Since I was a child, the origin and meaning of my name has always been a personal Holy Grail. Though the origin was somewhat straightforward — literally, the name of an ancient city — I have never been content to stop there, instead wanting to find deeper layers of meaning and significance to the word that has come to embody me so well. It was from this deep, vested interest in names and their significance that I opened The Power of Names: Uncovering the Mystery of What We Are Called, by Mavis Himes.
As a psychoanalyst, Himes has composed a work that is somehow cerebral and coffee shop conversation all at once. Equal parts essay, etymological discourse, and transparent autobiography, The Power of Names balances the line between deep, personal, self-effacing, and widely accessible with masterful ease. Himes goes further than simply providing a history of etymology and how names gained their significance; she delves into the foundational components of the self and the role a given name plays in identity, all through the telling of her own journey of discovery.
Most studies of names I’ve encountered skirted the surface, pointing to the ancestral roots and the obvious meanings found by defining the word in its language of origin. These books have been a disappointment, especially to a linguistics and language junkie who searches for meaning anywhere it can be found. The Power of Names is unique in its approach. While rich in history and the ancestral origins one would expect in a academic thesis or article, it is sprinkled with humanity in the form of Himes’ journey through her own Jewish ancestry and the role her name has played in her own life.
As Himes states, “to be named is to occupy the spirit of one’s identity, no matter who one’s parents and grandparents may be and no matter how one’s life will unfolds&hellips;to inhabit one’s name is to enter the shared universe of discourse and activity with other speaking beings.” In the early sections of her book, Himes introduces naming as that first initiation to life, often preceding the birthing process by days, months or even years in some cases. As the section is titled, to be named is to be “Called Into Existence,” offering the very essence of life and identity in a single word or phrase. This particular point was one that I had never thought about, though I can now see that the earliest acknowledgement of my identity was when my pregnant mother would speak to me in the womb, calling me by the very name I now sign to every thing. As mentioned, this section is mixed with personal history as Himes traces her ancestral lineage, showing how her names exist in separate worlds — Jewish and English. The extent of history and etymological research shown in this section is comprehensive and appreciated as it provides a primer on naming back to Biblical times.
The latter portion of the work focuses on the weight — the “Burden or Blessing” — of an individual name. Himes explains the burden of family history, pedigree, racial and ethnic tensions and even personal dislike when it comes to naming, as well as the great honor and blessing that can be transmitted at the same moment. As she states, “Names are rarely neutral. There is pride or there is shame; there is a bond or there is a rupture; there is a positive association or there is a negative disassociation: There is curiosity, there is gratitude, or there is regret.” She also discusses the challenge of living up to a heavily weighted name, the effort many take to run from the history of a tragic name, or the personal turmoil one might experience if that name has no history or meaning at all.
According to the preface, The Power of Names was the result of the author’s exploration into her own name within the context of a larger etymological study. Peppered with autobiographical components and tidbits from Himes’ own client base mesh together to turn what could have been a dry discourse on the history of naming practices into a personal, rich, and at times, emotional journey. As such, it stands out as both an autobiography and etymological study and was a very pleasant and engaging read.
Suitable as both a casual read and a course text for those studying the history of naming, The Power of Names is a pleasantly personal look at what it means to name and be named, all through the lens of the author. The personal discovery is communicated in a deep, thoughtful, yet accessible manner that simultaneously educates, empowers, and entertains.
The Power of Names: Uncovering the Mystery of What We Are Called
Rowman & Littlefield, May 2016
Paperback, 238 pages