What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Valentines Day was the last thing on my mind when I thought of this quote. Yet, here we are on February 14 and I’m writing about Romeo and Juliet.
But, what is interesting to me in this interchange between Shakespeare’s iconic lovers is not their passionate declaration of love, but rather their disavowal of the importance of names. In this quote, Juliet argues that Romeo is not solely defined by his name Montague, and that regardless of this name he will always be her beloved. But, Juliet—what is in a name?
This question is close to my heart, as I have a complicated history with names…
My mother gave me a beautiful name—Tara Marie Blevins. The first change came when I was 10; my mother married my stepfather and Blevins became Wilson. I was happy to have my new father’s name, but still it didn’t seem like mine. In my twenties, I studied in England and changed the pronunciation of my name; I grew tired of explaining that my first name was not “t-e-r-r-o-r”, so “Tear-uh” became “Tahr-uh”. In my late twenties I got married, and took my husband’s name Zafft. Wilson had always felt borrowed, and I wanted something that was mine, so at the age of 28, I became Tara Zafft. The final change came last year after my conversion, when I decided to go by Yael, my Hebrew name.
What a lot of names! Why all the changes? Did I think that a new name would give me a new identity?
I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that. On the one hand, I do think that names define you. Yael is definitely a Jewish name. I love it and a lot of consideration went into choosing it, yet at times I miss Tara. Mrs. Zafft means I am married, that I took my husband’s name, but I know my feminist colleagues from graduate school must be scratching their heads.
But I am not solely defined by my name. I didn’t suddenly become sophisticated when I changed the pronunciation of my name; nor did I lose my feminist activism by becoming a Mrs., and by becoming Yael, I definitely didn’t discard my respect for and remembrance of my very eclectic spiritual journey.
We have names and titles and roles and religions and nationalities and all of these do largely define us. Yet we are also more than these things. I love words. I’m a writer, but I fully acknowledge that words can only hint at the full truth. Names we are given and names we choose are just a glimpse of our wholeness. We can play with them, dance with them, revere them, or discard them. I encourage you to collect words and names that are close to your heart, names that define your passions and convictions and loves, remembering that they are only a tiny indication of your ineffable, ephemeral self.
And at the end of the day, my family keeps me grounded, because to them I’m still honey, sweetie or mom…those beautiful words remain. So in the end, I think I agree with Juliet– a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.