Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The power of naming

With names we create entire worlds of logic and imagination

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

One of the privileges of parenting is that it allows us to grow up again through our children, with a little perspective gained. A privilege of grandparenting is that it allows us to observe the growing-up from a longer perspective. You notice things that you didn't notice in your own childhood self, or your children's.

Now that my granddaughter, barely 5, has a firm grasp on language (i.e., talks all the time), it's interesting to track how she came by it. At the age of 3 she would often begin conversations with strangers by introducing people she knew: "This is my grandma. Her name is ... Grandma." I thought it might be a way of establishing some control, of venturing into alien territory with a firm grasp on the familiar. She would also make up names for people she met but would not likely see again, such as an instant friend at the playground. When talking about the little boy or girl later, she would ask what their name was, but then go on to call them something else, often a compound name invented on the spot. Perhaps she understood that the person would not be part of her everyday life, leaving her free to call them anything she liked.

What about all those genealogies in the Bible? (Bear with me; I'm not really changing the subject.) I'm sure there is more than one reason for including them, but here's one I hadn't thought of before: The "begats" testify to the importance of names.

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In the beginning, Adam's first creative task was naming the animals. From there he probably went on to name plants, geographical features, and heavenly bodies. It's the same way we teach babies to talk; by pointing to things and naming them: Daddy. Doggie. Tree. Flower. From there we go on to names as subject or object (acting, or acted upon), names as described or part of a description. Names are the building blocks to ideas and concepts, whereby we create entire worlds of logic or imagination.

Notice how quickly Adam progresses. From pointing and saying "elephant," he bursts into poetry when confronted with a creature like himself: "This indeed is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called Woman because she was taken out of man." He's speaking not only conceptually but metaphorically. He's making a clear logical connection, a valid comparison. He's not just talking; he's understanding. And creating: Out of a cloud of words steps a relationship.

The power that God gives us in naming still stands: Whatever we call a thing, that's what it is. Students of a foreign language know that they're making headway when they think of a word in that language and the thing it represents springs to mind rather than the English word they already know. But not just any word will do; my granddaughter understands instinctively that her made-up names won't stand but "real" names will. Her mother had the privilege of giving her a real name, and that's who she is. One day she may have the same opportunity to name her own children, as Adam named Seth and Pedaiah named Zerubbabel and Zerubbabel named Meshullam.

We skip and stumble over those names, but God does not. He knows them; He ordained them, in a way that does not detract from the parents' prerogative. By our power of naming we recognize what it means to say, "You shall call Him Jesus." And later, when Jesus said "I am the light." "I am the bread," "I am the way," there would be no room for misinterpretation. The ideas are eternal, but the names are within our power.

Like every good gift, words can go bad, and never more obviously than in an election season. When definitions are more slippery than usual and labels more careless, it's important to be aware of the abuse of language. But that should make us appreciate its power all the more.

Email: jcheaney@worldmag.com

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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