clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Why names can be important

When I went off to college, I encountered a classmate who would become a lifelong friend. His name was Samuel Craig Plummer IV. Before I encountered Sam, I had known a few "juniors" who bore their fathers' given names, but no one who had perpetuated a family name for four consecutive generations.

Although I'm not exactly a "junior" myself, I bear one of my father's Christian names — Thomas — and I'm married to a woman who proudly carries the name of a beloved ancestor. When my eldest daughter gave birth to her own daughter this year, she honored my wife by naming the child after her.

In this time of disintegrating family life, fashions have changed. The distinguished African-American journalist William Raspberry laments the fact that single black mothers no longer look first to their ancestors for their daughters' names. Instead, they manufacture names that cannot be found in "Butler's Lives of the Saints," or anywhere else, for that matter.

If you recall the TV sitcom "Moesha," the show's heroine was given a name that reflected no family history or faith.

A Moesha by any other name might gain a better appreciation of herself because of her family history. The same goes for the growing numbers of Tiffanys, Barbies, Britannys and Madonnas. In an age when every child hungers for self-esteem, it's doubly hard to construct an identity when there is no past to build upon nor married parents to depend on.

When families become dysfunctional, it is not just a private tragedy but a public one. Every taxpayer must pick up the pieces, providing additional housing, health care, welfare, police and prison space. Governments, churches and private agencies cannot substitute for families committed by marriage.

Sociologist Melanie Phillips predicts that "solitary lifestyles and the reluctance to form permanent relationships will destroy the networks of kinship that caused generations to look after not just their children but their elderly parents."

Cohabitation, she notes, is vastly inferior to marriage. Cohabiting couples break up much more often, and their subsequent marriages are unstable. Phillips notes that, by the time they reach their mid-teens, only 36 percent of children of cohabiting parents are being cared for by both mother and father, compared with 70 percent of children born to married parents.

The marriage bond is no longer promoted as society's standard for fear of stigmatizing the children of single parents. Well, writes Phillips, "Children whose parents are convicted of crime feel stigmatized," too. She demands: "Does anyone suggest that therefore criminal offenses should be abolished?"

Unmarried couples do not share a family name, and unmarried parents only rarely pass along names of forebears of whom their children can be proud.

What's in a name? As an infant, a recent ambassador from Mexico to the United States was named Jesus by his mother and father. Now there's a name for a diplomat to live up to!

David Yount's latest book is "Celebrating the Single Life: Keys to Successful Living on Your Own" (Praeger). He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and dyount31(at)