The Name Game


My sister Karen says I’m wrong, but my recollection is that she had an elementary school classmate whose name was Belle. It was a fine Southern name that was not rare even in the California of the late Eisenhower years, but it was a name this girl’s parents should have skipped, because the family name was Tinker. I suppose the parents thought themselves clever, naming their newborn "pixie" that way, but what might Belle think of her name today, if she now is a chubby 50-something whom no one would mistake for a petite Disney character? (Of course, her problem likely was solved when she became Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Jones.)

My wife and I named our son Justin in honor of the first Christian apologist. We thought the name was neither so rare as to seem strange nor so common as to seem boring. When he started school, though, we discovered that there were two other Justins in his class. It turned out he had been born in the year of the J: Justin, Jennifer, Jason, Jessica, Jeffrey, Julie. Half of his classmates had names beginning with J. (The letter is perennially popular: 30 percent of Catholic Answers’ employees have given names beginning with J.) Somewhere in our son’s school there no doubt was a Justin whose surname was Case and a Dustin (who went by "Dusty") whose surname was Rhoades. Unlike poor Belle, these boys could get by with cutesy monikers, even into adulthood. They did not have to contemplate disowning their parents.

Sometimes having an awkward name can be useful in that it sticks in people’s minds. In San Diego there once was a surgeon named Dr. Butcher. I suppose that, once introduced to him, no prospective patient ever forgot his name. Years ago I knew a priest appropriately named Fr. Divine, and I wondered whether, as a young man, he thought he had no choice but to seek ordination. And I went to law school with a fellow whose last name was Kreep. When contemplating marriage, he thought of taking his wife’s maiden name but didn’t, deciding that his father had blessed him with a marketing advantage.

Then there are the unfortunate names of the rich and famous—or, at least, of the offspring of the rich and famous. Jim Hogg was governor of Texas at the end of the 19th century. He named his daughter Ima. Bill Lear, whose company manufactures business jets, had a daughter named Shanda. My guess is that she will go through life good-naturedly accepting her name, but throughout her long life Ima, who never married, tried to hide hers, even going so far as to list herself as Imogene Hogg.

I doubt that Gov. Hogg, on seeing his newborn daughter, turned from her in dismay, thinking she looked like a pig. I don’t think he selected "Ima" as a descriptor. But sometimes people do get names that tell us something about them. History’s most famous was a fisherman who came into the world without any surname at all, because in his era no one had surnames. At birth he was called Simon and sometimes was called Simon bar Jonah (son of Jonah) to distinguish him, no doubt, from other Simons in the neighborhood.

He already was well into adulthood when he was given a new name that was not a real name at all: "Rock." It has come down to us as "Peter." I say his new name was not a real name because no Jew—or, for that matter, anyone else in antiquity, so far as we can tell—ever had "Rock" as a given name. It is as though someone were to change your name to "Asparagus." Since that is not a real name, you and everyone acquainted with you would infer, correctly, that your new name must indicate something about your character or role. So with Peter. He received a new name because he received a new status—as the foundation stone on which the Church would be built.

Still, he spent the rest of his life with a non-name, as far as general society was concerned. I wonder whether he occasionally was the butt of jokes because of it. One thing is for sure, though: He never was mistaken for a pixie.


Karl Keating is founder and president of Catholic Answers, the country’s largest apologetics and evangelization organization. He is the author of five books, including Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe.

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 1.