What’s in a name? Lorenzo discusses the cultural implications of names

by Lorenzo Migilorato

Last week, French journalist Eric Zemmour stirred controversy in his country’s media after he accused former minister Rachida Dati of being “unpatriotic” for naming her seven-year-old daughter ‘Zohra’. Mrs. Dati, currently MEP for Île-de-France, explained she chose the name to honour her late Algerian mother, and called Zemmour – himself of Algerian descent – “pathological”.

When taken at face value, it’s difficult to dignify Zemmour’s provocation with a reply, other than ‘a parent can choose whatever name she wants’ (as long as it’s not one to be embarrassed of, obviously). It is however interesting to note how much importance members of society – and before that, humans – give to names. A name in linguistics is a mere ‘indexical’, a label with no intrinsic meaning, only referential. And yet virtually every culture throughout history has given names various degrees of importance. Europeans technically ‘christen’ their newborns. Jews wait some time before announcing their baby’s name, to ward off Death. Native American names are imbued with so much meaning that they are translated fully to English – like the late Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle, of Dances with Wolves fame.

In our reason-dominated society, the weight given to names has shifted underlying motivations, but it far from disappeared. It’s a well-known fact that Chinese pupils take up English names when they go study or work abroad – easier to pronounce and more familiar to westerners. Or think of African-American – ‘ghetto’ – names, which began as misspellings of traditional names or adaptation of traditional ones, but were later intentionally used as a symbol of Black solidarity.

At first glance, we tend to think that the choice of name is a way of reaffirming ties to one’s original culture. While that’s surely legitimate, we may still be leaving bits of the story out. After all, Mrs. Dati herself said that she chose ‘Zohra’ to honour her mother. When described that way, it’s an act anyone can empathise with, regardless of cultural difference. We can even turn Zemmour’s words on their head, saying that he is the one imposing a situation where an individual’s community – French society – takes precedence over her personal history.

Now, I’m hesitant to get myself into the shoes of someone like Mrs. Dati of Algerian and Moroccan descent, and with a Catholic education. Having lived all of my life in Europe, I’ve never experienced cultural inner tension as she possibly has. I can however take a guess at why we think it’s such a big deal that someone’s child was given a name unfamiliar to us. And again, think not just of French immigrant communities, but also of, for example, African-Americans who go on to study and work in predominantly white environments. Once we are sane enough to reckon a name does not describe who a person is, what is our rationale for thinking names can still be judged? The answer, I think, is almost a platitude: a name is a parent’s choice, and to our eyes, is thus descriptive not only of us, but of our parents’ reasoning as well. We take it as an indicator of the family’s cultural atmosphere, and consequently of what the upbringing of its children was – or will be. Of course, the flaw in such a reckoning is that we imagine that family’s values to be a rigid, solemn system, where ‘light’ choices – like naming your baby after a Bollywood movie star – have no place.

All in all, what I would ask Monsieur Zemmour is why he thinks little Zohra can’t choose a nickname to go by in the future. (Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of Muhammad Ali). But of course, what should be said first is: if there’s anyone out there who’ll make Zohra feel embarrassed of her name, well, shame on you.

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