Meaningful Name-Giving

23 December 2006. Simbanggabi
Malachi 3, 1-4, 23-24; Luke 1, 57-66

When Zechariah and Elizabeth had to name their son, they have to make the occasion very special. It was the custom in Palestine that the naming of a boy should be eight days after childbirth, and usually the son is named after his father or some ancestor in the family. Naturally, the neighbors expected Zechariah, but Zechariah and Elizabeth defied convention in obedience to God, and so named their son, John meaning “God’s graciousness”. The name John also described who and what John was for them: having been childless, God has given them a son out of his graciousness to them in their old age. Naming is a serious matter.

What’s in a name? In the Old Testament, we find that names of individuals are meaningful. Adam is named after the earth (Adama) from which he was created. The primary purpose of giving something a name is identity: when it’s not around for you to point at, you can refer to it by name. For example, even if you don’t know what a pencil sharpener looks like, you can still figure out what that this does. The beginning of knowledge is to call things by their right names. Giving a name to a person, a module, a thing, a class or a process is a sign that you truly understand the concept and what it’s supposed to do. Elza Dinwiddie-Boyd said that a name is not all that you are, but it is certainly what you are first known by. And parents should take into consideration that historically kids have been teased when they had very unusual, different and odd names. I baptized a baby once in Bukidnon whose name was Sixbam, a contraction of Sixto and Bambi who are her parents.

Certain given names now are being changed for the same reason: their names give them identity, and so if their names mean something indecent and shameful in another tongue, they might as well change it. In Philippine history, many Filipino names have been Hispanized on November 21, 1849 when Governor General Narciso Claveria ordered a systematic distribution of family names for the native Filipinos to use. In the Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos are the names distributed to families in towns: these names are still evident in the Provinces of Iloilo, Albay or Bohol. However, there were names that were retained such as Maglaban, Magtanggol, Mangahas among others. They were perhaps members of the warrior class or the ruling class. But some names are unfortunate.

GMA 7’s I-Witness once featured a documentary called, “Sa Ngalan ng Pangalan” with Howie Severino featuring two clans. (Now, I have reservations printing them here, but I guess we can be mature readers and these names are facts.) The first clan is the Pecpec clan of Ilocos Norte. The story tells us of James Pecpec who cannot have a girlfriend; and his sister, Erica, who doesn’t want to go to college. In the Ilocos, the name “pecpec” means full as in a basket brimming with fruit. In addition, one of their ancestors was a revolutionary who fought with General Artemio Ricarte of Batac, Ilocos Norte. The older members of the clan did not want their names changed, except the younger ones who need to go to Manila to study. James sought GMA 7’s help to change his surname.

The second clan is the Bagongahasa clan of Paete, Laguna. Mr. Bagongahasa was a retired US Navy man who placed his name all over his house, while his cousin, a Barangay Captain and the ladies of the Bagongahasa clan desperately want their surname changed: so they are so eager to marry anyone just to shed their name. (One of our Vocation Workshop participants is a relative of the Bagongahasa. His family name is now Bhasa.)

If these two clans desperately want their names changed, then names matter. The Babylonian Talmud maintains that names exert an influence over their bearers.

Second, the change of name marks a change of identity, status and lifestyle. Here is a short list of Biblical personages who changed their names: Abram to Abraham (‘Father of a Multitude’); Jacob to Israel (‘God’s strong one’), the apostle of Elijah called himself Elisha (‘The small Elijah’), Simon to Peter (The Rock) and Saul of Tarsus to Paul (from persecutor to disciple of Christ).

Hector Santos writes in his blog, “As we planted our roots in the US, we started calling ourselves by more popular American names. Pedring is now Peter; Carlos or Carling is now Charles or Chuck; German is now Gerry but not Germs or Marcelina is now Marsha. I do not fault these names changing, perhaps, it’s their way of discarding the old ways and announcing their new found life by making their names more adaptive to the people they will be living with from hereon.” Here is some funny renames: Gregorio Talahib becomes George Bush; Esteban Magtaka becomes Stevie Wonder; Remigio Batungbacal becomes Remington Steel; Leo Mangubat becomes Tiger Woods; Ligaya Anonuevo becomes Happy New Year!

Those who enter religious life like nuns, priests and brothers change their names or add a name to their given names. The practice depends on the congregation one joins. For example, Ms. Joy dela Cruz is now Sr. Annunciata Cruz, FGH (the name of the congregation). Many Jesuits have vow names added. Mine is Ignacio Maria. I took it when I had my perpetual vows on 31st May 1991. It symbolizes a change of status. This is the reason why many of us add a Christian name when we were baptized. The name of a saint or an episode in the life of Jesus gives a boy or a girl a certain guide to emulate.

In the Philippines, we would have seen social history in the preferences in names and the slow change from Spanish names to Catholic saints to English names. We have the first list compiled in 1905 (with 1,000 names) and 1915 (with 2,700 names). We can see the whole life of Christ through these names: Conception, Annunciation, Visitacion, Presentation, Natividad, Purificacion, Epifania, Transfiguracion and Resurrection. No one however used Circumcision or Crucifixion as their names.

Let me end: If names give identity and tell us about our life and history; and if a change of name is necessary for a change in lifestyle; then perhaps we can ask this question to reflect on: If I am given a second chance to change my name into something meaningful and that describes my relationship with God (as John is “God is gracious”), what would I call myself? Or, we are all Christians and the name of Christ is sealed in our names, how have I contributed to its dignity or shame?


Anonymous said...

And I thought “pecpec” meant vagina...

Jessel Gerard said...

Yes, in Manila, "pecpec" means vagina. Thus, the clamor for a change in name. Identity is precious.