Should we name our children to please ourselves and show off our creativity, or for their self-image and self-respect? There’s a lot more to a name than you thought
A society called Bird Names for Birds is aggressively pushing for a reevaluation to replace colonial bird names with more scientific or descriptive ones. Representation Illustration
I don’t believe my siblings and I ever discussed our triple-barrelled names. South Indian tradition requires that the first name be the family’s place of origin and the second the father’s given name. These two are mandated and non-negotiable. The parents have a say only on the third, the child’s given name.
In my case, this led to Chitoor Yegnanarayan Gopinath, shortened to Gopi. Despite its potential for toilet jokes, it has stuck.
We knew that our names were unwieldy, unpronounceable and out of sync with formal naming conventions. They would require elaborate cultural footnotes at parties. In youth, I would chafe when asked to state my ‘Christian name’ and a ‘Family name’ though that colonial imposition has thankfully been modified to First, Middle and Surname.
However, I’ve never had a surname either. South Indians have always been families without family names. You have always assumed, wrongly, that my first name is my given name, and the last my family’s.
Anticipating complications in a digital, Aadhaar-driven world, my siblings abandoned tradition and quietly became Narayans and are living happily ever after to the best of my knowledge.
I remain the holdout and pay a price for it, including sometimes being introduced as a village named Chitoor.
But today’s column is not about me. It’s about how mindlessly and cruelly we name the world around us, not just our babies. Where better to start than Elon Musk, the world’s looniest billionaire, who has so far been presented with nine opportunities to name a child and blown it almost every time.
As part of his bit to solve what he calls the world’s “underpopulation” problem, Musk has tirelessly sired child after child with woman after woman, blessing or dooming each of these babies with offbeat names only he could have dreamed up, such as Saxon, Griffin, Azure and Strider.
My heart goes out, however, to his two children with musician Grimes. The first, a son born in 2020, is named like the tracking number on a DHL package: X Æ A-12 Musk, pronounced Ex-Ash-A-Twelve.
The second, a daughter born the following year, is Exa Dark Sideræl Musk.
Whether it’s your child, dog, a rare bird or a new virus, ego and power are involved in nomenclature. You own what you name. I was helpless when my name, like a Neuralink chip implant, was given to me. Though I can legally rename myself once an adult, as my siblings did, tinkering with the spelling to improve luck is about as far as most people get.
But why do I even need three names? And if a place must be included, why not Kottayam, where I was born, instead of Chitoor, where no one I know was born? Why is my father’s name there but not my mother’s? Why should any parent’s name be there at all? Am I my father’s son but not my mother’s?
Which brings me to birds, since we name them recklessly, too. If you’re a bird-watcher, you’d be familiar with names such as Allen’s Hummingbird, Bachman’s Sparrow, McKay’s Bunting and Lawrence’s Goldfinch, among hundreds of others. You will not come across a Bhardwaj’s Quail or a Charulata’s Two-Tailed Sparrow, and could be forgiven for concluding that all birds were discovered by men, all of them white.
The white Europeans who colonised the world and named its birds as though they personally owned them ignored the fact that native people had known those birds for centuries.
Worse, some of the white men who immortalised themselves by sticking their monickers on birds were enslavers, white supremacists and grave robbers infamous in their times. For example, the Crimson Jameson’s Firefinch is named after British naturalist James Jameson, who bought a young girl as “a joke” in 1888 in Africa. He then gifted her to a tribe of cannibals and later drew sketches of the child being stabbed and dismembered.
Even John James Audubon, founder of the Audubon Society, whose name is synonymous with ornithology, was an enslaver who mocked people trying to free blacks from slavery. An oriole, warbler and shearwater are named after him.
Change is coming to the naming of birds. A society called Bird Names for Birds is aggressively pushing for a reevaluation to replace colonial bird names with more scientific or descriptive ones.
The American Ornithological Society, the world’s foremost birding society, announced last month after two years of discussion that birds will no longer have human names. The names of North American birds that honour people will be replaced with words that describe their plumage and other traits.
That might be a good cue to reflect on whether we should name our children to please ourselves and show off our creativity, or for their self-image and self-respect. I only need one name for identification, not three, and since the South Indian system never had a family name and I’ve never been to the village of Chitoor, ‘Gopinath’ by itself feels perfectly adequate.
Perhaps I should have been a bird. They might have called me a Bright-eyed Bushy-tailed Gopinath (Homo skepticus). Or maybe Yegnanarayan’s Warbler.
You can reach C Y Gopinath at email@example.com
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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.