What’s in a Name?

Romeo and Juliet kissing on the balcony.
Would Romeo by Another Name Really Be As Sweet?2

What’s in a name? Shakespeare tells us that “a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”1 But would it really? While names don’t define who we are, they often say something about us. And some have achieved immortality by entering our vocabulary and continuing in daily use long after the name’s original owner has been forgotten.

Why Have Names? How would we get along without them? Imagine a meeting where you didn’t know anyone’s name — the only way you could refer to someone in the room would be by pointing.

There is no record of any society where people did not have names. In many places people only had one. But as groups got larger, it became necessary to distinguish one John from another and second names were added. Often they were descriptive terms such as Harry the Miller or William from York and subject to change from generation to generation. Hereditary family names didn’t become widespread in Britain until the fifteenth century; ancient Romans used them in Caesar’s time.3

What Can Names Tell Us? Some names come to us with obvious meanings. Mary, John and Noah come directly from people in the Bible. And many family names reflect the occupation of distant ancestors, such as Cooper, Miller, Smith and Bauer.

Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes.
Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind.4

But names can tell us more. For example they can give us an idea when a person was born. In the U.S., Ashley and Leslie are usually women’s names today. But that wasn’t always so — in the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind a man named Ashley Wilkes is the object of Scarlett O’Hara’s affections until she falls for Rhett Butler. And the actor who played Ashley was Leslie Howard.

Names go in and out of fashion just like clothes. Conversation at many an Edwardian tea party must have sounded like a garden club meeting given the number of ladies named Rose, Daisy and Lily at the time. Flower names faded in later generations, but today they are back stronger than ever.5

Some people’s names reveal lineage. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ name, for example, celebrates descendance from three prominent New England families, as does that of Gardiner Greene Hubbard, co-founder of Bell Telephone and first president of the National Geographic Society.

Parents have long named children for public figures they admired. In the early republic, boys were named Washington, such as artist Washington Allston and writer Washington Irving. Lincoln became popular in the North after the Civil War. Southerners, of course, preferred names with Confederate connections. The name of former Senator and Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, for example, honors both Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard as well as Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Advertising poster for Jumbo.

Names that Became Words. Just as words sometimes become names, names can evolve into words. Like to eat sandwiches? They’re named for the person who invented them, the Earl of Sandwich. And if your taste leans toward cardigan and not pullover sweaters, they are named for Lord Cardigan, one of the commanders of the ill-fated charge of the light brigade. And if you boycott an organization by refusing to deal with it, that’s exactly what Irish land reformers did to Charles Boycott, a nineteenth century agent for an absentee British landlord.

Ever hear of an elephant named Jumbo? Most of us would assume the name was chosen because the animal was huge. But it’s the other way around — the word comes from the name of a nineteenth century celebrity elephant.

Jumbo was the star of the London Zoo. Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt rode on his back. Much to the outrage of the British public, the zoo sold Jumbo to P.T. Barnum for his circus. Jumbo rode in a custom-built railway car with his name outside. Upon his death, his hide was stuffed and presented to Tufts University, where it stood in Barnum Hall until the building was destroyed by fire in 1975. Jumbo is still Tufts’ mascot.7

* * * * *

So perhaps names actually do matter. The best example, actually, might be the very name that Shakespeare said mattered not, for even centuries after the Bard put down his pen, Romeo’s name arouses passion and visions of romance. Somehow an evening with Bill or Michael just wouldn’t seem the same.


  1. Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 46-47. On-line at Folger Shakespeare Library.
  2. From Frank Dicksee, Romeo and Juliet (1884). Painting in the collection of the Southampton City Art Gallery. Image from Wikipedia.
  3. See Paul Blake, What’s In a Name? Your Link to the Past, BBC History web site (April 26, 2011), and Roman Naming Conventions, Wikipedia.
  4. Publicity photo from Gone with the Wind. Image from Wikipedia.
  5. Ken Thompson, Flower Names Are Blossoming Once More, The Telegraph (January 14, 2013).
  6. Advertisement for Jumbo, image from Wikipedia. For more about the use of Jumbo’s name in general advertising see Deborah Walk, Jennifer Lemmer, and Marcy Murray, Colorful Circus Paper Traces the Spread of “Jumbomania,” Ephemera Society of America web site (February 11, 2013).
  7. Susan Wilson, An Elephant’s Tale, Tufts Online Magazine (Spring 2002).

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Updated March 5, 2017.