What’s in a name anyway? More than you might think

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Tuesday, November 7, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Every teacher in an inner city school has come home shaking her head (or chuckling) over some of the names their students’ mothers have given them.

You know the sorts of names I mean. Made-up names, we sometimes say. Where, we’ve wondered, do they get these names?

I won’t venture to guess the source, except to say that the names tend to have a musical quality about them, no matter how novel the sound or unfamiliar the spelling. They must be, to the people who create them, both beautiful and unique.

But there is something else that strikes me about these names: These kids aren’t named for anybody.

Think about that. Think of the people you know who are called "junior" or "the third." Think of friends who were named after their mother’s favorite uncle, or Dad’s great-great aunt, or doctor this or reverend that — someone the family holds in esteem. This naming-after, I suspect, entails a sense of being a part of an important entity, one that reaches back past living memory and forward as far as the imagination can see.

The thought occurred to me last week when I gave a talk at the annual conference of the African American Historical and Genealogical Society — and so did this corollary: that the "made-up" names suggest a certain isolation. Both their one-of-a-kind names and the way many of these children come to see their lives imply a kind of rootlessness, a sense that what you see of family is all there is.

Researchers have understood for a long time the importance of the overall scheme in which we see ourselves. Michael Sherraden of Washington University once offered this example: "A teen-age female who has spent 15 or 16 years growing up in an environment that provides few options to poor families, few life chances, tends to develop a set of ‘cognitive schema’ that recognize only those limited opportunities.

"If the only schema for maturity she has known is to grow up and have children, it is actually quite difficult for her to even perceive information about other options. This information has no place to fit into her brain. It goes right by."

Sherraden was talking about the impact of assets on the way we behave — on the way we see ourselves. His notion led him to devise Individual Development Accounts as a way of helping poor people begin to accumulate those vision-altering assets. Sherraden seemed to think of assets as the ownership of things.

But I wonder if the sense of belonging to an important and persistent enterprise isn’t also an asset of powerful importance. Knowing that your forebears succeeded against great odds — and doesn’t every family have such ancestors, even if their accomplishments may sometimes be exaggerated? — can provide a positive template for your own possibilities.

Many children of poor, teen-mother-only families are cut off from their successful forebears. (Success, as I think of it, can mean anything from wealth-producing entrepreneurship to gifted artisanship to skillful telling of entertaining stories.) I hear often of children of high-school age who cannot tell you the full names of their mother’s parents, let alone some more distant ancestor.

They are bereft of the traditions, the inspiring models, the family lore that can be an important wellspring of self-esteem, ambition and perseverance.

Obviously there is nothing about the names these young mothers give their children that cuts them off from family. I suggest the contrary: that maybe being cut off from family leads to names — and behaviors — that are dissociated and random.

Even assuming what I say contains a kernel of truth, it’s difficult to figure out what to do about it. Obviously changing children’s names (the way Catholic priests used to make sure every parishioner’s kid had a proper saint’s name) won’t change their life chances. All we can do, I suppose, is to build on what the youngsters bring and hope they will become the remembered ancestors of future generations.

In any case, I make a smaller point: that a child who doesn’t know his grandparents’ names, or who can tell you nothing of substance about any dead ancestor, is likely to be a child with a high potential for failure.

What’s in a name? Maybe more than we think.

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