What’s in a name?

~~ Originally printed in Carrboro (NC) Free Press, January 2009 ~~

I’m fascinated by language, words, names, and naming. Not just proper names, but the names that have been assigned to objects through the ages. The way mythology teaches of the world being spoken into creation, followed by the naming of all the creatures.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Names reflect consensus, agreement within a group of people that a word or sound belongs with a certain object. At some point it was agreed that the thing you hold and read, with pages of writing between two covers, is, in English, a “book,” and the leather thing you pull on to keep your feet warm and dry is a “boot.”

When people speak of names, they are most commonly thinking of given names. Meanings of names are most often based on etymology and cultural origin, but values are also ascribed through consonant/vowel attributes and numerology, or the belief that letters represent numbers, which have inherent divinable values dating from ancient cultures.

After consulting with a numerologist, British model Laura Hollins changed her name to the more “fortuitous” Agyness Deyn. For some people, names are big business. Yes, people pay real money to naming consultants for help in choosing just the right moniker for a baby or a business. Did you know the hard “K” sound in a name is supposed to give someone a corporate edge?

My mother chose my first name, Ashley. It’s an English surname said to mean, “from the ash tree meadow.” So much for my corporate prowess.

But I also like the symbolism of Ashley having the root “ash” as it applies to ashes and cinders. When I was a child, I thought Ash Wednesday was a special day for me because it always fell around the time of my birthday, but I didn’t understand the meaning and symbolism of the ashes.

In his book Iron John, Robert Bly dedicates a chapter to ashes, writing about the importance of descent, grief, lethargy, and the death of once-held dreams and ideals. Bly says that “the gold-obsessed man, whether a New Age man or a Dow Jones man, can be said to be the man who hasn’t yet handled ashes.”

The cinders boy and cinders girl are represented in many tales. “Ashes do not belong to the sunlit crown of the tree, nor to its strong roots,” Bly writes. “Ash is literally the death of the trunk.” Throughout so many of our stories, a sort of dying must take place before real living may occur. We sift through ashes to find what remains after a fire. We sift ashes to find the truth. In the fairy stories, ashes belong to the “lucky” children.

Still curious, I got a numerology report online for my name:

“Ashley Elizabeth Atkins reflects idealism, self-sacrifice, generosity, moral strength, and, above all, a true love for all of mankind. The name reflects dreams of utopia, belief in the goodness of mankind, and faith in the universe at large. This name attracts people from all walks of life, all races and cultures, all religions and all schools. There is honor and respect for every human being.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, except maybe to add, “is terribly sexy and loves chocolate.”

So I thought it would be fun to get a reading for “Carrboro, North Carolina.” Ours is the only Carrboro in the world, as far as I can tell. And Carrboro was named for Julian Carr, the man who brought roads and electricity to the town. Interestingly, the surname “Carr” is Scandinavian and means “from the swampy place.”

The name of our fair town generated this numerology report:

“Carrboro, North Carolina, inspires trust, confidence, and security. This name is grounded and practical, and promotes steady progress and consistent effort. Carrboro, North Carolina makes one feel that everything will be taken care of; you are in good hands. Not a dreamer and lacking imagination, this name represents integrity and stability. It is comforting, a strong foundation, and the bedrock of society. It also reflects strong organizational skills and an eye for detail. It has a strong sense of structure. Family-oriented. The name reflects a rigid, inflexible atmosphere, which, however, is good for some businesses, such as insurance, banks, accounting, and brokerage firms.”

You can find tons of information on many given names on the web. Try babynames.com for origin, history and meaning, and babyzone.com for numerology reports for people and business names. The Oxford English Dictionary is still my favorite tool for researching etymology of all words.

It is true, as Shakespeare’s Juliet said, that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But it just wouldn’t be the same.  Somewhere along the way, English-speaking people decided that a rose is a rose is a rose. And a Capulet should know there is destiny in a name.

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