What's in a Name? A Lot

Shakespeare surely was one of the most worldly wise of men, as the gems of practical wisdom filling page after page of his prodigious output reveal. Whatever he had said in his works, the characters he chiseled out of his imagination, the vibrant stories he told, of unrequited love, love fulfilled, love scorned or sometimes of tragic love, or of people with their ‘vaulting ambitions’ who taste great success in life or end up in unmitigated disaster, all these have their mirror images in our present day society just as they perfectly had in his.

But at times we may wonder if we are wise in accepting in toto what he says in a given situation. Take for instance his famous, and I think the most misunderstood, piece of dialogue from Romeo and Juliet “What's in a name, that which we call a rose would by any other name smell as sweet.”

It is true rose would have the same smell even if we call it rhododendron or hibiscus, but what is important here is that Juliet was not at all referring to a person’s name, but to a family name. And that really mattered, especially when the families were at loggerheads like the Montagues and their arch rivals the Capulets of Verona.

When Juliet, in the famous balcony scene (Act II, Scene 2), exhorts Romeo to ‘deny thy father and refuse thy name’ she means the name of Montague and not the Christian name Romeo.

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

But changing name, of one’s own or of the family, may not be as easy as what Juliet says. ‘Denying father’ may sound easy but in practice all the more difficult.

True a name may become inconvenient at times, as in the present case of love between a thirteen-year old girl and a boy of about sixteen that had no chance of fulfillment because of the intense rivalry of their families.

Whether it was the way Juliet liked or not, the name Romeo, as also her own name, had undergone changes before and after she met him. Prominent among the original source works on which Shakespeare had based his famous love story was The Tragical Historye of Romeus and Iuliet, a long-winding story poem of over 3,000 lines written by one Arthur Brooke and published in 1562, a full three decades and four years before Shakespeare wrote his play. Shakespeare also might have been aware of a  collection of stories by William Painter, entitled The Palace of Pleasure, which was written sometime before 1580, in which one of the tales was that of a lovelorn lass and a lad of rival noble families.

Brooke himself was not the originator of the tale as there were two works of Italian origin that served as his own sources. One of them was Giulietta e Romeo by Matteo Bandello, a novella written in 1554. There was also a story in a collection called Il Novellio by a fifteenth-century writer named Masuccio Salernitano, and another titled A Story Newly Found of Two Noble Lovers, written by Luigi Da Porto and published in 1530.

Whatever be the origin of the names or the tale, the name Romeo gradually acquired a connotation that neither Shakespeare nor Juliet would ever have imagined. The frequently used expression ‘roadside Romeo’ conjures up an image vastly different from that of the tender love hero of Shakespeare. The expression, in common parlance, means, according to a definition by Urban Dictionary, ‘A guy who has nothing to do in life but to flirt around and eve-tease girls.’

What a fall from the Romeo of Shakespearean vintage!

Romeo is not the only name that has fallen from grace. Some years back a mother in central Kerala made an announcement in the press changing her daughter’s name from Juliet to Harriet. The change in a way is inexplicable as Juliet still is a sweet and popular name, as sweet as Harriet. The only reason one could surmise is that perhaps the mother felt the name Juliet made the girl vulnerable to advances from roadside Romeos!

A glance through press advertisements and announcements in the personal advertisement section of the weekly Government Gazette would show that the number of people who discard the names fondly given to them by their doting parents is indeed legion. Names are given to the newborns by parents after much consideration. They think a lot, severally and jointly, sift through hundreds of possibilities and ultimately come up with a wrong choice. The names may reflect their likes, their sensibilities, their impression of their own erudition, or even their political disposition. The only thing they forget is to consider whether the name is likely to draw adverse attraction to the child in later life. Take the case of the Stalins, Lenins and the like. There may be nothing communist in a boy named Stalin or Lenin and nothing truthful in a girl named Pravda.

Those who carry the names they dislike as an unpleasant wart on the face are helpless to do anything in their childhood or teens, but when they come of age many dare to do sort of a plastic surgery in nomenclature. They unceremoniously discard their parent-given name and adopt a new name of their own and a new identity.

One classic example of parental wrong doing in the naming of infants is that of a boy who was given an ostensibly girly name. When he was born he might have looked so cute as a little girly doll that the parents affectionately named him Helen, perhaps after that great beauty of yore, Helen of Troy. As he grew up the boy naturally must have faced much jeering and sneering from his classmates, forcing the parents themselves to announce in the press a name change : from Helen to Allen.

In spite of such a facility for name change, there is one person who still carries his name as a living, moving monument to the incarceration of his parents, both of whom were leftist political leaders. It was during their jail term that the wife gave birth to a boy. As the child was born in jail, the parents named him, inappropriately, of course, Jail Kumar. Though the parents came out of the jail soon afterwards, the son is destined to carry the burden of the jail throughout his life.

Perhaps he is not alone in this. He has good company in Misa Bharati, Bihar politician and the eldest daughter of Lalu Prasad Yadav. Lalu Yadav was said to have named her Misa Bharati in memory of his imprisonment under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) during the Emergency.

Names do matter in the world of commerce. Much charisma is attached to exotic names of merchandize in the domestic market. Take the case of popular brands of shirts like Van Heusen, Peter England, Allen Solly etc. If an intrepid entrepreneur named Thankappan Nair gave his own name to a new brand of shirts would it have any chance of survival in the  fiercely competitive market?

A name gives a proper identity to a person but there are many who choose to bowdlerize or abbreviate their names, at least some of them trying to hide what they consider to be the unpleasantness in them.

The technique of abbreviation is also made use of by others even if there is no unpleasantness in the name. Years ago the largest housing colony in Thiruvananthapuram was chosen as a lasting memorial to an elder statesman of yesteryears, Pattom Thanu Pillai, who had served as Prime Minister of erstwhile Travancore-Cochin state, Chief Minister of Kerala and Governor of Punjab. Though named Pattom Thanu Pillai Nagar, the residents of the colony, for some reason, chose to gloss over the name and strip it down to bare essentials: PTP Nagar. Now not many in the colony know who or what is this PTP.

In fact many political leaders like EMS Namboodiripad (EMS), AK Gopalan (AKG), MG Ramachandran (MGR) and NT Rama Rao (NTR) were known in their lifetime by their initials. But Pattom Thanu Pillai was always Pattom Thanu Pillai, or at the most 'Pattom', during his lifetime. It was left to the grateful residents of the colony to posthumously bestow on him that abbreviated honour of PTP.



More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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