What’s In a Name?

So it appears that Osama bin Laden, in the weeks before his death, was noodling the possibility of rebranding al-Qaeda, since the old name seems to have attracted a bit of bad publicity. I held a brief contest on my blog inviting readers to help these guys out by coming up with a new name for their venerable community Islamic social activists; and though there were a number of great suggestions, such as “Lady Qaeda,” I had to conclude that the winning entry was “Mohammedan and Enjoying It!” I think that really captures the upbeat, sunny side of Bronze Age fanaticism and murder, don’t you? With a new name, people will hardly notice the trail of corpses they leave in their wake.

In a backhanded way, this particularly weird attempt to alter a name demonstrates something that people have known for a long time: that what we call a thing (or more precisely, what we refuse to call a thing) does matter. Totalitarian states and government bureaucrats have long understood the importance of creating euphemisms rather than naming things by their proper names. So murder was called “liquidation” by the Soviets and “relocation to the East” by the Nazis. Here in our own country, murder of the unborn babe was re-titled “abortion” in an attempt to make it sound more clinical and scientific. It’s all in Orwell, all in Orwell. Dear me, what do they teach in the schools these days?

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This habit of coining euphemisms to avoid saying what one actually means, by the way, points to an interesting phenomenon in language called the “euphemism treadmill.” It works like this: An attempt is made to perfume some ugly thing by renaming it with a nicer-sounding word. However, because the ugly thing remains ugly, the nicer-sounding word soon takes on the stench of the thing it was meant to perfume. And so the gleaming scientific term “abortion” now carries all the ugliness of the words “child slaughter” that it was mean to replace. So a new term like “pregnancy termination” replaces the old euphemism with a new one and begins to acquire the stink.

So Juliet Capulet is all wet when she tries to pretend that names mean nothing in the famous lines:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face. O, be some other name
Belonging to a man.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called….

In fact, of course, there’s plenty in a name. Names are not just labels we slap on to things and persons, as if a number would do as well. Names name. It is precisely because she is a Capulet and Romeo a Montague, and they are not Reproductive Units A and B, that the story of Romeo and Juliet is a story and not a concatenation of meaningless sequential events, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

That names name is supremely true when we are naming human beings. Take away a person’s name and replace it with a number, and you commit the grave sin of dehumanizing him. That is what the Nazis did when they stripped millions of their names and gave them numbers in their death camps. Of course, the man himself retains his dignity, just as Prisoner #16670 remained St. Maximilian Kolbe to the end. But the evil of dehumanizing him was prelude to his murder.

For a related (though far less sinister) reason, when people forget our names, it’s hard to avoid the sensation that they have forgotten us. And when we forget somebody’s name (a constant failing of mine), they feel forgotten and we feel ashamed — because it not enough to identify them as “male Homo sapiens” or “guy from Everett, Washington,” or “dude with the squeaky voice.”


Names matter. This is something the Hebrew tradition was alive to from the beginning. The oldest son of Noah (and bearer of his covenant birthright — a birthright that will ultimately lead to the birth of Him whose Name is above all names) is Shem, whose name means Name. When the descendants of his brother Ham begin the project of building Babel, they do so by saying, “Let us make a Name [Shem] for ourselves” (Gen 11:4). In other words, they are trying to claim Shem’s Messianic birthright — a project that continues to this day in various forms of utopian scheming and with the same result of confusion of language.

Throughout the Old Testament, not just names but name changes are significant. Abram becomes Abraham, the “Father of a Multitude.” Isaac’s name (Laughter) tells of the joy his birth brought. Jacob the deceiver becomes Israel, the one who struggles with God. Moses’ name is a sort of divine pun, which tells not only of his origin in being “drawn out” of the Nile, but as the one who drew Israel out of Egypt (also through a body of water). The book of Exodus is, in fact, called the book of Names in Hebrew (since, as with papal encyclicals, the Hebrew books of the Bible take their titles from the opening words of the book — in this case, “These are the Names”). In Exodus, names will be hugely important — as well as the absence of names. Most significant by its absence is the name of the great oppressor of Israel, who is known only as “Pharaoh.” Most significant by its presence is the Divine Name, I AM, revealed to Moses on Sinai and so sacred that later Jewish tradition will, out of respect, replace it with the circumlocution “Hashem,” or “The Name.”

