I heard on the radio this morning that some plastic surgeons consider themselves Michelangelo’s of the body. Plastic surgeons, Michelangelos? It is kind of like the first time I heard that tattooists called themselves skin artists. Or the garbagemen I grew up with became sanitation engineers. Janitors are now industrial engineers and I remember the day when there were only stewardesses, no stewards and now they are both called flight attendants. It brings to mind a conversation I had with a close friend who happened to be African American (I usually hate assigning race to someone I am talking about because we rarely if ever assign a race category to anyone who is white which we said back in the day, now it’s Caucasian or Anglo depending on your geographical location in the U.S.). We were in the process of adopting my daughter and becoming an interracial family, which many black social workers vehemently opposed at the time. “A black baby in a white home? Unh Uh, I don’t think so.” Anyway back to the conversation I was having with this friend who’s race we won’t mention again, she said, “ In my life I have been called Negro, Afro-American, Black, African American and now person of color along with a few other pejorative terms, the name or being PC (politically correct) isn’t important, the respect is. I heard on the TV by whom I can’t remember, “it ain’t what people call you, it’s what you answer to.”
I also remember when Kampuchea was Cambodia, the Soviet Union still existed as did Yugoslavia. I even traveled there in the late 1980s when it was still Yugoslavia. I was there but now I can’t go “there” anymore, it’s no longer a country. What would I find different if I went there now? About.com says since 1990 there are 33 new countries in the world; fifteen of them were once part of the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia is now five different countries. Other neophytes: Eritrea, Nambia, Yemen, Slovakia, Serbia, Palau. Like stewardesses and garbagemen, countries evolve too. There are missing countries; countries that no longer exist; remember East and West Germany? Or how about Ceylon? Tanganyika and Zanzibar? What does it mean for a country not to exist any more? Is a new country just born one day? How do the every day people define themselves once their country is no longer? Who decides what they call themselves? Did the every day people want a new country? Did the every day people lose their country?
For some people a change of name is not a big deal. Many women change their names when they get married. Some people change their names as a statement against patriarchic naming practices. It is their way of undermining the patriarchy. Some people simply do not like their name and change it. Others change their names because its foreign pronunciation is too difficult for their new world. Is the name a meaningless, arbitrary convention? Juliet says to Romeo
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
“Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.”
Juliet tells Romeo that she loves him, the person, the Montague, not the Montague name. Romeo in his passion for Juliet is ready to reject his family name. Juliet also is prepared to reject her family name for the sake of love. Judy Garland, Cary Grant, John Denver and Elton John changed their names. As did Lucille Ball, Stevie Wonder and Marilyn Monroe. So what’ s the big deal, what’s the larger truth behind this everyday thing called names? Are names just words easily changed and manipulated?
There is a larger truth existing in these ordinary everyday things like names. Names reflect who we are, it is difficult to imagine a world where names don’t matter. First names tell a lot about who we are, about our parents, our cultures, backgrounds and aspirations. Last names are treasure troves of historical information that can even give clues to the occupation of our ancestors. Names of places often reveal the historical background of the place or its significance in one way or another. In most cases, names are not assigned arbitrarily; they are not a random combination of sounds. The name conveys the nature and essence of the thing named. It represents the history and reputation of what is being named. A name represents a personal or a social identity; it signifies a familial connection. Names reflect societal norms and institutions. So in short, the nature of identity is embodied in a name.
So back to names and titles evolving, garbagemen being sanitation engineers, Cambodia now Kampuchea, the Soviet Union no longer existing, African American not Negro and Whoopi Goldberg who used to be Karen Johnson. What’s in a name? Maybe nothing, but maybe something profound depending on one’s involvement? You decide the importance or lack of importance in a name. Does a sanitation engineer get more respect than a garbageman? Is person of color more politically correct than African American? Is Karen Johnson still Karen even though she calls herself Whoopi? Does it matter to us that Yugoslavia changed its name? To us, it may not, but others lost their lives in the process. Now that’s profound!