THE BLOG

It's All in a Name, or Is It? The Power and Potential of Words

17/07/2015 10:47 BST | Updated 14/07/2016 10:59 BST

I had a discussion with a much-loved friend recently about my name, or specifically, the shortening of it. I happened to mention that I didn't like it and didn't allow it with only my Dad getting away with calling me, 'Our Ali'. They seemed a bit surprised. They go by the abbreviated version of theirs and in response I found myself launching into my mini-mantra that encompassed why we should all be called what we choose, the importance of our name to our identity and how I completely empathised with Antoinette's frustration and pain in Jean Rhys' 'Wide Sargasso Sea' when Mr. Rochester ceases to call her that. Had I had the time, I would have included extended musings on whether Shakespeare had it nailed on the 'rose, name-change same-smell' theory. Now, I am but a fledgling chick in the writing world and have no wish to take issue with The Bard, but I do believe that whilst names of things may or may not matter, names of people do.

Names do make us think, form perceptions and yes, I am ashamed to admit but know it is universal, judge. Randy may be a perfectly common-place name among Americans, but unless it's just the people I know and I don't think it is, I have yet to meet anyone who wouldn't have to hide a smirk if they were introduced to a Randy from Swansea or Sheffield.

On a creative writing course once we talked about creating characters. The character is drawn with words and the most crucial one is their name. Would Heathcliffe have been so alluring, dangerous, exciting and beguiling if he were called Timothy Trotter? It's a perfectly reasonable name but can you imagine Cathy howling it in desperate passion all across the moors? Would Arthur, Doreen and Brenda in 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' have spoken of and to the working class of late 1950's/ early '60's Britain as powerfully as they did, had they been Tarquin, Jemima and Cecily?

There is a concept called 'The Looking-glass theory' that has been developed and studied for over a hundred years. To paraphrase, (and hopefully accurately represent and interpret, not being a psychologist), it addresses how our concept of ourselves is largely based on a perception of how we think people are judging us. This starts as soon as we begin to socialise and interact with others. Therefore, the child with the unusual first name, the name that possibly their Mum has cobbled together from the first two letters in the name of all four grandparents or the town in which they were conceived, becomes accustomed to expecting to have to spell the name or explain the name and becomes attuned to the quizzical look of the other person. They then perceive that a judgement is being made about them and therefore begin to feel about them-self in a certain way. Their identity begins to be constructed as a mirror of what they perceive is being felt about them. This can alter, depending on who is assumed to be reflecting what back. This could explain a part of why we can behave differently and can appear more or less self-assured with certain people and in wide-ranging settings. If you have a name that appears to place you in a certain demographic, or that comes with certain associations, you may perceive that you are being judged in a certain way and make certain assumptions and construct a self-concept in response.

With this in mind, my thoughts returned to why I am so welded to being called my full name? Alison has never been a name I have been forced to explain, other than to the occasional person who tries to spell it with a 'y' or maybe two 'll's'. It isn't a name I would call my child. I neither like it nor dislike it. As a word, as a collection of six letters I have no strong feelings about it but as my name, I do.

Why then am I perfectly happy for my Dad to call me something that would irritate me from most other people? Why do I like it that my Dad calls me something that no one else does?

Let's take the power of words and I do, very seriously. I am a great proponent of the pen being mightier than the sword. A knife isn't needed to cut or kill, words can do that. A bomb isn't needed to effect change, words can do that too. How did Martin Luther King Jr. inspire, how did Winston Churchill keep the country's resolve going? It was through powerful, emotive, passionate and above all sincere words.

Perhaps the reason I don't mind is not so much the actual word, more it is the meaning behind it. So maybe in calling me the abbreviated 'Ali', I recognise that in half as many letters as comprise my actual, proper, self-constructed and identifiable 'me' name, is affection and fondness and pride and love and therefore the actual name ceases to matter. Maybe Shakespeare has a point and it is a point that extends from roses to people. Maybe the crucial thing we all need from our first social interaction to our last is love, respect and affection. If these are reflected back at us then maybe they will make us all self-construct the very best being we can be and a person by any other name really will be the same and no less special as a result.