What’s in a Name?

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet…

I suspect that when contemporary people approvingly quote Shakespeare’s foolish young Juliet, they think she has discovered an important truth: that things like names and families don’t really matter, that the true essences of people are wrapped up in husks of convention, concealed and distorted by mere words, artificial distinction, adult hypocrisy and inauthenticity.  “Thou art THYSELF”—i.e., you are an absolute and free individual, you can be what you want, and you don’t have to bow to anyone’s expectations of you. 

This is a brutally adolescent way of looking at the world. Lineage, heritage, family relationships, social responsibilities incumbent upon one’s station in life—contra youthful amorous myopia, these things matter. They are our context—we are not free to withdraw from them without consequence, let alone to fabricate new ones for ourselves without pain and dislocation.

Like many powerfully attractive errors, Juliet’s view is something of a partial truth.

The partial truth is this: what we call a rose is a gül in Turkish. It’s meigui in Chinese. Igo in Basque, trëndafil in Albanian. All these are more or less arbitrary sounds signifying the same thing, a flower of the genus rosa (Latin); it is a matter of sonic-phonic indifference what phonemes are used in a particular language to indicate the sweet-smelling tela (Maltese). And I am sure that gül sounds lovely to the ears of an Istanbulite, even though to my sensibilities it suggests something viscous and slightly nasty.  

But while language is a set of conventions that could easily be other than what they are, this does not mean that names are arbitrary and meaningless. Within the given context of a given language, the meanings of these ‘arbitrary’ sounds are no trifle. They cannot be shed like reptile skin, nor exchanged like garments.

Consider this: if the flower that we call a rose were for some reason called a stenchweed, would it be our culture’s floral love-symbol? If it were called rancid head cheese, would we bestow them by the dozen upon our sweethearts?  

It would smell just as sweet…but the association of the name would be powerfully negative. We’d probably give tulips or carnations on Valentine’s Day instead.

Here’s something else to consider: in 1837, a boy named Alois was born to an unmarried Austrian servant girl named Maria Schicklgruber. No father was listed in the child’s baptismal register, and he was christened with his mother’s surname. Twelve years later, the single mother Maria Schicklgruber married and took her new husband’s name; when her son Alois was a man of 39, he also shed his mother’s rustic Schicklgruber surname, being legally legitimated/adopted by his stepfather. After his legitimation, the newly-re-christened Alois Not-Schicklgruber married a woman named Klara Pölzl; together they had 6 children, including a boy named Adolf, born in 1889.  

If it hadn’t been for this 1876 name change, the Third Reich might never have come into being. For Maria Schicklgruber had married a man named Georg Hitler; her son later had his name legally changed to Alois Hitler, and his double-trochee-named son Adolf became the Führer. Would the Nazi party ever have grown out of being a Bavarian beer-hall laughingstock if its tag line had been the excessively syllabic Heil Schicklgruber!, and its leader a screaming leather-shorts-clad wannabe with the bumpkin name? It is hard to imagine the demonic powers summoned by the Nazis responding to a chant other than the harsh alliteration of Heil Hitler, as it would also be hard to imagine an iconic American western film star, the epitome of 20th-century, Greatest-Generation masculine grit and stoic heroism, named Marion Morrison.

John Wayne just sounds perfect, and without the stage/screen name, he might have been nothing more than a bit player. Something appears to be in a name.  

(Stalin—a much cleverer monster than Hitler—understood this, as he was born Iossif Dzhugashvili. He realized early in his career that a name like “Man of Steel” was the kind of thing you could build a revolutionary mystique around, at least more easily than you could around “Dzhugashvili”, which screams to the Russian ear “I am a clodhopper from the Caucasus”.

Uncle Joe never escaped his roots, though, as he kept a thick Georgian accent all through his life and was prone to grammatical errors. The great Russian author and traditionalist-Christian humanist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tells that before his soul had awakened to the horrors of Soviet communism, he first recognized that there was something false about Stalin’s ugly and slovenly language; the atrocities he committed daily against the Russian tongue portended similar horrors being perpetrated upon the people. Oscar Wilde overstated it when he said that all aesthetic matters are of moral significance—but surely some of them are.)

Contra Juliet, names matter. Opposite her position is another error: that names mean EVERYTHING, and that to conjure or manipulate a name is to manipulate reality itself, to make it be what we want it to be. Sounds and names can be manipulated to create contrived appearances, to suggest an ethos, to induce effects that are hypnotic, seductive, powerful—often powerfully misleading. This is the conjuring trick of the marketer and the ideologue; “Dodge Ram” is a fairly innocuous example of such clever nominal artificiality; “People’s Democratic Republic” and “Ministry of Popular Enlightenment” are less so.

One of the silliest examples of manipulating names to conjure impressions I have ever observed seems to be the RV-camper/trailer industry’s approach to branding its products. The formula is simple: incongruous badassery, the pairing of what is often a weenie-sounding manufacturer’s name with a model name trying painfully hard to be epically awesome. The graphics of the branding often seem to have been designed by the same people who market Monster energy drinks. I find it hard to imagine that even the owners of these things are taken in by the ridiculousness; perhaps one just becomes desensitized to it over time.

Consider yourself warned: after I pull back the curtain on this one, the highways and byways will never be the same for you. At first you will think it’s funny, but then you will start to find it unsettling, as literally every camper and “luxury toy hauler” on the road will have a hackneyed name that fits this formula. Read further, and there is no going back for you.

Examples (all real and observed on roads in the last 3 months):

1. Holiday Rambler ATLANTIS
(Apparently your camping trip will end when you vanish beneath the sea and are never seen again.)

2. Holman VOLTAGE
(Your camping trip will end very suddenly during a thunderstorm.)

3. Forest River STEALTH
(Your camping trip will end when you are unable to locate your camper, as it is virtually undetectable by most conventional technologies.)

4. Keystone AVALANCHE
(Under no circumstances are you to park this one at the bottom of the Swiss Alps. You’d just be asking for it.)

5. Keystone RAPTOR
(Because nothing is more nimbly airborne and deadly to its prey than…a 30-foot long narrow-wheel-based aluminum box towed by an Escalade and being buffeted around by road winds?)

6. Fleetwood Jamboree—wait for it—GT
(Just silly. A GT is a high-performance sports car. Think Italian: Alfa Romeo, Maserati. Not something with the word “Jamboree” in its name.)

7. Sandpiper Sport TEC-turbo
(How can a trailer without an engine be anything ‘turbo’?)

8. Thor VORTEX
(Extra points for double badassery AND Norse thunder-god invocation.)

9. Cruiser STRYKER
(Extra points bestowed for intentionally misspelled badassery.)

(Speaks for itself.)

11. Eclipse ATTITUDE pro-lite
(This might be the most badassest camper name of all time, if it weren’t for the…drumroll, please)

12. JayFlight Swift SLX BAJA EDITION

There’s a point to be made here about form and content, old wine and new wineskins, illustrated with a quotation from the poet Goethe, and so forth.  But instead of arguing it rigorously, I am going to nose around the RV section of Craigslist for a while. For some reason, I feel the stirring of my inner badass.

Andrew Ellison