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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

April A-Z: Names

Names have power. We all instinctively know this. It's because of this power that, in some belief systems, deities may not be named.

This is of course why a cluster of taboo words in English euphemise the names of God, Jesus Christ and even Hell. Many curses and swear words in Early Modern English derive from this area, albeit sometimes obliquely, as shown in Shakespeare's writing:
  • Zounds (god's wounds - a reference to Christ)
  • Gadzooks (god's hooks - a reference to the nails from the cross) 
  • By Jove (the christian god could not be named on stage, so this Roman god was selected instead)
Words like heck and Sam Hill appear in later Englishes as variants of 'hell', showing a fear of naming that cursed place. This practice is made use of by Rowling in her treatment of Voldemort's name.

In more everyday contexts, our tradition for naming children formally at christenings or baptisms can be seen as a throwback to an older idea. Knowing someone's name gives you power over them, so it's safest to only reveal a child's full name once they've been ritually consecrated and placed under a god's protection.

Finally, this is also one reason that secret societies would re-name initiates: it acknowledges a new identity, but also cements a bond. Since only members of that group know your name and therefore wield that power over you, a high degree of trust is explicit within that group.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post! I've always loved the word "gadzooks" .....


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