What’s In A Name, Anyway?


What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would; were he not Romeo call’d
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
Romeo and Juliet, Act Two, Scene II, William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is considerably one of the most well-known romantic tragedies and one of his most performed plays. In the above scene, Juliet is contending that her cross-star lover’s name, Romeo Montague doesn’t matter in spite of their feuding families. Explaining her argument with the use of a rose, she contends that the names of things do not inhibit their disposition – what they really are. Do you agree with Juliet?

In many cultures worldwide, the naming of an individual is considered an event, and a matter of great importance. Naming traditions are part and parcel of cultural experiences and identifiers for many people. For example, in Spain and some Hispanic cultures subsequently, a woman always keeps her maiden name and children born have two surnames to represent the heritage of both parents.

Elsewhere, Balinese children in Indonesia, receive their names according to their birth order. In Ghana, children are giving a “day name” according to the day of the week they were born and their gender. A little closer to home for me, in Nigeria, many naming cultures consist of naming a child according to the mother or family’s experience prior to the birth of a child. Or according to the destiny they wish the child to fulfill or the character they believe the child will personify out in the world.

I asked my dad about the traditional naming culture of the Urhobo people – our people. He said the naming ceremony is a simple one: The household (extended family) head pours libations to the ancestors, with the baby in his arms. He asks what name the father of the child has given him or her. This is announced formally. Usually a grandmother or grandfather also has an alternative name. This is also announced. Sometimes the mother too has a different name; it is also announced. After the names are called out, the household elder, still with the baby in his arms begins a session of prayer that plays on the various significant meanings of the names. A child never has one name in Urhoboland. And each name is always of some significance to the one who chooses a name.

My father’s given name is Anselm but has always gone by his Urhobo name, Emevwo. Despite Anselm representing his Catholic faith, my father prefers Emevwo. He might tell you that he just prefers the way it sounds but if you know my father, he is a pan-Africanist. And being born before Nigeria received it’s independence, and with all the world views, postcolonial and otherwise, that come with his life experience, I know that insisting on Emevwo is a form of resistance.

My name is Shifikovie. I have gone by Kovie for as long as I can remember. Despite being five letters and mostly phonetic – the é at the end often getting lost because I don’t include the accent – many people will ask me if I have a short version of Kovie. (To which I respond that is the short version.) I like my name. It was given to me by my mother during a very difficult time of her life – she had lost her father, her sister, and her sister’s child – her niece – all in the same year. So she named me after her father.

Shifikovie means, “This chief is like a king.” You see, my mother’s side is African royalty. Historically the Urhobo people were ruled in a kingdom, of which my grandfather was then a chief. But before him, his father had been a king. My mother has often told me she named me to memorialize her father but also for me to fulfill a destiny – a destiny that achieves greatness for the time I was born. No pressure right?

She never actually tells me what this means but she believes and instilled in me that overcoming whatever life throws at me is simply a part of who I am. That the goodness and greatness of my name means that the name’s purpose – the destiny – ought to be fulfilled. This chief is like a king.

My name means a lot to me. It means a lot to me that I was named after my grandfather who I never met but whose legacy still lives on in Urhoboland. Of course however, I am also a Biakolo – meaning shining eyes. It’s not quite as glamorous as coming from a royal line but it means that our eyes sparkle; we are insightful and observant.

When I put my names together – Shifikovie Biakolo – I am wearing the heritage of both my mother and father; in my name, my ancestors are not forgotten. This brings me great joy. (I also have a Margaret Mary in the middle of those two – yes, I’m Catholic.)

It is a cultural bias but I could never agree with Juliet’s assertion that names don’t matter – that they don’t signify what things really are. Perhaps they do not define the nature of things but they certainly are a part of the definition of the past for many people and peoples. And the past always matters.

It seems insignificant in comparison to the other realities, but I think one of the saddest aspects of the transatlantic slave trade is the loss of names. But not only that names were stripped and thus direct heritages were lost – but slaves then had to bear the names of slave owners. From my Urhobo point of view, this is great tragedy.

So when Raven-Symoné asserts that she doesn’t hire certain people because of their names; when she insists that certain African-American names are “ghetto,” I shake my head. Despite a history of bearing the names of others, African-Americans created a culture that includes a way of naming. And in this naming, identity is marked. Naming is about identity – the identity of each of us as individuals but also about who our people are.

What’s in a name? In a name, we can carry the history of our ancestors whose legacy continues because of our existence. In a name we can walk through the world knowing we have a purpose – a destiny to fulfill. In a name, we can illustrate the struggles and the triumphs that a culture has faced. In a name, we can discover that we are indeed somebody, who no matter what, came from somewhere.

Our names matter. The names of others matter. Learn to pronounce them well. Learn to treat them with respect. Learn to love them and honor them and cherish them. They are our extraordinary titles in this extraordinary human experience. And as long as our names are remembered by those who come after us, perhaps we won’t be forgotten; perhaps we will be remembered long after we’re gone.