What’s in a Name?
Sometimes I am asked how I get ideas for sermon subjects. Occasionally I can truthfully say that I don’t know – an idea simply came into my head. But at other times it is something I have read, or something I have heard, or some incident during the week which triggers off the thoughts.
Two things coming together started me off on today’s subject. One was a short item in the paper, and the other a letter from my youngest brother. My brother has developed an interest in our family history, and has spent no little effort in tracing Rosling ancestors back over a number of generations. He wrote to me the other day asking if I could help him with some dates and names of relations, enclosing a copy of the family tree he had drawn to date.
And the newspaper article? This was on a subject reported on in my paper each year. It gives the most popular boys and girls names bestowed by parents upon their newly born children during the previous year. It is drawn up by a government department which deals surveys of the population in this country. And as a government department is responsible we can naturally be assured of its accuracy.
These parent-given names – christian names as we often refer to them, though forenames nowadays are normally asked for on forms, for we can no longer assume that we are all christian; there are many other faiths practised in the land – these names often go in cycles determined by fashion. At one time biblical names were common. They still are. Usually those we hear now given to boys are largely from the New Testament – Paul, John, Timothy, Andrew, Matthew, Peter for example. It is seldom today that we come across Eli, Ebenezer, Job and Abel except in Victorian novels, though Daniel and Benjamin are still in favour. Once girls names based on desirable qualities were common. Names like Grace, Faith, Charity, Prudence, Joy, Felicity are now not much heard among young girls. Nor are names of flowers and plants such as Pansy, Daisy, Primrose, Hazel, or Rose.
On the family tree my brother sent me many of the boys’ names from the past were from royalty – James, Arthur, William, George, Richard, Henry. Among the girls were Mary and Edith, Phyllis, Ethel, Alice and Nancy – all names which apparently now are regarded as rather old-fashioned by modern parents. I wonder how many here would guess the most popular girl and boy’s name in 1995? I have the newspaper cutting before me, from which I now quote.
(Comment on cutting: Michael and Jessica)
Of course our forenames are not chosen by ourselves. We are not consulted about them. Reference books will sometimes give the meanings of names. If parents chose a name because it means beauty or bravery, handsomeness or humility, it reflects their ambitions rather than the child’s still unformed character.
Most of us grow up to like or at any rate to tolerate and accept our given name. Some of us change it when we become able to do so. My father preferred John to his parents’ choice of Joseph. My daughter-in-law has varied her given name of Margaret to Maggie. But mostly that to which we have become accustomed, we accept.
If we do not chose our forename, equally we have no say in our surname or family name. We are Smith or Jones, Cooper or McDonald, Peterson or Fletcher, because our ancestors were so called. Perhaps because of what they did, or how they behaved, or their appearance. It is pretty obvious how Redhead or Short acquired their names, as is Farmer or Forester, Hunter or Gardener.
We may be proud of our ancestors, or possibly not. But whether or not that is the case, we carry the name, not by choice but by chance. The names tell where we came from but little about ourselves. So our names, both christian or forename, surname or family name, are not about the real us, but a mere label on the packaging. A label moreover which reveals little or nothing of the contents.
A phrase is sometimes used in exhorting someone else to live their own life, to be their own man or woman, “Go and make a name for yourself”. And it is that name which we make for ourselves which is the most important name of all. We do not inherit it. It is not given by parents, insisted upon by grand-parents, registered on a certificate and confirmed in a church service. It is our own choice and responsibility, though it mirrors the judgement of others. The name we make for ourselves is the label which does describe the contents.
We cannot claim a name for honesty whilst living a life of deceit. A name for compassion is not earned by condemning out of hand. To be called tolerant is a title bestowed to describe our everyday actions and behaviour.
When folk say of someone that he or she has lost their good name, they are not referring the titles placed on the envelope in which we correspond with them. We are referring to that name they have fashioned for themselves.
We talk sometimes of living a good life – a christian life. Perhaps a simple way of describing what is mean by this is to say it is a method of acquiring, and keeping, a good name. A name of which we and others may not be ashamed.
Though this may be a newly written sermon, it is in truth a repeated for the umpteenth time. A repetition of an oft-given message on the well-worn theme. Who we are is of little moment; what we are is supreme. Who we are is determined by others; what we are is in our own hands. What we say is not so revealing as is what we do. The name which will live in people’s memories is not that which was given by parents, rather that which we designate ourselves according to the life we lead.
Parents gave us a name which pleased them. Our surnames link us to our ancestors. But the name we make for ourselves is the one by which we shall be judged.
C.J. Rosling 18 February 1996
Mexborough 18 February 1996; 22 November 1998