by Doug Carpenter


What Is in a Name?

I can’t imagine many of you disagreeing that 2020 was a pretty awful year. [I’d call for a show of hands on that, but CDC prevention protocols would probably require you all to wash them first and then apply sanitizer. And honestly, I’d really just like to get on with this column.]

So yeah — it was that kind of year. Awful in a way that I don’t think there’s even a name for, although I have heard quite a few interesting ones proposed. Unfortunately, most of them were of such questionable taste that it’s probably best if we don’t print them here.

Nevertheless, a name — whether it’s classy or sassy — can be a pretty powerful thing. So powerful, in fact, that it can — either consciously or unconsciously — profoundly influence much of what we think, feel, do and even aspire to be throughout the course of our lives. In a very real sense, we spend those lives trying to answer the timeless question that even Shakespeare famously pondered: “What’s in a Name?”

From the time we’re old enough to recognize our name when we hear it [...and to know how much trouble we’re in by the way it was spoken, especially if it was in a very loud voice and included your middle name...], we’re regularly reminded how important it is to establish and maintain a “good” one for ourselves. By contrast, being called “bad” ones is generally a pretty solid indicator that the value of your given one is about to take a nosedive.

In this and other such downhill situations, many people wouldn’t hesitate to drop other, more successful people’s names if we thought it could help us salvage the reputation that’s attached to ours or get us the kind of life we’ve grown attached to the idea of living. [You can call that one the “Guess Who I Know” Game.] And once you figure out exactly what kind of life you want that to be, names can be very useful for fine-tuning that dream until it comes true.

People have, for example, always looked for ways to cash in on the identity they were born with — unless they decide to change it altogether to something more befitting the “star” they believe they’re destined to become. Just ask “Elton John” or “Whoopi Goldberg.” [Or, if they’re too busy promoting their new album or taping their talk show to take your call, you could try ringing them up by their original handles, Reginald Dwight and Caryn Johnson.]

Others take a more hardcore approach, turning their personal identity into a proprietary “brand” through which they market themselves to positions of wealth and/or political power — usually gravitating toward whichever provides them more ego gratification and requires them to do less actual work. Either way, the name of that game is “Fame.”

They can also come in handy in more personal and private situations. Let’s say, for instance, that you wanted to put a stop to something. Doing so “in the name of” things like “the law” or “love” has long been a popular and persuasive way to phrase it — not to mention a memorable lyric when set to a catchy melody like The Supremes’ #1 hit single did back in 1965. And if you can “Name That Tune” in just three notes, you could be today’s big winner! [No peeking at the graphic.]

Of course, it would be one thing if all we had to manage every day were our internal identity issues. But it’s been a long time since life was that simple, and it’s highly unlikely that it’ll get any less complicated any time soon. And again, one of the things we have to thank for that is — no surprise here — names.

Like user names and passwords, and the streaming bowl of alphanumeric/keyboard character soup our computers require us to serve them to access our digital data — leaving us no choice but to learn to speak their language [...or become really good guessers.] And should we happen to want to learn another human tongue, we can always turn to computer software like the popular foreign language instruction program “Babbel” — a name which yet again raises the same, perplexing “What’s in it?” question.

I can’t help but wonder why a company would intentionally give a product it clearly wants you to believe will teach you to speak a foreign language fluently and articulately a name that quite literally means — and will almost instantly bring to mind — “meaningless, foolish gibberish.” [Seriously. What do you think of when you hear the word “babble?” Other than these columns, I mean.]

The only thing that may be worse are the names of the proliferating prescription drugs now being advertised everywhere we turn. Considering the tortured phonetic engineering it clearly must’ve taken to create them, it’s hard not to picture Big Pharma’s marketing masterminds all huddled around a giant Wheel of Fortune-type spinner, strategically fabricating new drug names out of whatever three or four random, mediciney-sounding syllables the game show contraption points to. [Name That Drug? Meet Who Wants to Be a Multibillion-Dollar Cash Cow?]

Even better, how about a new game where we invent alternative medical conditions to replace the ones they’re currently marketing those doctor-dispensed drugs to treat? They could be something like, maybe, Lyrica — for the annoyingly-clueless friend who’s apparently incapable of remembering the words to any song. Or, Otezla — for the nausea caused by having to listen to someone go on and on about the pretentious, overpriced car they just bought. Or how about Stelara — for the “I’m all that” guy at parties who actually believes people enjoy his really terrible Marlon Brando impression. O.K. Your turn.

Warning: Do not attempt to play if you’re allergic to hypothetical games that you read about in some magazine humor column or any of their ingredients. [But if you do experience any unusual side effects, take two punchlines, call me in the morning and I’ll see you back here in a month for a follow-up.]

© 2021 Doug Carpenter

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