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What's in a Name? Try This -- It Makes or Breaks a Relationship

April 5, 2007 By:
Roy S. Gutterman, JE Feature
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What's in a name? We've all asked the question. And the answer is ... everything!

A while ago, a perfectly nice girl contacted me. She was friendly, outgoing, attractive. The only problem was that she had the same name as my family's dog.

My first thought was, could I really get involved with a girl who has the same name as our dog? Would disclosing our dog's identity offend her? Would I ever be able to offer her a cookie without snickering to myself?

The e-mail tapered off before we ever met, thus avoiding a potentially awkward conversation.

Still, when it comes to names, that's the least of the problems I've encountered in the dating world. At this point in my life, I've had met my share of Jennifers. In fact, I've had three relationships with girls named Jen, and two with derivative or similar-sounding names.

It's vexing that so many parents from the late 1960s through the mid-'70s latched on to the name Jennifer for their daughters. I'm not the only guy with this problem -- if you can conceive of it as a problem. I read a similar line about Jens in a novel a couple years ago, after I had been making similar comments to friends and family for years.

Names can be a delicate thing when it comes to relationship. Several years ago, my friend Dan had problems with my girlfriend at the time because she had the same name as his mother.

"I could never date a girl with my mom's name," he said to me once.

"That's fine, cause you're not dating a girl with your mom's name. I am," I said.

Dan's consternation was certainly understandable. The potential for an Oedipal nightmare is obvious. This was certainly on my mind last year when I had a few dates with a girl who had the same name as my own mom. At least the spelling was different.

Naming issues can get even murkier. For almost two years, my brother and I had girlfriends with the same first name. It would have gotten confusing if the two girls shared anything other than their first names -- and the fact that they were involved with Gutterman guys. But the similarities ended there.

And as bizarre as this might sound, I've reached a point where I would prefer to avoid dating a girl who shares the name of an ex-girlfriend. Names, at least for me, seem to have evolved to similar status as tissues or other single-use products.

Sure, maybe this is being too picky, even bordering on the ludicrous. But names do have real significance.

In a great 1935 book I found in my grandmother's library, called What Shall We Name the Baby?, editor Winthrop Ames, wrote in the foreword: "Given names ... date from the very beginnings of language. Every primitive tribe had to invent enough different titles to distinguish its members from one another; and apparently they did so in the same way everywhere, from prehistoric Troy to savage Timbuktu."

Early or primitive names stemmed from everything from birth circumstances to physical characteristics of the infant to qualities parents hoped the child might one day possess, he wrote.

While 99 percent of the names used in the United States originate from four mother languages -- Hebrew, Greek, Latin (Italian, French, Spanish) or Teutonic (Scandinavian, Old German or Norse) -- in modern times, noted Ames, most of their original meanings have been lost.

Though people seem to like to investigate the etymology of their names, many names lack the significance or inspirational intent they once had. Original meanings fade with time, wrote Ames: "It seems extraordinary that any ancient parent should have chosen to call his son 'bear-warrior' (Bernard), or that so lovely a name as Ophelia should mean 'snake,' but such significations take on a different color when we know their history."

Members of the Tribe
For our "tribe," at least the Ashkenazi branch, names are handed down to commemorate and honor deceased family members. I'm named for my dad's father, with my middle name representing my mother's grandmother.

This tradition is nice, but it would have created turmoil -- more than the usual turmoil -- in my last relationship because my ex-girlfriend, the one with the same name as my brother's girlfriend, was Sephardic. And Sephardim generally name children for living relatives, traditionally the paternal grandfather for the first son and paternal grandmother for the first daughter. This potential culture clash would have had lifelong ramifications.

As for my name, chances are, ladies, that you haven't dated too many Roys. But the story behind that is for another day.  

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