What's In A Name?

I got an early Christmas present from my wife this weekend – a cat. This was a happy occasion for our family, as it was our first pet that didn’t have scales and live in a bowl of water. However, my wife and I made the mistake of not naming our new family member on the way home from the adopt-a-cat center, which meant my two sons would be included in the naming debate. Baby naming books were consulted, ballots drawn up, and then in the end my wife chose the name anyway because apparently the men in the family didn’t seem to care one way or the other.

As it should have been. My wife is the type of writer who spends much time deliberating over her characters’ names, and with good results. I, meanwhile, am terrible at remembering people’s names and am impatient when naming my characters. I even allowed my friends to change my name. I was Billy until I reached high school where my new friends called me Bill and that was that.

As I understand it, Buddhists don’t say, “This is a tree,” they say, “We call this a tree.” It is more accurate, of course. That fellow on the throne is a just a man we call a king. Everything in the world already is what it is before we name it. But the creative process is always about re-translating. If everyone went to the same party, everyone would tell a different story about that party and everyone’s title for their story would be different.

Still, there is much to be said for agreement. I could have stuck to my guns and remained Billy, but my friends had recognized something in me that I had not yet recognized in myself, and Bill fit that new thing better than Billy. Every word we use to communicate is the result of a massive, centuries-old agreement, an agreement that changes incrementally every day. From the stories we tell to the words we use to tell them, everything is an inheritance, but like all inheritances, what was once someone else’s becomes ours—and thus in our hands lies the future, for cats and kings alike.

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