“What’s in a Name?” the playwright, William Shakespeare, famously asked in Romeo and Juliet. Quite a bit, says Jessica Taylor, a lecturer in linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto.
Linguistic anthropology is the comparative study of the ways language shapes social life, and Taylor offered some insights into names during a lesson at last week’s SPUR Young Scholars Day at the university.
Names, she said, not only identify individuals, but they point to social meanings that may vary according to culture. In Italy, for example, Romeo is a serious name that translates to Pilgrim to Rome. To English speakers, however, the name often connotes a lover, a colloquial meaning based on the hero in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Different versions of a name can also indicate how close a relationship two people have. The boss may call his employee James; his best friend may call him by his nickname, Jim; while his mother may be one of the few people who calls him Jimmy, his childhood nickname.
These linguistic layers of meaning certainly cast a different light on the rest of the quote from Romeo and Juliet: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”