Any Given Name


by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1998. All rights reserved.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.

Juliet, upon her balcony, wishes Romeo would give up his family name and change it to some other. He, in turn, offers to be "new baptiz'd" with some other name than Montague? But does he follow through? Does he change either his Romeo or his Montague? Naw.

Not for love or for the sake of their two warring families do the
star-crossed lovers change their names. They'll go to any extreme, even drink poison if they must, to avoid that end.

What's in a name? Just about everything.





Bing Crosby. Gettysburg. St. Louis. Rufous-sided Towhee. Mount St. Helens. Walla Walla. Watergate. Sockeye Salmon. Grand Canyon. Boise. Coyote. Prineville.

To me, these are more than mere words. Some are places I've been or creatures I've encountered. When I write them down they evoke images, memories, feelings.

My mind is like a jukebox. Push the right buttons -- with names -- and it plays back sights, sounds, and smells.

When I write "St. Louis" I see the city's famous arch and remember the
day in grade school when my class watched on a black-and-white
television as the keystone was lowered into place. It was a great day for the city and for us, as our names -- penciled onto a sheet of paper -- were sealed in a time capsule somewhere in that final section.

"Watergate," for me, calls up more than the political scandal that toppled a presidency. I can still taste the haute cuisine of chef Jean Louis at the Watergate Hotel during a press trip seven years ago, and
the luxurious suite my wife and I spent two nights in is still etched
into my being.

How those places got those names is of historical interest, of course, but they could have been called "Wazhazhe" or "Miwok" and their personal meaning to me would be the same.


Sometimes a name, like Grand Canyon or Black Hills, is descriptive. Other times a place name like Gettysburg to Little Big Horn takes on added meaning because of what happened there.

But most often, or so it seems to me, the naming of a place or person
is more by happenstance than design, a matter of somebody making a
choice and others going along. Someone "discovers" a river and puts a
name on it. Another person wants to honor a friend and titles a building for her. A philanthropist donates some land to a town and
gets a ballpark named after him.


Why is America called America, after all, and not Columbia or Vikingland?
Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian adventurer who sailed west from Portugal a decade after Columbus "in search of new lands" found his way to what is now South America. But he did not name the new continent. That was done six years later by an obscure French clergyman.

Martin Waldseemuller was a member of a small-town literary society that published a thin volume called "Cosmographie" that included a world map. Someone in the group had heard of Vespucci's journey and Waldseemuller decided to dub the New World on his map "America."
 

The book was published in 1507, became popular, and its map gained
recognition throughout Europe. By the time Waldseemuller realized that Amerigo Vespucci was not the true discoverer of the New World it was too late. The name, once attached, could not be recalled.

It would be easier to discover a new continent or raise up a new city than to change the name of an old one.

Names do change. Native Americans surely had other names for places like Pittsburgh and the Adirondacks. Portland was not Portland before white men came. Since 1948, most of Palestine has been called Israel. The Soviet Union has given way to Kazakhastan, Armenia, Ukraine and other independent names.

Wars have been fought, and cultures have died, that names could be changed. To the victors go the spoils: place names and history. Names imply an ownership more profound than legal documents can describe. The meadowlark may not know it's meadowlark but the word works for me. When I hear its song drifting across the fields on a summer's afternoon I think "meadowlark."

And don't you go calling it anything different!


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"What's in a name?"
Naming of John the Baptist
Hardscrabble





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