The Importance of Names

Chief Joseph

“From our ancestors come our names, but from our virtues our honors.” – Proverb

From the earliest written history of man we see names being of paramount importance. Naming seems to be integrated with our very humanity. Perhaps it’s our need to define our world, but I feel it carries a deeper significance than that. When boys build a fort in the woods what is the first thing they do? Every warriors blade worth its steel has a name: Excalibur, Sting, Anduril, Glamdring, and a many more here.

When my boys and I were scouting some hunting land we came across a little creek. We heard a crashing sound in the water and woods at the top of the creek; it was a deer no doubt. Without thinking about it I said, “Let’s call this place Deer Run Creek”. This wasn’t my creek, just some public land not too far off the road. It’s likely the creek already had a name. But that is how natural it comes; instinctively almost.

So then, what has happened to the importance of names in our culture, especially among men? Perhaps we haven’t lost the naming instinct, maybe it has only changed shape to conform to modern times. But, I feel as if this most natural characteristic of men (and likely all people) is just one more thing we press down and scrutinize until it seems odd and uncomfortable.

A Look at Names in History

Here in the western world the most common example of culturally significant naming comes from the Indians. A name was given at birth, then another at adolescence, another after an event such as a battle, and some tribes had secret, sacred names that were only known and spoken by the elders. It was believed that a person’s name actually held some spiritual significance. I can’t say that is too far from the truth. They represented the character of the person and their achievements. Chief Joseph, in the featured image of this article, had a birth name which translates as Thunder Rolling Down the Mountains. Maybe that’s a bit long for us, but doesn’t Chief Thunder Mountain sound better than Chief Joseph?

In the Bible we see numerous examples of names and their meaning. Genesis 35:17-18 gives us an early account:

bible“And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, ‘Do not fear, for you have another son.’ And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni (son of my sorrow); but his father called him Benjamin (son of my right hand).” – Genesis 35:17-18

I love this story! His mom is dying and, perhaps unwittingly, gives him a name that meant something deep to her, but may haunt him and follow him all of his life. So his father steps in and gives his boy a great name. Think about this for a moment. Jacob reverses his dying wife’s wish to give her son a name because he knows the significance. There is a man for you!

Of course there are other examples; renaming Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul, and an angel telling the parents of Jesus and John what names they were to have. All of these have great significance. Some fortelling and some signifying a great change.

The Names in My Life

My full name is Michael Donovan Yarbrough, so growing up everyone called me Donnie. When I went into the military I was Yarbrough. When I got out I didn’t feel that Donnie worked for me. It felt like a “boys” name for I was a boy when I had that name. For my own sake I decided to go by Michael. Over the years, without trying, people have primarily called my by some variation of my last name:  Yarbs, Yarbi (pronounced yarb-bee), Bro and many others. I love these names because they are uniquely mine. When I go back home I am Donnie and there is something refreshing about being called that on occasion. It takes me back to a place and time when I was young.

Here is a cool story for you. Once, when I was speaking with my grandfather on the phone, when my wife, Summer, and I were still dating, he said “How’s River doing?” referring to Summer but using the name River. I knew who he meant, and this is the neat part, because I had thought of calling her that myself! I never mentioned it to him nor had I known another River that she reminded me of, it just instinctively seemed to fit. Because of this we gave our youngest, Liam, the middle name River. It has significance.

Lately my eldest, Aiden (14), has wanted to go by Harvey because his middle name is Harvest. I am sure some parents would argue this but I totally get it. He is moving from boy to man and needs to find the name that suits him as a man. His first name means firery in Gaelic. It is a popular name now but we picked it because it had a significance to us as a couple.

The Significance of Nicknames

William Hazlitt 1802“A nickname is the hardest stone that the devil can throw at a man.” – Author unknown, quoted by William Hazlitt

Thomas Haliburton“Nicknames stick to people, and the most ridiculous are the most adhesive.” – Thomas C. Haliburton

I recently read Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry (and I can’t recommend the book enough!). Jayber is the barber of a town call Port Williams, and early in the story he mentions how he came about that name. His real name is Jonah Crow but shortened it to just J. Crow. He writes that he knew he was accepted in Port Williams when the people of the town picked a name for him. At first they called him Jaybird, but eventually landed on just Jayber. You see, his name may have been Jonah, but to them, in that point in time and in their town, he needed to have a name that was fitting not just the name that was given.

Nicknames, however, are not always gracious. Sometimes people label others to establish a pecking order. It can be telling of how people see you, how you may come across and not even be aware, but you don’t have to accept the name that is given to you by others. While you can stand up for yourself and ask not to be called by a name, it may be better to change how you come across. Remember this also, nicknames aren’t permanent. At least they don’t have to be. If they no longer fit the person, they stop sticking.

Naming Yourself & Others

I’ll close on this thought. There is nothing wrong with giving a name to yourself. Either one that is a better fit or one that represents who you want to become. Authors, actors, and other artist do this all the time. I read once that “A pen name is a mask that allows us to unmask ourselves.” However, it does feel more authentic when others pick one and it seems to really fit.

When thinking of a nickname for others I recommend just saying what comes to mind. Maybe it isn’t even a word but there isn’t anything wrong with throwing it out there. My dad’s friends always called him Jobby. I don’t know what it means – and am not sure I want to – but when I would hear it as a kid I would think, “Yeah, that sounds right.”


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