Shakespeare, Science and Scottish Warriors: The Power of Names

Posted: August 8, 2015 in Culture, Medical School, Naming Traditions
Tags: , , , , ,
Scottish Warrior

Photo Credit: CreativeFreedomrpg

It was the phone call you don’t want. My wonderful, routine-oriented mother was calling at an odd time for her. The news? Her brother, my Uncle Alan, had just passed away from diabetic complications this past week. It was a real blow to all of us as he seemed to have turned a corner in his clinical course. But diabetes had ravaged his vasculature and the organ shut-down overwhelmed his system. Adding to the shock was the realization that this was the one Uncle whose name I share (Alan is my middle name). That deepened my connection to this loss. I also realized that with Uncle Alan’s death, my son Cameron is the sole remaining male to carry on the Scottish Cameron name. I explained this to to him and he beamed with pride; he is also eager to learn more about Scotland by donning Braveheart-style warrior garb. We did some research together and discovered a proud Scottish song called “The March of the Cameron Men” He has been marching around the house ever since.

Just how much do our names matter?

Shakespeare famously said, in Romeo and Juliet, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In context, the sentiment was right. Romeo and Juliet should not have been prevented from loving each other just because one was a Capulet and the other was a Montague. But yet, names do matter. When I named my second son Cameron, my Aunt Lynne in Scotland was very moved. She would have loved him just the same, but his name mattered.

Speaking of sons, my other son Christian once had a friend named “Confidence.” I arranged a play-date with his parents after school one day and Christian was so excited that he boldly shouted to all his teachers while leaving school “I’m going to play with Confidence!!!” and all the teachers broke into supportive smiles, and one said, “Good for you Christian! That’s how you should play.” Names can be funny things . . .

And then there is the whole question of whether your name guides your destiny. Apparently, there is a whole school of thought about this called “normative determinism”, discussed with interesting examples in a recent article by Graham Nelson. Solid scientific support for being influenced by your name is elusive as causality is difficult to demonstrate. But I couldn’t help but imagine that my son’s friend Confidence was influenced by this quality being called out to identify him dozens of times a day.

Is it pure coincidence that mother’s name is Anne, my wife’s name is Anne and my sister-in-law’s name is Anne?

Many of my friends and classmates from high school chose to switch to their African names when they left Kenya. Why? Presumably, this was to maintain a strong connection to their Kenyan identity. Your name matters more when there are less of you around to carry it.

And what about patients? Do we use their last names in addressing them out of professionalism and respect? Or their first names to convey familiarity and warmth?

And why do I hate being called “John” instead of “Jonathan”, but my friend Jonathan has no problem with that?

Names matter. As a friend once remarked, you could never have a “Toyota Sputum.” Names also offer definition, although this may be an illusion. My friend’s daughter develops fevers every month without falling sick and was recently diagnosed with “Periodic Fever.” It is a legitimate diagnosis, but what has the name really illuminated for us? Not much. But it gives the patient comfort that the problem has somehow been defined. Is this an honest comfort? Similar concerns were raised in the area of mental health when certain psychiatric diagnoses were introduced to the Japanese medical lexicon and suddenly the rate of diagnosis of multiple mental illnesses shot up. Was this a case of unidentified problems now being appropriately identified by the imported names or medical diagnoses being appropriated without real basis?

Names are powerful, but they are not benign. Who can tell the true toll on the African-American psyche after slaves were stripped of their traditional African names? And yet, names can also edify. How much has Usain Bolt’s mental game been bolstered by the constant connections made between his name and his speed?

“What’s in a name?” A great deal it appears . . . what is your name?

  1. […] Shakespeare, Science and Scottish Warriors: The Power of Names. […]


  2. Malaika says:

    I am a firm believer that one’s name says a lot about a person. This is why the names we choose for our children are so important. I loved your examples about Christian’s friend Confidence and Cammy marching around the house after you did your research together. I also liked how you tie in the connection between names and patients.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Talorc MacAllan says:

    Talorc MacAllan being my name…….Talorc was a Pict King , i live in Scotland where the Picts come from and have the so called Pict gene…..SNP, S530, being it…..found out purely by accident , but no surprise being as im a Scot i suppose lol , good read that though i had a few giggles especially your lad marching about to the march of the Camerons, excellent stuff.


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