What’s in a name?

Norma Joseph

My new granddaughter is to be named after my mother. Four grandmothers will be included in her full name. She is to be known as Madeline Rose in English; her Hebrew name is to be Miriam. Each title signifies another woman, with Rose referring to both her mother’s paternal grandmother and also to her father’s paternal great-grandmother. So much for such a little being to contain – so many references and symbols coiled up in these names.

She was born late last month and my heart opened wide. She is, of course, lovely. It is a miracle to see a child born healthy and so loved. But for me there is a special attachment. My mother was Madeline.

I have not truly mourned my Mom, nor have I had time to fully appreciate the loss. But now there will be a new Madeline in our family and there is much to think about.

Why should naming her be so suggestive and expressive? What is in a name that we care so much and worry so?

The issues related to naming begin with our biblical stories. Each naming process intimates a heritage and a sacrifice. Many of the names in the Bible seem to come from meaningful occasions. Moses is drawn from the water. Abraham and Sarah have their names changed by God to indicate their expanded roles and relationship with God. Names mean something. 

Significantly, women in the biblical stories do the naming. And those names refer to the women’s own relationship with God. According to Ilana Pardes, (Countertraditions in the Bible) women do the majority of biblical naming in the form of a private prayer. The women describe their relationship to God through the name of their child. Amazing. 

Yet, when a name is missing, we also learn about the characters and their deeds. In Ruth’s story, Naomi’s closest relative remains unnamed. Called Ploni Almoni – the biblical version of John Doe – he does not deserve a name since he refuses to step up to his responsibilities. Adele Reinharz (Why Ask My Name?) explains the importance of names and the place of anonymity in the Bible. 

These scholars focus on the names of biblical characters because they are important. We can learn a great deal about a character in the Bible or in a novel from his or her name. Some names signify goodness, others herald evil or kindness or self-sacrifice. So many kinds of names, so many significations. They add to our reading adventure. They add to our culture and heritage.

Parents give names to their children for all sorts of reasons. Some expressions recall relatives, living or deceased; others look to trendy or modern tags. Some evoke the promise of the future; others recall the richness of the past. Some of our children like their names, many don’t. But somehow they grow into their names, taking on certain features and creating novel allusions. Our names are the way we are known, often the first thing someone learns about us. First impressions spring from these appellations.

So it is with sensitive awareness that I greet this new baby with her awesome names.

I pray she will be as kind, loving, compassionate and forgiving as my mother. Her wonderful family will help her keep the spirit of Madeline alive for our family. I recognize that love and laughter will be her lot, and with that, my Madeline lives. 

Human beings do not have immortal life, but we do acquire immortality. Through our children and grandchildren our community grows even as we lose loved ones. We cannot replace the lost loved ones. But we can revive our love through this new life. Names are important because they help us keep this perspective.