What’s Does Your Name Say About You?

May 10, 2016

Categories: Culture

Have you ever thought about what your name means?

One of the things I try to get my students to think about is how they identify culturally. Sometimes (especially for White students), culture can be kind of invisible. If I’m part of the dominant culture, my cultural worldview can just seem ‘normal’ or ‘the way things are.’ It’s important to understand that my cultural worldview is a real thing, even if I’m not always aware of it.

One exercise I like to have my students do is to think about what their name means. If you’re interested/willing, I’d like to invite you to do the same exercise.

Sit down and take out a blank sheet of paper. Write your full name (whatever you understand that to mean). Then, for each part of your name, write about what that part of the name means to you. Just write whatever comes to mind. For example, if you have any knowledge about why your parents picked your name(s), write that down. Were you named after a family member? If so, what did that person represent? Does your name have any sort of meaning in your language or culture? What does your name tell you about your racial/ethnic or national heritage?

I’ll give you an example with my own name. My full name is Joshua Nord Hook.

The name Joshua means ‘God Saves.’ The name came from an Israelite leader in the Old Testament. Joshua is best known for being strong and courageous. My parents are persons of faith, and I think part of the reason they gave me this name is because they valued faith. It’s interesting, as I have grown older; the name Joshua also represents some of my mixed feelings about religion and Christianity. For example, Joshua is also known for the Battle of Jericho, in which God ordered the destruction of an entire city. The connection between religion and violence is something I struggle with a lot.

My middle name (Nord) is my mother’s maiden name. My parents wanted my name to include parts from both my mother’s and father’s family heritage. The name Nord represents my Norwegian and Swedish heritage. My mother and grandmother are connected with this part of my family heritage. They cook traditional Norwegian foods at holidays, and my mother has visited Norway and Sweden. I think the fact that my parents wanted my name to include both sides of my family also represents egalitarian gender values that were important in my family growing up.

My last name (Hook) represents my father’s family heritage, which is German and English. I’m not as connected with those parts of my cultural background. I think part of the reason is that my father’s parents were missionaries in Taiwan, so my father grew up overseas, and then back in the United States on his own in boarding school. He wasn’t as connected with his ethnic background, and so I wasn’t as connected with those parts of my ethnic background either.

Action Step: Try working through this exercise and write down some information about each part of your name. Ask a family member or friend what their name means to them, and share what you discovered about your own name. Who knows, you might learn something new or make a cool connection.


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