What's in a Name

Laureen Guldbrandsen

As children we are taught that "sticks and stones" can break bones, but that names cannot hurt us; we are raised to believe that names have no real emotional value, not to complain when we are called names. And then we are told that the opposite is the truth. These same children are taught that to call a black man a "nigger" is wrong and hurtful, to call an Asian woman a "chink" is cruel, and to never call a Native American "primitives" or "savages." This name-calling that we, as children, were taught meant nothing has grown to have a huge impact in the world as we grow older. With that impact we begin to learn about being "politically correct," and our thoughts and speech shift accordingly. But how much is too much? Is there a point where we must step back and begin to name things as we see them, or do we persist in using euphemisms to name groups, cultures, and people?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet" (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet act II, sc. ii) Shakespeare was wrong when he stated that a name is not what matters, but what it is inside that affects us. The names that we call one another, or ourselves can affect our way of thinking about ourselves. If a young teenager consistently hears herself called "fatty" she is more likely to perceive herself as being fat, whereas that same girl constantly called "beautiful" is more likely to have a higher self-image.

Names matter to people, and while what is inside does count, the names we are called can affect our perception of ourselves and others. The name "nigger" is an example of how much a single word can impact our reality. Gloria Naylor writes of how that word can have many different meanings depending on who it is that speaks it, and to whom they are speaking. A young black woman may call her boyfriend "my nigger" without anyone batting an eye, yet a young white child calling the black girl a "nigger" will be reprimanded immediately, and with good cause. After all, it's not a very PC word to use, and one of the worst racial slurs known to the English language.

If a name we give ourselves, or are called can affect one individual so much then when we look at a name for an entire group of people we see how it can either create social cohesion, or can tear apart a community. Biased language has allowed bigots and tyrants in the past to control others by removing their humanity, and reducing them to mere property or objects; making them below the rest of us. For example, Maggio says that calling Asians by racial slurs "made it easier to kill them." (Maggio 506) When we de-humanize another person we make it all right to behave in a manner in which we would not normally act; for example, the slavery of many black men and women only a mere couple hundred years ago.

However, many groups are making a concerted effort to reclaim many words that have been commonly used as slurs. Lillian Faderman specifically references a group of young gays and lesbians in New York, in the 1960s and 1970s, who made an effort to reclaim the word "queer" by calling themselves the Queer Nation. "There are now enclaves of the Queer Nation all over the country." (Faderman 545) By choosing to reclaim a name that is fraught with emotional tension and making it their own they have not only given themselves a newly remade word to title themselves with, they have also created the opportunity to become a closer knit community of people. Another group that has begun the act of reclaiming a title is Wiccans, reclaiming the word "witch," commonly used as a derogatory insult towards women in general. They find pride in a word that causes a political stir, and are willing to work hard to re-shape the word to define what many Wiccans perceive to be the new witches–caring, loving, and peaceful.

Where Maggio strives for the political correctness, with its euphemisms that veils meaning in flowery phrases, that is proliferate in today's society, Michiko Kakutani believes there is a spread of "sloppy, abstract language." (Kakutani 519) Euphemisms, and the kinder ways of phrasing things do nothing to help those groups which are named by them. By making light of the situation in the way we speak of it, we are detracting from the seriousness, and as such making life more difficult for these same persons. For example, because someone is "poor," and we refuse to acknowledge them as such, instead referring to them as "the economically marginalized," they are less likely to receive the support and assistance that they require in order to survive in today's world.

Suppressing and hiding politically charged words and phrases do not prevent harm from being done; instead, it cloaks the harm, secreting it behind a mask of political correctness. Names can bind us together; we are humans, mankind, citizens and people. They can tear us apart; there are Jews, Chinks, Redskins, Niggers, Rednecks, and Whites… They can be reclaimed, like queer, and witch. Names can build the self-esteem or they can shatter it. Names have proven that they have the ability to harm as well as heal, and that old childhood rhyme can be safely set to the side and forgotten. Sticks and stones can break bones, but names have more power than can be known. However, if we persist in hiding behind the euphemisms that clog modern speech we add to their strength to do harm, and detract from their ability to heal. Naming ourselves and others allows us a way to connect, and bond with one another.

Works Cited

Faderman, Lillian. "Queer." in Exploring Language, Gary Goshgarian edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004

Kakutani, Michiko. "The Word Police." in Exploring Language, Gary Goshgarian edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004

Maggio, Rosalie. "Bias-Free Language: Some Guidelines." in Exploring Language, Gary Goshgarian edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004

Naylor, Gloria. ""Nigger": The Meaning of a Word." in Exploring Language, Gary Goshgarian edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992