The Power of Names

babyC.S. Lewis was a man who recognized the power of a name. In fact, that awareness made the opening line of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader one of the most memorable in all of Christian literature: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Names are used, of course, for identification. Throughout history, different countries have had different naming conventions. A rather common one featured the giving of a personal name to a child, with the patronym added to distinguish between individuals of the same name.

This led to distinctions such as James ben Zebedee of the Christian gospels or Leifr Eiríksson the first millennium explorer of North America. Hearkening back to my own Scandinavian roots, I favor the innovative example Ole Olson, or more commonly Ole Olsen. (The only problem with this name was that it failed to distinguish one Ole from the thousands of other Ole Olsons who dotted the steep coastlines of the Viking fjords.)

God too reveals the importance of names. In the Gospel according to Matthew we read:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:20-21).

In one of the most powerful prophecies ever recorded, we hear various titles—in essence, names—of the Messiah Jesus.

For to us a child is born,

   to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

    and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

                                                             (Isaiah 9:6).

The reason that names are on my mind is because recent research has revealed that in America (well, California precisely, and assuming that data can be applied to the entire country) . . . the choice of baby names can even evidence the political leanings of the parents. Now, we’re not talking about parents who name their children directly in honor of a particular politician; it’s much more subtle than that.

Here are a couple of interesting facts gleaned from the study.

The results revealed that overall, the less educated the parent, the more likely they were to give their child either an uncommon name (meaning fewer than 20 children got the same name that year in California), or a unique name (meaning only one child got that name in 2004 in California). When parents had less than a college education, there were no major ideological differences in naming choice.

However, among college-educated whites, politics made a difference. College-educated moms and dads in the most liberal neighborhoods were twice as likely as college-educated parents in the most conservative neighborhoods to give their kids an uncommon name. Educated conservatives were more likely to favor popular names, which were defined as names in the top 100 in California that year.

The sounds of liberal and conservative names varied, too. For both boys and girls, liberals tended to pick more feminine-sounding choices, such as Liam, Ely and Leila names that include lots of L sounds and soft-A endings, including popular choices Ella and Sophia. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to pick names with more masculine-sounding Ks, Bs, Ds and Ts, such as Kurt.

Beware of the temptation of attempting to jump aboard a naming fad. “Unique baby names can sometimes grate, however. In 2011 . . . an informal survey of hated baby names found that Nevaeh, or ‘heaven’ spelled backward, was the most commonly cited as a hated name. The name was invented in the 1990s and became the 31st most popular in the United States in 2007.”

My wife and I are surely in a minority. We chose the names for all three of our children based upon their meanings . . . a practice quite common in the Scriptures.

C.S. Lewis knew well the power of a name.

Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now.

At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. . . . Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

It comes as no surprise to any Narnian sojourner that the very name of Aslan should so move his followers. After all, we too understand Who the great Lion is. For, as he once said to Lucy and Edmund, when asked if he was here in our world as well,

“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” (Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

19 thoughts on “The Power of Names

  1. CalebAnderson

    The difference between liberal and conservative names, so to speak, is rather interesting, Obama, (liberal, note the a) Gingrich (Conservative, rougher sound). Tolkien would have appreciated naming a child for the meaning of the name, or of a tree, mountain, country, etc. Not to mention the sound of it.
    Great post!

  2. I always feel sorry for kids gifted with bizarre or heavy names. Stuck with parents who are trying to be unique or make a statement without realizing the effect it has on their child’s life.

    My wife and I are of similar mind to you and yours though, we also choose all our baby names based on scriptural meaning.

  3. lalalucyfi

    Great and interesting post :) I’ve always been interested in names and almost wrote my college entrance essay on the meaning behind names and my own name! Aside from the meaning, it’s also awesome to gift your child with a patron saint by bestowing them with a traditional name.

