What’s in a Name?
Are our names important?
by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2008)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec) - Church Schools
To reflect on the importance of our names.
Preparation and materials
- Optional: you may wish to use the Bible story of God calling Samuel, which appears in 1 Samuel 3.1-10, available at: https://tinyurl.com/y7syrc6u
You may wish to pre-arrange for a student to read this passage.
- Optional: you may wish to have a book of names available during the assembly or look up the meaning of some names of students or staff prior to the assembly.
- I wonder if you like your first name. Or your middle name. Do you wish that you were called something else?
It’s quite a responsibility naming a child: usually people are stuck with their names throughout their lives.
You might like, love or even hate the name you were given. It can be a source of ridicule if children are unkind. For example, if your initials spell something unpleasant, you might sometimes find it pretty tough getting through school.
- Some people find that their name gives meaning to who they are, and influences how they understand themselves and the way they behave. My full name, for instance, is (insert your own name and give its meaning. For example, Helen means ‘light’ and Sophie is a derivative of Sophia, which means ‘wisdom’).
It may be that one of your names derives from a mother, father or grandmother. (Point out the way in which your name may be appropriate or inappropriate. For example, if your name is Helen Sophie, you might not claim to be full of wisdom and light, but express that it is nice to think that you could be. It’s a name to try to live up to!)
- Ask the students, ‘Does anyone here know what their name actually means?’
Listen to a range of responses.
Optional: you may wish to tell the students some of the meanings of the names you researched before the assembly. If you are doing this as a class assembly, perhaps students could have researched this beforehand.
- Many of us probably have our own nicknames, or have our names shortened in some way. We probably know that if we find ourselves in a situation where our full names are used, it is a formal occasion or, more likely, we are in some kind of trouble.
- Even before they see us, people who have heard our name may make judgements about us, sometimes wrongly. For example, on hearing our name, people may make judgements about the country we are from, our religion, our parents’ background and class or the decade we were born in.
Ask the students if any of them know where the following quotation comes from: ‘That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.’
It comes from Romeo and Juliet, a play by Shakespeare, and appears in a passage where Juliet is talking about Romeo. Let’s listen to the part that comes before it:
’Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
Juliet is saying that if Romeo did not have the surname Montague, there would be no barrier to their love. It is the name that makes him the enemy, not who he is as a person.
- There are many times in the Bible when people hear God calling their name.
- When Moses goes up to a burning bush, he hears God calling his name.
- The young Samuel hears God calling his name. (You may wish to ask someone to read out the Bible passage 1 Samuel 3.1-10.)
- This is what God says to his people: ‘Do not fear . . . I have called you by name.’ (Isaiah 43.1)
- Christians believe that God knows people individually; he knows who they are. We are not just statistics or numbers.
- Sometimes in the Bible, God chooses to change someone’s name. For example, Saul became Paul after his experience on the road to Damascus when he saw the risen Jesus. Also, Jesus changed Simon’s name to ‘Peter’, which means ‘rock’.
- In biblical times, people thought carefully when they named their babies, and every name had a meaning. The name ‘Jesus’ was chosen by God himself. It was announced by the angel, who also gave the reason for the name: ‘for he will save his people from their sins’ (the name ‘Jesus’ means ‘the Lord saves’).
- Jesus has several other names and titles: Christians call him Son of God, Christ, Messiah, Lord and Emmanuel, to name but a few. These all tell us something about his nature and his importance to Christians.
- Even God has several different names. He is called by various names in the Bible (Yahweh, Lord and Father, for example), and some religions and sects have their own names for God, such as Allah, Brahma, Jehovah and Zeus. These names mean different things to different people and express something of the nature of the divine.
Time for reflection
What’s in a name? A great deal. It says who you are. Calling your name is how people get your attention. People may make judgements about you because of your name, and your name may influence the way you think about yourself.
Spend a few moments thinking about how you feel about your name. Why were you given this name? If you don’t already know, perhaps you could find out what your name means, and then think about fulfilling it.
Some people don’t like the meaning of their name, but remember: what a person is really like is what matters most. No matter what our name, if we treat people with love and respect, no one will mind what we are called – they will care for us because of who we are.
‘It’s a new day’ (Come and Praise, 106)