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Taken in vain

21 March 2014

iStock

WHAT's in a name? When you are called Janice Keihanaikukauakahi- huliheekahaunaele, it means a great deal of grief at the Passport Office, although Janice - as reported in the press at the end of last year - is so proud of her surname that she has campaigned for its full inclusion on all official documents pertaining to her.

The pride that is taken in a name, and what it says about ourselves, was the subject of two rather different programmes last week. In the first of Radio 4's Lent Talks (Wednesdays), the writer Bonnie Greer discussed the power of names, and the right to call yourself by your own name.

In the film 12 Years a Slave, the central character has his name taken from him. So it was with the thousands of Africans taken into slavery and stripped of identity.

The significance of Jesus's encounter with Pilate, in St John's Gospel, lies partly in Jesus's unwillingness to be named as a king. That, coupled with the self-possession he demonstrates when he refuses to be drawn on the philosophical question of truth, provides a case-study in how to retain power when others seek to wrench it from you.

The proud survival of family names was the subject of last week's The Why Factor (World Service, Friday), and in particular what this told us about social mobility. Although surnames tend to indicate social status at their point of origin, in an early 21st-century society, where social mobility operates, surnames might be expected to be evenly distributed among the social classes. Yet a study that compared the names of students at Oxbridge in 1800 and today shows that names that appeared in 1800 are four times as likely to be found among current registers of students than other names.

More telling still is the fact that in a list of recent parliamentarians, there is an eight-times-greater preponderance of Norman aristocratic names than in the general population. Part of the explanation, however, might be that it has been the custom of arriviste families over the centuries to adopt establishment names.

The question "What's in a name?" forms part of the tortuous theology of the Trinity which Melvyn Bragg and his guests attempted to unpick in In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursday of last week).

Those who come out in a cold sweat at the thought of explaining the Trinity to a Sunday-morning congregation might do worse than hear what the experts - Graham Ward, Janet Soskice, and Martin Palmer - have to say.

It is the Greeks we have to blame, apparently. Their particular brand of thinking, which encouraged fine philosophical distinctions, provided the ideal philosophical toolbox for such problems. But, as Professor Soskice explained, the issue is one that is intrinsic to Christianity.

The question of Jesus's relationship to God is one that occupied the earliest believers.The Trinitarian solution, however, should be regarded not as a foundational belief, but as a "regulatory framework": a conceptual infra-structure on which the different, exquisitely nuanced solutions might be built.

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