  4. Aren’t humans are the most interesting thing to observe and consider?
    Names are important. It’s the sound that a child/person hears frequently and they become associated with it. (internally and externally)
    We went with a family name – an older traditional one which means it has scripture roots.
    (But I miss the Susan’s and popular names from the older eras…hope those become unique and popular again.)

  5. I love that quote at the end! When I heard it in the “Dawn Treader” movie (which I loathe!), it brought tears to my eyes. I had forgotten it from reading the books until then. I knew instantly that it was the theme for our Narnia in the Attic project. I ordered vinyl wall words with that quote and put them over the door inside the wardrobe.
    Some day our grandkids will be old enough to read the books and read the quote over the door. They have already come to regard the name Aslan as a friend, as well as the name of Jesus!

  6. For those children (of my seven) that I was allowed to name, I chose names that gave the child something to grow into. Christian, Beth (short for “Bethel), Charity, Theodore. Their names have, indeed, shown to be accurate characteristics for each one. My own name, Tamara, comes from Tamar (a date palm). It has proven to be accurate as well…most of my life has been one storm after another, driving my single root deep into the foundation of Jesus Christ!

    Excellent read. :)

    Praise Jesus

    PS Thanks for stopping by and “liking” Happily Ever After. I appreciate it.

  7. An interesting post. My wife and I, as yet, have no children, but we’ve predetermined that our children will have names whose etymological meanings or historical significance are important to us.

    I wanted, however, to comment on a few things, two from the post and one from the comments.

    In the post you noted a study done in California on names chosen by parents based on level of education and political leanings. One of the problems I had with this was the rather subjective notion of masculine versus feminine sounding names. Who determined which were which? Also, meaning seems to play no part in this distinction since Liam, short for William the anglicised version of Wilhelm, means protection or guardian. The other liberal feminine names listed were all female names and thus it stands to reason that they’d be feminine sounding. The only conservative name listed, Kurt (a contraction of Conrad), of course sounds masculine because it a male name. Again, the research done here seems to me to mean very little other than political liberals in California put one kind of thought into name selection and political conservatives in California put another.

    On a related note, CalebAnderson noted the differences between the names Obama and Gingrich. The problem here is that these are surnames and are not exactly chosen by the parents, not, at least, in the same ways first names are. That being said a comparison of first names shows that Barak (which means blessing) fits more with the conservative naming pattern in California since it includes a b and a k, whereas Newt (which either means a small amphibian or is a shortened form of Newton which means new town) only includes on the masculine letters listed.

    What might be more useful is a discussion over how we ought to choose names with only a slight reference to how it is being done.

    As for Lewis, I find his name selection interesting. Eustace Clarence for instance means something along the lines of fruitful and bright, so Lewis obviously chose it for two reasons, it sounded stuffy and pretentious and was reminiscent to his own name Clive Staples. Also, while for Lewis the name Aslan has an effect on all who hear it, the word itself is Arabic for lion (not unlike Tolkien calling a giant female spider Shelob which literally means female spider).

    While Lewis is definitely helpful in telling us about the importance of names, perhaps, Tolkien would make a better interlocutor here.

    I don’t write all of this to detract from the overall purpose of this post which is, names are important. Instead, I just wanted to point out a few issues I saw in the way this point was made. I hope my comment is taken with a grain of salt and is seen as constructive rather than an attempt to put down.

    1. Good observations all.

      I never take offense at critiques of matters (e.g. the results of this recent study) that I, myself, find rather absurd as well.

      And I try my very best not to take offense at criticisms of my own thoughts, imperfect though I am.

      I love two-way conversation, and I’m not averse at all to an occasional, good-natured debate.

      Thanks for sharing your insights.

  8. I’ve never run into anyone else named Verle I kind of like being unique. I am curious about my new name written in the Book of Life. That will have to wait a while though.Revelations 2 17

    1. Since you posted this I’ve been wracking my brain trying to remember whether my dad mentioned a Verle as one of our relatives from back in the Midwest. I’m pretty sure he did, though that was some years ago. No, not to common… but that just makes you more special!

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