We seem to have forgotten the importance of names.
One’s name was once seen to represent the person and was jealously guarded. Dishonoring someone’s name was grounds for demanding a duel to the death to restore that honor. Although a bit extreme, and in today’s society impractical and illegal, it illustrates in what importance names were once held.
Even God takes names seriously. In the Ten Commandments the third forbids taking His name in vain showing the value that He and his people placed on a name. This is not merely a theological or philosophical belief, however, but a practical one. Companies have long placed a value on their names, trademarking them to protect others from using them. Aspirin, Xerox and Kleenex are used as a common description rather than a trademark, much to the chagrin of their parent companies. In accounting there is a concept known as “goodwill.” This means that if someone has established a business and it is respected, when evaluating the company, such as when someone wishes to buy it, there is a dollar value associated with the reputation and the name of the business.
In our culture it is common for a woman to take the surname of her husband to show that the families have combined; while it once it designated ownership we have finally advanced beyond that stage. However, in other cultures the surname often became hyphenated indicating the merger of the families and their history and might even have a geographic reference at the end such as Ramone-Rodriguez-Torres del Castillo.
In recent years, the emphasis on names has changed so that people place less stock in their name as it is and more in the name they wish they had. Entertainers have long changed their names to be more marketable; Tony Curtis does sound better than Bernie Schwartz and John Wayne sounds more macho than Marion Morrison. Recently, though, some entertainers have begun to change their names more often than most folks change cars. Puff Daddy. P. Diddy. Whatever. A name has become like a fashion accessory rather than a part of a person.
Perhaps some of this is due to the decline of the importance of the family or perhaps families’ mobility. Most of my family lives in Northwest Ohio or Southeastern Michigan while my nuclear family and my older son’s family live in Virginia. I’ve laughingly pointed out that someday we may speak of the Ohio Nowaks and the Virginia Nowaks.
Incidentally Nowak is often referred to as the “most popular name in Poland.” That means that it is a very common name and translates (so I’ve been told) to “Newman.” As near as I can tell this was assigned to the “new guy” who just moved into the village or whatever. However, after a time even the new guy is no longer new, and Nowak is just another name. Supposedly there are several lines of the Nowak family that are supposedly Polish royalty. However, just as Johnson means “John’s Son” and all Johnsons aren’t related, so too with Nowak, Novak, Newman, etc.
I do believe that names are important. Products produced under a certain brand name that proved their quality gave that name a particular credibility. We tested Craftsman, Hewlett-Packard and Black & Decker and found their products to be creditable and came to expect that other products carrying that name would also be quality products. Unfortunately, names are bought and sold and the products today may or may not share attributes with their forebears.
Maybe if each of us looked at our family name as representing more than just one person, or even one generation we might handle it differently.