Monday, 22 April 2013

Sifting for Names - Nominative determinism?

  I've been wondering if the FBI, MI5 and other security agencies "filter" or "sift" for names as well as extreme language. I was surprised, even shocked, when, a few years ago MI5 advertised openly in the press for people to monitor phone calls, emails and social media. I think the question: "Do you speak Arabic, Farsi or other foreign languages?" featured in the copy. But I think what shocked me was that the recruitment was carried out by a private firm called "Tribal": it seemed horribly inappropriate, or do I mean the opposite? A far cry, anyway, from the discreet tap on the shoulder in the common room. Or being asked, as I was, to do Chemistry 'A' Level by Mr Norwood, husband of Melita, the very successful nuclear "grandmother spy".

  Names have been in my mind particularly this week after another terrorist attack. The FBI were said to have had the suspects under observation for some time but found "nothing derogatory" against them. I wondered if the name Tamerlan was seen as significant? Timur, Tamberlaine, known as "the sword of Islam"? In Marlowe's play, at least, he talks of "the terror of my name" and says "our swords shall play the orators for us". Can names indicate a mind-set, of the parents, or of the person who adopts a name? Would anyone strive to live up to their name, to be a hero, a defender of the faith, a sword and champion? Is nominative or nominal determinism (the second sounds better to me, and is shorter) no more than a joke?

  Probably - and it is foolish to read too much into names. After all, many people are unaware of the origins of names, even those they give to their children. And etymologies are ancient and have little resonance now, otherwise we might not use, say, Campbell, from Gaelic for "crooked mouth". Or we might avoid the lovely name Pandora, "all the gifts", because of the myth of the first woman "created by the fire god Hephaistos as a scourge for men in general" and with a box that "unleashed every type of hardship and suffering on the world" (Oxford Names Companion, 2002). We might hesitate even with Mary, thought by some to mean "star of the sea", but by others to come from Hebrew for "plump princess", no doubt a great compliment at the time. And many Christian and Biblical names, and no doubt some from Hindu and other traditions, have quite war-like or even bloody origins.

But I can't help wondering if they give some attention to names with meanings or connotations of war, weapons and martyrdom.

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