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The Power of Names

Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant

Barry Blake is Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at La Trobe University, and his books include Playing with Words, All About Language, and this most recently Secret Language: Codes, Tricks, Spies, Thieves, and Symbols. In the following piece he reveals the mysterious significance of the name in societies past. To read more from Barry Blake check out his piece on allusions that may have eluded you.

In Western Society we have at least two official names, a given name and a surname. Surnames carry some history in that they give an indication of our ethnic origins. Think of Zellweger, Banderas or Zeta-Jones, to take a few at random. Given names often have similar associations of ethnicity or religious affiliation; some tend to be associated with a particular generation, and a few such as Napoleon and Washington evoke particular historical figures. Occasionally we have to hide our ethnic or religious affiliation. During World War I the British royal family had to change their name from Battenberg to Windsor, but normally we have no fear about revealing our name, and right from when we start school we have to give our name to authorities. However, in many societies in the past, and still in some today, people tended to keep their name secret. This is possible in a small-scale traditional society where there are no authorities wanting to record your real name, and for most purposes you are called by a pet name, a nickname, or a kin name like ‘little brother’ or ‘nephew’.

The reason for keeping personal names secret is that one’s name can be used in sorcery. In a wide variety of cultures it is believed that if enemies know your name, they can place an effective curse on you. This belief in the power of a name is linked to a belief that a name is part of one’s being just like an arm or a leg. In English we can say ‘my arm’ or ‘my leg’ just as we might say ‘my dog’ or ‘my car’. We treat them all as possessions, though of course an arm or a leg is part of one’s body. In some languages you cannot speak of body parts as possessions. For example, in most of the indigenous languages of Australia words for ‘my’ and ‘your’ cannot be used with body parts. In the Kalkadoon language, for instance, although you can say, ‘There’s a spider on your blanket’ to say ‘There’s a spider on your arm’, you have to say, ‘There’s a spider on you, arm.’ In other words you say the spider is on the person and then specify what part of the person is involved. Names are treated like body parts. You can’t say, ‘He wrote down my name’, you have to say, ‘He wrote down me, name.’

Since a name was considered an integral part of a person, it could be an effective target for sorcery. In some literate societies mistreating a person’s name was thought to be able to produce an analogous effect on the person. In Ancient Egypt the names of enemy kings would be inscribed on pottery bowls and ritually smashed with the aim of bringing about the death of these rulers. Curse tablets from the Ancient Greek and Roman world have been unearthed in which the target’s name is written backwards or scrambled. In a few cases the reason for this is spelt out, ‘Just as this name is destroyed, let so-and-so be destroyed.’ The belief that harming a name can harm a person is analogous to the voodoo practice of sticking pins in a doll with a view to injuring or killing the person represented.

The power of names comes up in a number of traditional stories. Some readers will recall the fairy story of Rumpelstiltskin. He demands the queen give him her firstborn in return for his having given her the power to spin straw into gold, but he allows her a ‘get out’. If she can find out his name, she does not have to keep her end of the bargain. Opera fans will recall that in Wagner’s Lohengrin the knight of the swan who appears mysteriously to champion the heroine in trial by combat promises to love and protect her providing she never asks him his name. Unfortunately she does, and the knight is compelled to reveal that his name is Lohengrin and is compelled to leave her. In Puccini’s Turandot the successful suitor for the hand of the unwilling Turandot tells her that she does not have to marry him if she can find out his name. Personal names are important for us, but they do not have the mysterious significance they have had in many societies in the past.

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  2. Ken D.

    “During World War I the British royal family had to change their name from Battenberg to Windsor”

    It was, I think, the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, rather than Battenberg — although Prince Louis of Battenberg (a German who’d married into the family) changed his name to Mountbatten around the same time.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alfredo P | Laura BP, Lauren. Lauren said: What's in a name? (hint: rhymes with "sour") http://blog.oup.com/2010/06/names/ [...]

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