What’s actually in a name?

It happened again. I was wandering aimlessly amongst the apps on my phone -the ones that send me daily essays from their contributors- and I became hopelessly enmeshed in one. I suppose it’s my own fault for being seduced by the bait, but I have long since realized I must be rather easy prey.

This time, however, the seduction was not the picture that headed the article, and certainly not the title -I mean ‘The necessity of Kripke’ is hardly likely to encourage anyone to click on the journal Aeon’s door, let alone enter into its tangled interior. I had never heard of the philosopher Kripke and so his name did not promise any clever faulty syllogisms to puzzle over, no lofty existential appurtenances I could hang on the few unused coat hooks in my mind. It was simply an unremarkable title promising nothing out of the ordinary. I mean to cast no aspersions on its philosopher author, Stephen Law, however; I’m sure he meant well. Maybe I just don’t belong in his academic club.


Anyway, something caught my attention: the use of names. I have to admit that recently, at least, they have not been the topics du jour of any of the frequently nagging questions that clog the still-functioning parts of my brain. I suppose I had sunk to the lowest level of Dante’s Hell by accepting that a name was merely… well, a label -or a descriptor perhaps. It’s easily done -you can even have checklists associated with a particular name. ‘John’, perhaps, is the father of a child named Jack, the husband of a wife named Judy, and the owner of a 2015 Honda Civic. That’s who that John is. So, if you can click all the boxes, you’ve found the correct John.

But have you? Maybe the correct John does not have to have a checklist; maybe to properly identify him, what you need to do is point to him directly. He is John… Because, after all, there could be other Johns somewhere who also do not have a checklist. But he -the one at whom I am pointing- is the John I really mean. And it’s something about that John that makes him unique -not just his checklist (because others might have a similar one unless there are an unwieldy number of boxes to check), and maybe not even his appearance, because that changes over time, nor his personality because things happen, circumstances change, the sticky web of Fate entangles. So who, then, is a person? Their identity surely can’t be as arbitrary as their name. What is it that makes them who they seem to be, and what is it about them I am recognizing?

The more I think about names though, the more I realize they must have always had a totemic fascination for me because over the years I have written several essays about them. And yet, despite my best intentions, I still struggle at times by confusing identity with appearance. A checklist is of little use unless I confront the familiar looking person and interrogate them; simply pointing at them as an indication of my recognition is likely to provoke unnecessary embarrassment, if not hostility, if I am mistaken.

Unfortunately, I am often uncertain about who I think I am seeing, especially when I try to identify someone I haven’t seen for a long time -years, maybe. The picture gallery in my head has not been able to update its images, and so I am left with outdated faces and unreliable postures as reference points. Hairstyles, seldom last, and bodily morphology is mutable. Wrinkles throw me off, as do the teeth if they are whiter, or more numerous than in their last known photograph. Only the eyes seem reliable signposts, but they require a proximity seldom offered across a crowded room.

Still, I am human, and eager to reacquaint myself with my former lives; I try my best.

I saw a woman sitting several tables away in the almost empty Food Court of a downtown mall. She was chatting and laughing with a man whose arm she kept stroking as if he were a large smiling dog. Her stroking movement seemed idiosyncratic and unnecessary and it reminded me of someone I had dated for a while, years ago. She’d actually had some sort of movement disorder that she could tame only by incessant stroking. I’d never thought of it as unpleasant, even when she tried to explain the reason to me – and that she was not fawning, or trying to get me to stroke her in return; I rather enjoyed it, to tell the truth, although it embarrassed me if there were a lot of people around. I can’t remember why we’d broken up, but it had been her decision, not mine.

Anyway, as I sat drinking my coffee, I wondered just how common was the calming remedial movement she had used; for how many people with similar conditions was it helpful? I tried not to stare at the two of them, but she seemed around my age, and looked as much like the girl I had dated as the years would allow. She wore her hair in a bun, like Jaqueline had; it was darker then, of course, and less obedient to whatever women do nowadays to keep it bunned. Her clothes also behaved like mature clothes do, so the woman’s figure was disguised.

What really made me wonder, though, was her laugh -it was more of a raspy incessant giggle that reminded me then, and now, of someone continually plucking high notes on a lute. The resemblance was uncannily familiar.

I couldn’t help staring at the couple. Eventually the man noticed me and said something to the woman who immediately stopped stroking his arm. Then, she stopped laughing and their faces both became rather serious as she kept stealing glances at me. Finally, after evidently scolding the man, she got up from the table and walked over to me. There was also something terribly familiar in her gait, but I was too embarrassed to watch her approach and stared awkwardly at my coffee until I could feel her eyes pressing down on me. I recognized the pressure…

“Yes, it’s Jacqueline, G,” she said, using the nickname I’d been assigned at university. “And you’re still an asshole!” But I could see a smile breaking through the wrinkles.

She always was a kidder…


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