If You Had Another Name, Would You Still Be You?

For many years the editor of the Wall Street Journal was a Tarheel by the name of Vermont C. Royster. That “C” in his name stood for “Connecticut.” And yes, all his siblings were likewise named for the states.

My wife and I were dining in a Birmingham restaurant some years back when I happened to notice that our waitress’ name was Auburn. Being the type who likes to jest with the help, I said, “I’ll bet you have a sister named Alabama.”

She said, “I have two sisters–Tulane and Cornell.” I shrank back into my chair, certain that she was putting me in my place.

“I have four brothers,” she said. “Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Duquesne.” For once, I was completely speechless.

“My father’s name is Stanford and my mother is Loyola. They’re from Baton Rouge and were engaged before it occurred to them that they each had colleges as names and decided to do this to their children.”

“When we were little,” she said, “we were on the front of Parade magazine, on Art Linkletter’s House Party, and in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

When she told me she was married with two children, I said, “Wait a minute–let me guess your husband’s name.” Gardner Webb or Truett McConnell. Something like that.

“My husband is Ron Harris,” she said, “But my children are Agnes Scott and Slippery Rock.” She hastened to add, “I’m kidding about those.”

I once told that story to a professor at Agnes Scott who had a contribution of her own to this tale. “On the first day of class, when teachers don’t have a roll yet and have to circulate a sheet of paper for everyone to sign, and invariably some guy makes up a fictitious name? Well, I’ve learned to read ahead of the name I’m calling so I don’t fall for that. That’s when I spotted the ringer. I said to the class, ‘Who made up the stupid name?’ No answer. Then I said, ‘All right, who is this States Rights Constitution Finley the Third?’ And some guy raised his hand. I said, ‘That’s your name?’ It was. And just think–he’s the third. There’s two more of those running around.”

Mary Lou Sumrall worked the welfare office in Columbus, Mississippi, for years. Once she was helping a client fill out an application. Name? “Ninthamay Terry.” Excuse me–what? “Ninthamay Terry.” How did you get that name? “I was born on the ninth of May.”

That’s one person who ought to give thanks every day she didn’t arrive on the twenty-third of September or some such.

Dr. John L. Sullivan, leader of Florida Baptists, has made it a hobby collecting strange names over the years. He has quite a collection by now. Whenever we bump into each other, we manage to compare the latest oddities we’ve encountered.

Names are strange creations. Composed of letters of the alphabet and given certain sounds, the voicing of which represents a living, breathing human being. Utter those sounds and someone in the room–just one, the same one every time–will turn in your direction and say, “Yes?” Stand at the edge of a crowded children’s playground and utter the sounds that represent your child and do it loudly, and yours will cut out of the herd as clearly as though a cowboy on a pony had separated him.

Nothing else sounds like or as good as our names.

One aspect of the Old Testament many people find fascinating is the practice of changing names. A fellow would begin life with one handle and later, as his character blossomed or his identity became fully known, the family or society or even the Lord Himself would give him a new name.

Abraham started out life as Abram, and his wife Sarah started as Sarai. He went from “exalted father” to “father of many people,” while her name appears to be “princess” both ways.

Abraham’s grandson Jacob received his strange name as a newborn when he reached over and grabbed hold of his twin’s heel. His unimaginative parents, Isaac and Rebekah, naturally dubbed him “Heel-holder,” which came to mean “someone who gets a free ride on the other fellow’s dime.” In time, as God began to mold Jacob, He changed the name to Israel meaning “one who strives with God.” Seems to me the Lord was saying He’d rather have a son who fights Him than one who takes advantage of his brother.

Peter started life as Simon. Since the new name means “Rock,” I always wanted the old name Simon to mean “Sand” or maybe “Cream Puff.” No such luck. According to my Bible dictionary, Simon came from the Old Testament “Simeon” and may have been a form of Samuel. Now, Samuel–there’s a name with a good story behind it.

When Hannah prayed for a child to end her barreness and the harrassment she was being subjected to by her husband’s other wife, God heard and answered. In appreciation, she named the little boy “Sha-mu-el,” because, she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.” But Samuel does not mean “asked of the Lord;” it literally means “heard of the Lord.” The child’s very name was “God answers prayer.”

In the Bible, your name is who you are. It’s not just a handle, your identity, but your reality. That’s why names were so crucial.

God knows your name. He knows the syllables you respond to and He knows the reality of who you are. “I have called you by name,” He says in Scripture.

God gives you a new name. (Isaiah 62:2 and Revelation 2:17 among others.) He makes all things new for you through Christ and fittingly gives you a new name. New reality, new identity–you need a new name.

Every child sooner or later asks Mom and Dad why they were given the names they ended up with. When my maternal grandmother was born in the early 1880s in rural Alabama, the practice was to give a child the names of all the visitors the day of her birth. That’s how Sarah Louisa Martha Tabitha Noles got her name. And why Grandpa called her “Sally,” I suppose.

