Friday, February 17, 2012

What's in a Name?

One of the central plot points of Rumplestiltskin and similar tales is the heroine's being able to name the title character, therefore freeing herself from his cruel bargain of taking her child. According to Joseph Jacobs, this was a reference to the ancient belief knowledge of a name gives you power over that person.

This isn't really a common idea today, except in the case of preventing identity theft, and then it's more like your social security number becomes your important identifying trait, because so many people share first names anyway these days (although you may have noticed I don't share my last name, to preserve my anonymity...I never connected it to Rumpelstiltskin before, but I guess I do feel like I preserve a little more power because none of my readers knows who I actually am).

But this idea is referenced in a couple books I've read, such as Robin McKinley's "Sunshine," or more commonly known, in Harry Potter when it's a sign of bravery that any character is willing to say Voldemort's name out loud as opposed to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, where we learn that "fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself". Ancient Jews avoided saying God's name out loud out of respect, and for this reason we're not positive how exactly they pronounced the Name, we guess either Jehovah or Yaweh. The New Testament says that "at the name of Jesus every knee will bow." According to Marina Warner, naming a devil or solving a riddle he poses undoes his power.

I believe that part of the reason names were linked to power was because names used to be more symbolic of representing the person it belonged to or the circumstances surrounding their birth. But it seems that most parents choose names for their babies based on liking the sound of the name, not for meaning. I have several friends who don't even know what their own name means, which I find surprising-how do you never wonder about your own name? Of course, some name meanings are less flattering than others, and different baby name books will claim different meanings, so I guess it's not too surprising that interest has waned in this area.

I suppose we don't like the idea of being confined to any name definition and would prefer to see ourselves as defining our own personality. We are no longer satisfied with our destinies being determined by the stars or our parents and want to take charge on our own. But if you're interested, in my sidebar I have a link to my fairy name, from the fairy name generator. Not that I credit it with 100% accuracy or anything, but I was delighted that my description is somewhat accurate-a singer and panpipe (or, flute) player!


  1. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip is another book in which the power of names plays an important role. A lot of McKillip's writing has very strong ties to fairy tales and folklore.

  2. As far as I know, the name of someone represents his soul itself, the name of a nation/group the 'soul' of this nation/group and so on... Interesting blog, I'll bookmark it. Cheers.