Summary: Third Commandment: How not to use God’s name emptily, keeping it full of meaning.


Names are important. Choosing a name for a new baby can occupy a couple right up until birth - sometimes even beyond. My godchildren’s father Chad drove my friend Caryl crazy right up to delivery insisting that any son of his would be named Beowulf. I think he was just pulling her chain but Chad insists he was serious. He admits he was kidding about Beelzebub, but Beowulf was a great hero of Anglo-Saxon literature and folklore, after all, a slayer of monsters, and Chad was an English lit major. Just because nobody but other English lit majors would recognize it didn’t matter. But Caryl insisted that the other kids would make fun of someone named Beowulf, and they wound up compromising on family names.

Fashions in names come and go. Girls names change faster than boys. Michael and Christopher and Joshua have been in the top ten for the last 20 years. Ashley and Samantha are in this decade, but Jennifer and Lisa aren’t. And Donald and Margaret haven’t been in the top 10 since the 40’s. How do people choose names? Why do people choose the names they do? Do names mean anything, or point to anything beyond the parents’ personal taste? What was it that Frank Zappa named his kids, Dweezil and Moonbeam? At least names tell you whether or not parents value tradition, or what they hope for their children. Boys still carry their father’s names far more often than girls their mother’s, which also says something.

What does your name mean? Have you ever asked your parents why they chose it? What does it mean to you? Is your name in history, or Shakespeare, or the Bible? What language does it come from? Does it translate into something in English? Does your name affect your personality? My godson Philip is absolutely bonkers about horses; I often wonder if it’s because he’s known since babyhood that Philip is Greek for lover of horses. Do you suppose Chastity Bono might have been affected by her name?

And last names. Does yours mean "son of John" or "lives at the river crossing" or "candle-maker" or "red-head"? Our last names mostly tell us where we came from, but don’t say much about who we are now. At least in this country. In Iceland, people are listed in the telephone directory by their first names, because the last names are all "son or daughter of so-and-so".

Names are important. Names root us in community and connect us with history and with one another. Most of us can remember meeting someone who recognizes your last name and sat down and quizzed you on which branch of the family you came from and did you know or are you related to so-and-so? A name is more than just a sound. Names - even in this disconnected society - tell others more about us than we often realize.

And if you introduced yourself as a Rockefeller or a Roosevelt people would immediately have some expectations about your connections.

As a matter of fact, if you started calling yourself Rockefeller or Roosevelt there might be some people who would object to it, because those are names with particular meanings and associations, and if you haven’t any right to it’s considered - if not stealing, exactly, not really honest.

But maybe you don’t want to go quite that far. What about just claiming acquaintance with the rich and famous in order to impress people, or to get access to privileges? That’s less risky, isn’t it? No harm in a little name-dropping, is there?

In a mystery I read not too long ago, a minor character named Eddie tried to set himself up as a free-lance hit man by representing himself as a contract employee for the local organized crime syndicate. I won’t name names, because after all the story was set in Philadelphia, and that’s a little too close for comfort. But at any rate once the word trickled upwards to the godfather - excuse me, chief executive - Eddie’s career took an abrupt and final turn for the worse.

It’s always a good idea to know what you’re getting into when you use the name of someone powerful.

Eddie thought he could borrow just a little of the power of the person whose name he was using - let’s call him Mr. Big. Just borrow it. But to use it for Eddie’s own purposes, to get something for himself. Either Eddie didn’t think Mr. Big would ever hear about it, or he didn’t think he’d mind. After all, Eddie wasn’t stealing anything, was he? Just - borrowing it. No harm done, right? It’s not like he was signing Mr. Big’s name to a check or anything.

But Eddie didn’t know much about Mr. Big. First of all, everything came back to him, eventually. You couldn’t keep secrets, in that community. And second, Mr. Big’s reputation was important to him. His reputation kept people in line even more than his enforcers did. He’d earned his reputation the old fashioned way, by eliminating his opposition, and it was expensive to maintain. If people started thinking Mr. Big was employing a two-bit thug like Eddie, they might start thinking he was either losing his grip or lowering his standards, and lose respect. So Eddie had to go.

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