Naming, and Why It Matters

06/10/2010 06:26 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Do you know the meaning of your name?

I believe that names tell a story of who we are. I've had two given first names (besides the nicknames I've had along the way.) At birth I was named Madlyn, then re-named Deborah after adoption.

My name is a big story to live up to, I've learned. Deborah means "bee" and her story is one of triumph against all odds. I like that. It's my story too, and I'm always on the path to rise above my roots.

Deborah was a prophetess and the fourth, and only female, Judge in the Old Testament. She summoned her sidekick, -- get this -- Barak, to battle against an invading army. The victory song she wrote after the battle, "Song of Deborah and Barak" (okay, now I'm feeling really noble) is part of the Book of Judges.

With two names in my pocket, I've come to hold vast curiosity about naming and how our lives are impacted by what people call us. (Yes, even the curse words we've been called.)

The world first sees us with our name. A name symbolizes identity, sometimes who "owns" us, as happened with slaves, and as happens in traditional marriages when a woman gives up her last name.

Here's a case of names with global interest that calls for attention. The Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, who helped create an architectural icon for China when he designed the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium, is now under surveillance. His offense? He's pursued a humanitarian project to collect the names of the school children who died in the 2008 Seichuan Earthquake.

"We're creating the list so that these people are never forgotten, and to ensure that someone is held accountable," says Ai Weiwei in a Global Times article, "Naming the Nameless" that covers his crusade for naming these children.

By May 2009 he gathered over 5,000 names, giving faces to that disaster of poorly built schools. His project, however, tangled with China's censors who then deleted his blog, as if to make the memory of those children vanish.

Volunteers visited schools in Sichuan's earthquake region to collect information, for they wanted the world to know about their children, to know that their short lives mattered,

As much as Beijing tries to control the vast virtual realm, in the long run that's a hard battle to wage. Ai Weiwei just uploads the names on his site every time it's deleted.

He is determined to give those thousands of children their place of respect that their young lives deserve. They are not just numbers, as Beijing tallies the losses. They are a generation, daughters and sons. Naming matters, and I hope Ai Weiwei keeps his project going.

Toni Morrison's Beloved, highlights the significance of names, for they powerfully symbolize character and importance. Slave names were extensions of their master's identity and name.

The character Jenny Whitlow, later Baby Suggs, experiences a lack of both identity and name. Prior to gaining her freedom, she's unsure what her name is until her son earns her freedom.

When the slave owner, Garner, asks Baby Suggs, "Ain't that your name? What you call yourself?" Baby Suggs replies, "Nothing...I don't call myself nothing."

She has no name for herself. She has no concept of individual identity. Eventually, Baby Suggs--not Jenny Whitlow-- becomes a respected woman, a pillar in her community. When she adopts a meaningful name, Baby Suggs, it is that naming that allows her the freedom to evolve into a strong individual.

Adoption takes on a similar naming path, when a new family chooses and assigns a new name to their new child. While I believe it's up to individual choice for each family, I do know it can be confusing for a child. I don't remember leaving my first name behind, but I do sense I had a lot of confusion. About everything. But that's another story.

I've come to accept that I've had two names and I'm attached to "Deborah", and especially tied to the name's historical character as a revolutionary who loved adventure. I'll never know about that nature versus nurture question. Was I named that because it was clear this was my path, or did I take on that identity because of my name?

Take a moment to look up the history of your name. Who were you named after? What are it's roots, the history? Do you live up to it? How does your name matter to you?