It was just after Christmas when we finally snapped. My partner and I decided we had to tell the world about our second child, who had been born four months earlier. It could not wait any longer. Some friends already knew. But we’re millennials, so only a social media post could mint it with the currency of reality.
It was the sort of announcement that, when we became parents, neither of us ever anticipated having to make. In September, we had welcomed Ethel Jane Whyman, to be called “Ettie”, our beautiful daughter. But since her birth, something strange had happened.
Ettie had been transformed. She was Ettie no longer. The Christmas presents we’d just opened on her behalf felt like they had somehow been mislabeled. When people referred to an “Ettie” now, my eyes glazed over like Homer Simpson in family court asked to comment on the custody of his daughter “Margaret”, with no idea that they were talking about Maggie.
In those months, the child we thought was Ettie had become Betty. And looking at her splodgy face, her chewable thighs and bright, gummy smile, how could we have thought anything else? Honestly, she’s the Bettiest thing you’ve ever seen.
It’s weird, naming a child. You literally make a new human being, you take it home from hospital and you can give it any name you like. Well, within certain limits (typically, in jurisdictions where there are actual laws, that includes no misleading titles, no obscenities, nothing that might expose the kid to ridicule). At the toughest end, some countries oblige parents to choose from a list of pre-approved names. Hungary and Portugal do this.
The name you pick might “mean” something. It might honor a grandparent, say, or invoke a favorite character from a book. But it does not have to. Maybe you just like the combination of sounds. And, of course, if one traces the “meaning” back far enough, the name will just be something someone happened to be called. Some parents want their child’s name to be “unique”; others would rather give them something “normal”, that blends in. But also, if you’ve got a child’s name right, I think you know – you know that it fits them, that is – and if you’ve got it wrong. . . well, surely that becomes obvious too.
“It can not be anybody else,” Alice says to herself when she encounters Humpty Dumpty in Through The Looking-Glass. “I’m as certain of it, as if his name were written all over his face!” “My name means the shape I am,” Humpty tells her later, while sneering at Alice’s own. “With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”
When my partner was pregnant with Betty’s older brother, we agonized over what to call him. But with Betty, we hardly thought about it. We already had a list of names, with a top girl’s name that had not been used. She was born, and she was Ettie.
When we drew up our original list, the only other serious contender was the name I’d personally always most wanted to call a little girl: the name of my late grandmother, a constant presence during my childhood, whose house we’d spent weekends at and who’d come to live with us a few years before she died. A woman of endless stubbornness, boundless warmth (for her grandson at least) and one of a handful of people whose love might have a serious claim to having formed me as I am today. In my attic somewhere is an envelope full of letters we exchanged in secret code when I was young, most of which involve me discussing my favorite X-Men characters at length.
And her name, as it happens, was Betty. This is not why Ettie became Betty, but perhaps it’s why we accepted the change. (Certainly, there are plenty of similarities between them: most strikingly, they have the same smell, a smell I can not quite describe but which I always knew was the scent of my grandmother, and which clings to the baby as well.)
But the reason it happened was simply that, for some reason, her older brother started calling her Betty one day. We told him “Ettie”, he heard “Ettie”, but he never accepted it. Two and a bit years old and an idiosyncratic user of language, he simply could not be induced to use the same name for her that the rest of us were using.
And, well, he loves her. Somehow we have, so far, avoided any sibling rivalry. When her brother gets jealous, it is not of her but for here. When he’s been away from her, his main concern is for my partner to give her a feed, worried that we’ve forgotten to give her any milk. And he especially loves shouting her name, the name he has given her. “Hello, Betty!” “Look, Betty!” “Come here, Betty.” “Kiss, Betty!” “Hide, Betty!” “Betty. . . watch out! ”
Her eyes are always focused on him, in that way babies are drawn instinctively to the stimulus of activity, the blur of which toddlers are always happy to provide. When he returns from nursery, the look on her face as she hears him clanging up the stairs is like that of a wife welcoming her husband home from war. His shouts of “Betty!” are the center of joy and interest in her world. How could anyone deny her that, as her name? By comparison, “Ettie” started to feel like nothing.
We change our names for all sorts of reasons. You might change your surname when you get married, your first name when you transition genders. In many cultures and religions, you might be given a different or additional name upon obtaining adulthood or completing some other rite of passage or surviving an illness. My partner changed her name as an adult as part of recovering from an eating disorder, detaching herself – as she puts it – from an old, sick version of herself. Changing her name marked the point where she really started to get better. “Almost as if the name had gotten sick and needed replacing,” she says.
We might adopt alter egos: pen-names, online handles, the name you perform your drag act under. A new name might be adopted upon becoming the Pope, or the emperor of China. Anthropology is replete with examples of cultures in which there has been a taboo on names, with individuals typically only using nicknames day-to-day.
