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What’s in a Name?

Relationships matter more than names

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore our understanding of our identity (SEAL theme: Self-awareness).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and two readers.

  • Note: please be particularly aware of students who are part of a foster or adoptive family and adapt the content of the assembly to suit the audience.


Leader: Our surnames say a lot about us.

Reader 1: On the one hand, a surname can tell us which part of the UK our family hails from. For example, if our surname has the prefix ‘Mc’ or ‘Mac’, our family originally came from Scotland. If our surname begins with O’, our origins are probably in Ireland, and the Joneses, Williamses and Hugheses originally come from Wales.

Reader 2: For many of us, our family name speaks of where in the world our family origins lie. If we look carefully, we will find that we have family names from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, mainland Europe and the Americas within our school community.

Leader: Unfortunately, sometimes, these regional names can evoke all kinds of presuppositions and even prejudices. A century ago, in July 1917, this became a major issue for the British royal family. The monarch at the time, George V, had the family name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. This came from his grandfather, Prince Albert, who was German and had been Queen Victorias husband. Queen Victoria herself also came from a German background. Her family name was Hanover, the name of a German city. Yet no one would have claimed that George V himself was anything but a very British gentleman.

In July 1917, Britain was still at war with Germany. The war had already lasted for three long years and showed no sign of ending. The German air force had, in 1916, developed a heavy bomber called the Gotha G.IV. This was used for long-distance bombing raids on south-east England, particularly London. The success of these planes, superseding the slower, more vulnerable Zeppelin airships, caused panic among the population. The name Gotha became a byword for German destruction and an embarrassment to the royal family.

The king decided that something had to be done to counter the effect of this anti-German feeling and his link with the bombers name, so he issued a decree. In it, he rejected all of his German connections and changed the name of the royal family from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, a name that evoked totally English connotations. That is why, three generations on, we have Elizabeth II of the royal house of Windsor. Her family origins havent changed. She still has German heritage. She cannot ever alter who her predecessors were, but her name is different from royals of earlier generations.

Time for reflection

Leader: To what extent do names influence your life?

Reader 1: People can react strongly to a name. Sometimes, this can draw people together, identifying religious, racial or social kinship. This happens particularly when we feel that we are in a minority or are newcomers to a community. So, there are groups of British people who - despite living abroad in France and Spain, for example - actually live in close proximity to each other in their own small communities. Likewise, there are many groups of people who, despite living in the UK, enjoy living with people from their own cultures and backgrounds. Names are a sign that we share parts of our heritage, a shortcut to building a relationship.

Reader 2: However, peoples reactions can be negative at times. Names can lead to preconceived ideas about a person’s beliefs and values, and can unfortunately lead to suspicion and prejudice.

Leader: Names can also give us something to be proud of, though. History matters. In our personalities, we carry the culture, religion, values and traditions passed on through many generations of our family. We carry memories, stories and relationships from the past. There are those who would suggest that this is true at a deep level even with those who are separate from their birth mother or father. And, of course, in our genes, we carry the physical characteristics of the generations who lived before us. As the saying goes, ‘We are who we are because they were who they were.’ This carries on even when a name change occurs, for example, after a marriage. In fact, increasingly, married couples are adopting the practice of using both the husbands and the wifes family names to identify with the heritage of both.

So, how can we respond to the name by which we are known? We may wish to explore our family histories, or we may wish to forget them! We may feel proud of our families and of our past, or we may feel let down or disappointed. However, what really matters is the name that we make for ourselves. We can follow the good traditions and examples of our families, or we can decide to move forward without making the mistakes that we have seen our families make. We can open ourselves up to make relationships with people who have different-sounding names or are from different cultures. As we do so, we will discover that friendships and similar values are to be found in surprising places.

Dear God,
Thank you for the lives of the generations who lived before us.
Thank you for good examples as to how to live our lives.
Please help us to be open to friendships and relationships with people whose cultures may be different from our own.
Please keep us from prejudice and help us to live in peace.


‘We are family’ by Sister Sledge

Publication date: July 2017   (Vol.19 No.7)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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