there is no way out of this body of death than through the salvation of the Lord, [3] a salvation that constantly turns our evils to goods, and that will one day free us of our bondage to evil, free us for the true freedom of not being able to do whatever we want.

In the meantime, He gave us names. Not just with Adam, but again and again. He teaches us to name Him, and He lays new names upon His people, over and over again: Abraham, Israel, Cephas, Paul. He teaches us to name the holy places, to name the theophanies, and, ultimately, to name His coming (“Immanuel”). It is not in spite of but by means of names that He draws us forth through the drama of salvation.

So let us name, but let us name with sobriety, and with care. We must craft our names with deliberation and humility, offering them to God to see what He will make of them, asking Him to approve what is good and rebuke what is harmful. And we must bear our names with patience, long-suffering, and gratitude; for in the end He will give us one last name, written on a stone, our own personal secret with Him for all eternity. And in that moment, we will know fully, even as we are fully known.

[1] Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2, lines 43

[2] ibid. line 48

[3] Romans 7:24-5 ESV

Featured image is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.


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