Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

I, Richard Henry Lederer (which means “powerful estate ruler leather worker”), will bet the farm, my bippie, and my bottom dollar that you, valued reader, have a name. I’m confident about that assertion because almost all human beings do. In 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution titled Rights of the Child, which includes the statement “Every child has the right from birth to a name.” A child is born physically into the world by the mother, but the child is also born into his or her social group by the process of naming. In some communities children are not considered to be socially alive until they are given a name.

One of the first things that you acquired when you entered this world was your name. Nothing is more personal to you. You carry it everywhere as a badge of your individuality and uniqueness. No one else in the history of humanity has used the same voice as you to speak your name. And “What’s your name?” is perhaps the most common question you ask and answer when you meet a stranger.

Your name possesses the secret power to call you. A number of studies show that babies can recognize their names as young as four-and-a-half months and that a person can clearly hear his or her name spoken across a crowded, noisy room.

The ancient Greek philosopher Antisthenes observed, “The beginning of all instruction is the study of names.” That study is called onomastics, “of or belonging to names.” New England poet James Russell Lowell, observed, “There is more force in names than most men dream of.” Lewis Carroll recognized this force when he wrote in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There:

“My name is Alice. . . .”

“It’s a stupid name enough!” Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. “What does it mean?”

“Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.

“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh. “My name means the shape I am — and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”

Dumpty is wrong in one respect. The name Alice does have a meaning; it means “nobility.” But the egghead (soon to be an omelet) is perfectly correct when he eggs Alice on with “My name means the shape I am.” Your name indeed gives you a “shape.” Your name makes up a part of your identity — who you are and how the world sees you.

In the creation story that so majestically begins the Bible (Genesis 1:1-31, 2:1-6), we note the frequency and importance of verbs of speaking and naming: “And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. . . . And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. . . . And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters. . . . And God called the firmament Heaven.” [Emphases mine.] The italicized verbs above tell us that God doesn’t just snap his fingers to bring the things of the universe into existence. He speaks them into being and then names each one.

Here’s what happens when God creates Adam: “And out of the ground the lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Genesis 2:19-22). In other words, Adam (Hebrew for “the first man”) does what God has done: He names things; he names voraciously; he names everything.

Perhaps this is what the Bible means in Genesis 1:26-27: “And God said, Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness. . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.” Like God, we humans are speakers and namers.

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On Sunday, September 2, 2-4 pm, I’ll be signing my brand-new book, The Joy of Names at Warwick’s, 7812 Girard Avenue, La Jolla (858 454 0347).

Later that same day, starting at 7 pm, I’ll be on stage performing parts of the book at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St., Carlsbad (www.newvillagearts.org / 760 433 3245).