Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's in a name?

Shakespeare's Juliet famously asked, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." I don't know how many roses were sold yesterday at premium prices to desperate husbands and boyfriends. I like to think I am more technologically advanced, so this year instead of roses I gave my love an Amazon gift card so she can buy books for her Kindle.   

Juliet's "what's in a name?" question argues that the essential "thingness" of an object or person is more significant than the label we give it. But is it? We humans use language and naming of objects as our way of making sense of the world. So a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but it wouldn't be a rose, the ultimate symbol of romance and love. A carnation might smell sweet too, and might be beautiful, but it's not a rose. We can look at a rose and see that it is a flower, with many petals growing in a clustered whorl pattern, with a thorny stem. But we don't truly know what a rose is unless we also add in its symbolic attributes--which have nothing to do with the physical aspects of the rose, and everything to do with it's name. Moreover, it's impossible for us to look at a rose and remove from our psyche what we know about it symbolically.

There are a lot of name changes in the Bible. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Saul becomes Paul. Names tell the world something about us, and tell us too something about ourselves. You can't separate signifier from signified.

Names are important. Is there anything worse than the feeling you have when you forget someone's name? Most couples I know have a system for handling these situations, whereby one person can give "the look" to the other, which is a signal for the second person to extend their hand and say, "I don't believe we've met, I'm ...." letting the forgetful one off the hook for making an introduction.

This week we take a peek at the Third Commandment....Thou shall not take the name of the Lord, thy God in vain.... Not taking the Lord's name in vain goes beyond avoiding the language of a sailor whose words turn the air blue or make a rose wilt.  Hope to see you Sunday to explore this some more.

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