What’s Your Name?

In today’s social media, this is a phrase asked with a loud shout. When receiving a response (which is usually ‘Tony’), the shouter often retorts with explicit language from the very beginning. Why does one ask for a name? Because there is power in a name. The very first task given to humankind was naming the living creatures. Correction: God had already created the creatures and knew their names, but He brought them to Adam to hear how Adam would name them.

Afterwards, He declared that since Adam had said, so it would be. Regarding plants, scripture doesn’t specify, but thousands of years later, Shakespeare would express, ‘That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.’

Asking for an individual’s name is a form of connection and recognition. Any future interactions are based upon this initial step. To dismiss someone’s name is to dismiss them directly.

Traditionally, an individual’s name was typically bestowed by their family, often consisting of a single word or a short combination of words. My name is John, and the problem lies in its commonality. Gather a dozen random people, and you’ll find at least two, sometimes three individuals named John.

This is where bynames became important. To distinguish individuals, there were ‘John the Bald,’ ‘John the Short,’ and ‘John the Fat.’ In larger gatherings, there would be ‘John of Lafayette’ or ‘John of New York City.’ And then perhaps, ‘John the Tailor,’ ‘John the Butcher,’ and ‘John the Miller.’

Some cultures used a combination of adjectives, verbs, and nouns: “Swift Fox,” “Bright Morning Star,” “Salvation,” and “Sitting Bull.” Oddly enough, I’ve found indigenous tribes of the Americas and the Hebrew naming traditions were very similar.

Bynames were based on appearance, location, and vocation. It’s possible that if there were too many Johns, you might encounter ‘John the bald teacher of Lafayette.’ Thank God surnames were invented.

Initially, surnames may have been inherited place names or attributed to illustrious ancestors. The Scandinavian tradition is to credit the father, as in Peter, John’s son, or Peter Johnson. Girls would also be named for their fathers, as in Helen, John’s daughter, or Helen Johnsdotter.

In ancient Rome, individuals typically used only about two dozen praenomen (first names), possibly another praenomen from the same list for a middle name, and finally a cognomen (family name) for the last name. In the modern world, that naming pattern remains the most common.

I have mentioned before that I have dabbled in genealogy; I have slightly more than 50,000 individuals in my database. One of the wonderful pleasures is collecting the additional naming of some of my ancestors.

I am fortunate to have dozens with the epithet “the Great” added after their first name. Admittedly, some may have added that to themselves, but most had it added later as history recalled their accomplishments.

I don’t want to be disrespectful, but finding another “the Great” is not as exciting as the odd epithet that pops up. “Krum the Horrible” is an example. All of his neighbors called him “Krum the Horrible”; his own people called him “Krum the Brave.”

Then there was the medieval minor noble called “Godefroi ‘the Captive’ Lothringen,” who lived around 1000 AD. It seems that he had a small domain with about 500 men at arms. He also seemed to be very poor at picking the winning side. He would always ally himself with the losing side; his men at arms were killed or sold into slavery, and the few knights and himself were captured and held for ransom. This was the practice of the times, but you only had so much wealth to pay for only a few losses. Godefroi lost a lot of battles and stayed longer and longer in the dungeons before the ransom was paid. Within his lifetime, and for hundreds of years later, he would be known as “the Captive.”

You might not know this, but William was known as “William the Bastard” for more than a hundred years before historians called him “William the Conqueror.” “Eric the Good” wasn’t all that good, but “Louis the Fat” was indeed corpulent. King Louis VI of France tried hard to be known as “Louis the Fighter,” but he was just too big.

The epithet tradition has faded somewhat; President Reagan was called “the Gipper,” John Wayne was “the Duke,” and Elvis Presley was “the King.” As my days are getting longer, I am thinking about what my future epithet might be… “John, the Reluctant?” Or “John the Napper?.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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