30.12.11

Names and Naming, p3

3. Name Avoidance

Westerners, who have all but lost the notion of the power of names (not to mention spirit evocation), may find the notion of name avoidance a very alien one. Yet it is very widespread, with different degrees of avoidance. If you say Rest in peace when mentioning a deceased person, you are practicing a remains of this old custom. Arab-speaking people do not avoid names, but they will not mention a dead acquaintance without adding Allah yerhamo or Allah yerhama ("May God honor him or her"). Whether it's to protect the dead person or the speaker, I couldn't say.

Among the Choctaw a dead family member is never called by name. One will also, when possible, avoid using his or her name, and a wife will mention her husband by "father of so-and-so". The Delaware similarly refer to their children by their birth order to avoid disclosing their true names, which are too powerful to be mentioned outside the family. The Delaware, like the Shawnee, do not re-use names, certainly not dead people's. The name and the person are one, and the name is buried with them. Australian aborigines take it even more seriously: when a member of band dies, anyone bearing a similar name will use a conventional avoidance name so as not to call up grief or the angry spirit. But also, any vocabulary word reflecting the name needs to be changed for many years.
Yiddish-speaking Jews (the Ashkenazim), on the other hand, don't mind naming someone after a dead relative. However, they don't name children after a living older relative for the simple reason that the angel of Death, when coming to take the elder, may make a mistake. People who marry into the family may need to change their names to be safeguarded from this threat.

In Viêt Nam the belief in the power of names is such that a person's true name is not used even within their family. Nicknames or pseudonyms are used, the latter being the name of the person's shop, business, status etc. You could be called Mr. McDonald to protect your name. All scholars publish under pseudonyms, and deceased people get a posthumous new name. If a word used in the name of a family member comes up during conversation, it will be avoided by using a synonym or, if it's not possible to use a substitute, the word is mispronounced in order to respect the name bearer.
Similarly, Hawaiian high nobles had names too powerful to be used outside the immediate family. They had a public name for other uses, and sometimes also an honorific one denoting their public image. Tahitians beat the record by requiring that syllables used in the name of a great noble must not be used in everyday languages, so that many words must be borrowed or invented. The names lose their meaning then, becoming noble sounds instead of words.

The reverse can happen: some words can be banned from being included in a name. Early Indians considered it primitive and a bad influence on women to call a girl after "a constellation, a tree, river, mountain, bird, servant or terror". The Prophet also forbade his followers to use unworthy names such as War or Dog. In a similar line, one can assume the previously respectable name Adolf has nearly fallen out of use after WWII...