The New Testament is likewise full of this Hebraic sensibility about the significance of names. Jesus Himself receives his Name from an angel — a Name that describes His entire being and mission in the world: “The Lord is Salvation.” He famously renames Simon as Peter, thereby revealing a truth about Simon that Simon himself could never have discovered in a lifetime of navel-gazing. And on through the years, Catholics from the pope on down have likewise taken new names to reveal their connection to or admiration for some great saint. So John Paul II took his new name to reaffirm his connection to the legacy of his three predecessors. And, in the same way, no pope has ever dared to take the name “Peter” out of respect for the first pope.

As a general rule, you don’t name yourself. Your name is, with rare exceptions, given you by another. This is emblematic of how we find our way in the world, too. Others tell us who we are, not by force, but by reflecting the truth of our lives back to us. This is why things like charisms are discerned by the Body of Christ rather than by us going into some mystic hut of contemplation, deciding what charisms we have, and then announcing to the Church that everybody better respect our authority as a prophet or healer or so forth. What happens is you do what God has created you to do, and people begin saying things like, “You really know your way around the guts of car,” or, “You have a genius for making people feel at home,” or, “When you play the guitar it moves me”; and you discover, in the process, who you are. This, by the way, is one of the reasons that people who suddenly announce a “calling” to the priesthood that is rooted not in the discernment of the Church but in some need to Fight the Power are likewise wrongheaded. They are trying to “make a Name for themselves” rather than let God reveal their name.


This is a principle so deeply rooted in our Tradition that even Jesus lives by it. It is intriguing that when Jesus chooses the means to reveal His full identity, He does so not by naming himself but by letting His true identity as Christ be revealed through His Church:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 16:13-17)

On occasion, as in taking a religious vow or making a marriage vow, we are required by God to name ourselves. So a man named “Bernard” in lay life may become “Father Michael” when he becomes a priest. Or in a marriage, we don’t just say, “I take you to be my lawfully wedded wife,” but, “I, Mark, take you, Janet, to be my lawfully wedded wife.” Or we raise our hand in oath and say, “I, Mark, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of dog catcher.” In such moments of lawful duty to God, the State, or our beloved, we do right to name ourselves. But there are also times when renaming oneself is to put on a mask. “Lady Gaga,” for instance, is a name that distorts and hides who Stefani Germanotta really is and makes her into yet another anonymous avatar of the unholy trinity of money, sex, and power. She loses her identity as a child of God and becomes merely another drone in service of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Similarly, the former Archibald Leach once famously complained of the unreality of his stage name saying, “We all wish we were Cary Grant. Sometimes I wish I was Cary Grant.”

Names are profoundly personal things. Although the world teems with Fluffies, Fidos, and Flippers, the animals we give these names to don’t really seem to return the favor much. It’s as though they are responding not so much to a name as to an acoustic cue, a la the famous Far Side cartoon in which the man complains to his dog along the lines of, “Ginger, I am sick of you getting into the trash! Bad dog, Ginger! Stay out of the trash, Ginger!” and all his dog hears is, “Ginger! Blah blah blah Ginger!” We are the only animals that both give and receive names. And it is part of our primordial mission as human beings to do so. For it was to Adam, after all, that the job was given to name all the animals (and everything else in creation, too).

“So what?” you ask. So this: When we speak our names to other or receive the names of others from them, something is happening that marks us out as unique in all of creation that has gone before us for 13.5 billion years of our universe’s history. For the first time, a person has appeared. We are not simply making noise like animals, bawling the Homo sapiens equivalent of “Hey!” or “This is my spot! Get lost!” or “She’s mine! Go away!” or “That’s my food! Don’t touch it!”

Instead, we are, by the creative grace of God, making possible communion, not only between one human being and another, but between man and God. To be sure, God is, as ever, the Great Initiator. It is the Word who gives us the power of words and makes us able to name the beasts and one another. It is He who reveals His own Name, not we who slap a label on him. But when we receive the power of speech and not mere noise, we have the power to use that gift for good or for evil. When done in love for persons, circumlocutions (such as the Hebraic avoidance of speaking or writing the Divine Name) can be a form of love. Likewise, the gentling of speech to protect innocent ears or to avoid needless brutality to the weak and fragile can be an act of love.

But the use of euphemism to disguise brutality, sin, and evil with perfumed words — all for the express purpose of baiting the hook of evil with the worm of anesthetizing language — that is always evil. As our culture does that more and more, the gospel counsel in favor of plain and honest speech cries out for a fresh airing: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Mt 5:37). And the reason for this is clarity itself. If we have been baptized, we bear the Name of Christ as Christians, and “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Ex 20:7).


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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