JG Frazer’s classic The Golden Bough (1890-1915) reports this practice as one common to “tribes from the Atlantic to the Pacific”, as well as the ancient Egyptians. To know someone’s “true” name, it is thought, is to have a sort of power over them. To give anyone this power is incredibly dangerous. The “true” name is one inherent to the person, and so it can be used to hurt them. This thought is central to Jewish mysticism, and associated taboos on the name of God. It is also familiar to us from fairy tales. The imp’s grim contract no longer binds you, just as soon as you know his name is Rumpelstiltskin.
But what makes something one’s “true” name? Is there a difference between a “true” name and a name one just happens to have? Are names anything more than mere conventions?
Plato addresses this topic in his dialogue Cratylus. There Socrates (typical bloody Socrates) fails to resolve his interlocutor’s various confusions in anything like a definitive way. But he does entertain some fascinating possibilities. For instance, from the idea that “a name is an instrument of teaching and distinguishing natures”, Socrates suggests that naming might be something that certain people have a form of expertise in, a craft like weaving, with the expert name-giver functioning as something like a “legislator” – making explicit to others the true nature of things, laying down their laws.
Janina Duszejko, the eccentric, middle-aged animal lover who rages against the callousness of her village as narrator of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, sets herself up as such an expert in names. She refers to her friends and neighbors with monikers such as “Oddball”, “Bigfoot” or “Good News”, depending on whatever it is she has discerned about their natures. She herself resents her own name, since she does not think it means anything.
Humpty Dumpty is a parody of the philosophers of language who Lewis Carroll knew at Oxford; he needs to see even the most basic sums worked out long-form. He insists that proper names have a meaning that is immutably specific, their bearers unable to be called anything else. By contrast, he is happy for all other words to have whatever meaning their speakers wish to give them.
Plato and Humpty Dumpty are far from the only philosophers who have thought seriously about names. In fact, the problem of naming, of reference, was one of the central problems which helped shape the development of 20th-century analytical philosophy. The key participants here are Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Saul Kripke. Briefly: Frege originated and Russell developed a theory whereby the meaning of a proper name is identical to the descriptions associated with it. So “Aristotle” means the philosopher who wrote Ethics”Or“ the most famous student of Plato ”and so on. This is the “descriptivist” theory of reference: how names fit their reference, their bearers.
But Kripke argued that this can not possibly work, since Aristotle would still have been Aristotle to his parents even if he’d died as a child. Instead, Kripke hypothesized, naming was “causal”: beginning with some act of “initial baptism” (“I call this infant ‘Aristotle'”), names get linked to their referent via a series of acts and events.
Suppose the causal theory is right. What is the cause? Why might some “initial baptism” take place in the way that it does? And what causes a name to stick? (Why did “Betty” stick, and not “Ettie”?).
I think here of one of my favorite lines in all philosophy, from Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, where they credit nicknames as “the only ones in which the original act of name-giving still persists”. That might not mean much by itself, but hear me out.
The idea is as follows: a name is “just” a string of sounds, but sounds are precisely not nothing. Sounds are, for instance, onomatopoeic: the two words “Humpty Dumpty” not only have a sound but, together, a shape (could they really sound as if they described anything other than an egg?). In a nickname, we might evoke this shape, or perhaps some characteristic habit, or embarrassing incident they’re associated with: the footballer Harry “Slabhead” Maguire, or Monty Python‘s Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson. Or we might just shorten a name. I have never thought myself serious and sensitive enough to be a “Thomas”. I have only ever been Tom. Thus in naming someone appropriately, we might get to the essence of who they are.
The “cause” of the name – the nickname as true name – is the way they look, or make us feel, or something they have done. Here we get to the truth of the causal theory of naming, as well as of the respective philosophical positions occupied by Humpty Dumpty and Janina Duszejko.
This is just a hypothesis, of course, but perhaps it can be supported by an argument from the existence of Betty. Her “initial baptism” as Ettie never took. But then, we did not really know her. In fact, I’d just started a new job, and so not being entitled to paternity leave, I barely got to know her for the first few months of her life.
As you get to know a baby, the bond that develops is so powerful and intoxicating that it feels like nothing other than falling in love. As we, as a family, fell in love with the baby we believed was “Ettie”, Betty, through her brother’s love, became her name. One that bound her back in the history of my own family’s love too, nestled in the memory of my grandmother’s warmth. If that is nothing more than arbitrary, what is?
“Betty” has become my daughter’s name, her real name. It is the exclamation of the love that we, her names, share.
Tom Whyman is a philosopher and the author of “Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster” (Repeater)
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