My oldest brother Ron was named for Ronald Colman, everyone’s favorite movie star in 1935. When I came along, the Joe (alas, not Joseph) came from her uncle Joe Noles and middle name Neil for her cousin Neil Barker. Anyone calling me “Joe Neil” is immediately recognized as a relative who has known me from the beginning.

In Heaven, forget your earthly name. You get a new one. I have no idea what. The reality of Heaven will be so far above the kind of earthly existence we’ve known that only an entirely new language can contain it.

In Bible days, the faithful Jews deemed the name of God so holy they dared not pronounce it lest they be guilty of taking His name in vain. To protect the sanctity of that Name, when one was reading Scripture and came to the written form of the Name, he would simply insert ‘Lord” or “The Name.” Eventually, they forgot even how to pronounce the Lord’s name. When we say “Yahweh,” it’s our attempt to do what they dared not–pronounce the Lord’s name. Why we rush in where they feared to tread is anybody’s guess.

Jesus, who knew better than anyone the specialness of God, taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” Hallowed. Holy. Something very special and unlike everything else. That’s our Father.

No language can tell the wonders of our Lord. No earthly name can hold all He is. We stand in awe of this One who made Heaven and the earth, then revealed Himself to His creation in Jesus Christ.

No one who knows Jesus Christ and the Heavenly Father would ever, ever use the sacred Name in a profane or harsh manner. Let us approach Him with reverence and speak His Name with respect.

We shall be ready for a new language when we arrive at His house. We’ve about used this one up.

10 thoughts on “If You Had Another Name, Would You Still Be You?

  1. I went to school in Tennessee with Justin Smith, which is ordinary enough, except that his middle name was “Other” which yields the phonetic name “Just another Smith”.

    I also went to school with Nun Ney Nix which means “no no no”. We told him that’s what his mother said when she saw him when he was born.

    Mark Puckett

    Prince Edward Island, Canada

  2. I saw a guy on the local news the other day being interviewed about something or another. His name was Epluribus Cunningham. What an aswsome name!

  3. In the 1970’s, a young lady entered the South Central Bell office in Jackson, MS to get phone service. Upon noticing her name on the application, Afterdee Jones, the clerk asked her about it. She said “I was number 14 of 17 kids. My parents had run out of ideas for names and had used up all the family names, so my sister before me was named Dee; they just named me Afterdee because I was next!”

  4. My mom wanted to name me Holly when I was born, but my dad soon changed her mind because our last name was Twiggs. He said that Holly Twiggs would be like naming me Rose Bush, not a good idea. So, my dad named me Ginger, probably after Ginger Rogers, sure wish I could dance like her. Thank you God for my dad!

  5. A very thought provoking title, Brother Joe, and interesting article. But I guess we will have to wait till we get to the “New Heaven and the New Earth” to find out the answer to your leading question. And perhaps we will get a “New Name” as well. Can’t wait!

  6. Bro. Joe,

    I also collect names. However, one of the funniest things I’ve heard was from a doctor friend who saw a patient who had not been in for a while. He greeted her with, “How have things been going?” She told him she had a baby. When he asked the name she replied, “I can’t pronounce it. My sister named her.”

    As funny as that was, my aunt, a preacher’s wife, once asked a lady why she named her son Judas. Sadly the woman told her it would have been better if he had not been born. Imagine that child’s life.


  7. Joe,

    I had a good friend that worked with me in Greensboro, NC and his name was Lester Sandy. He had been dating this young lady for some time and in the process he asked her to marry him and they did. The brides first name was Sandy so her full married name was Sandy Sandy.

    My parents had two names picked out when I was born and if I had a choice in the two I would have choosen Mark Allan Anderson instead of Allan Richard Anderson…yes, I would have been the same person with either name….

    Thank you Joe for your wonderful web site.


  8. Hey…Marty this is Epluribus Cunningham…thanks for the comment. I think my name is awesome too. And to think my mother wanted to name me Aaron Lamar Cunningham because her name began with an A. & L. But my grandmother was determined to name me after my dad…She was into Shaksperian (excuse the spelling) plays and so She found my dad’s name in one of the books she read and saw. Epluribus is a latin word which means “from many…taken from many…out of many”. E=from Plur=Many ibus=latin conjegation. Epluribus Unum was the motto for the United States of America for many years after the Revelotionary War because we became “one (unum) nation, out of many nations.” Cool huh?

  9. Hi, Joe! Just catching up on reading your articles and just had to add some names to your list. I had a student named Ivy who later married her high school sweetheart, John Ivey; hence, she became Ivy Ivey. Several decades ago, I met someone in Birmingham whose name was Don Dunn. My daughter, Jenny, met a girl recently whose name was Abcde (pronounced ab-c-de. That would really be easy to learn to spell.

    Love you! Rebecca

  10. I have known many couples who had his/her names backwards, ie. His name is Carol and her name is Jimmy. However I went to high school with a guy named Marion. Several years later I knew a lady in my church who’se name was Bobby. I soon discovered that Marion and Bobby were brother and sister.

    John Truett

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