What’s in a name?

I once knew a statuesque, red-headed American girl who changed her name by deed poll from Khrystynne to Ruby. She figured she had outgrown the former and was slowly morphing into the latter. By making the public choice of changing her name, she sought to fast-forward that transition. When she introduced Ruby to her world, I remember wondering if anything else about her would change. I seem to recall that Ruby took up belly-dancing and that her name was now a lot easier to spell and that simply being called ‘Ruby’ made her happy.

I know an attractive, red-headed Irish girl who changed her name by deed poll from Mary to Biddy. She’d been given that name by her classmates on her first day at high school and it had stuck. To everyone other than her immediate family, she was Biddy. So about ten years ago, she decided to make it legal… a matter of the paperwork catching up with what had become her reality.  Nothing changed. People were already calling her Biddy and she was already happy.

A lasting legacy

That both are red-headed is merely coincidence.  That both are women is pure chance. Both went to the not-inconsiderable hassle of legally changing their given names. The reasoning of one was proactive; the other, reactive.  There’s a Japanese proverb that goes along the lines of: Tigers die and leave their skins; people die and leave their names. Perhaps, subconsciously, that’s what both had in mind: a legacy that most accurately reflects who they are.

Imposing order on perception

The recent flurry of name changes in Budapest intrigues me.  Twenty-six streets and squares in the city will either be named or re-named. Some, like Moszkva tér, are reverting back to their original names (Széll Kálmán tér); others are being subjected, yet again, to completely new names; and more, previously nameless, are to be christened for the first time. Now, instead of pointing vaguely towards that anonymous patch of green on the Buda side of Margit híd, we can direct tourists with some degree of authority towards Elvis Presley tér.

But what about the hassle involved for those whose addresses have changed:  customers, clients, friends, and family all have to be advised; mail needs to be redirected; and if your property purchase was motivated in any way by its address… well, that’s just unfortunate.  But at the end of the day, does it really matter what these places are called? According to landscape artist and author, David S. Slawson (look him up if you’re even remotely interested in Japanese gardens), “Names are an important key to what a society values.  Anthropologists recognize naming as ‘one of the chief methods for imposing order on perception’.”  It begs the question as to whether our perception needs to be so ordered.

One house, two addresses

My mother lives in Hoganswood, my father lives in Firmount, and yet they have been married for 45 years and have always lived together. Our house sits half-way between two crossroads about a mile and half from a small village in County Kildare. Whether it sits in Hoganswood or Firmount is a question unlikely to be resolved in my lifetime; my parents have long since accepted the fact that it is pointless in either one trying to change the other’s mind. So letters to my mother come addressed to her at Hoganswood, and letters to my father, to Firmount. Over the years, each local postman has handed on the mantel of bemusement with a resigned shrug of his shoulders when he retired. For my parents, perception is reality. It suits them both and both are happy.

A square by any other name

But let’s get back to Budapest. I can’t help but think of those living in Köztársaság tér. They’ve already changed their address from Népköztársaság tér back in 1990 and now will have to do so again, this time to János Pál papa tér. I wonder how impressed they are. I seriously considered buying a flat there (complete with baby grand piano) when I first came to Budapest. I wonder if the name of the square would have influenced my decision. Had I bought it and were I now faced with the not-insignificant cost of changing the seat of my KFT because of a name-change not of my choosing, I’d not be too impressed (but perhaps all such charges resulting from the recent changes will be covered by the appropriate authorities). If I bore any deep-seated resentment towards the late JPII, or was an avowed atheist, I’d not be too happy either.

But perhaps none of these changes really matter at all.  They’re just part of life as we know it. That well-worn Irish joke comes to mind: Call me what you like, as long as it’s not too early in the morning.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 May 2011

Erratum: David A. Slawson not David S. Slawson, as pointed out by a reader.


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  1. I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.
    Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936), The Elephant’s Child (1902)

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