Appearances are deceptive, for hitherto the expression What's in
a name? has not been a question but a saying with the meaning
that names do not matter.
The idea dates back at least 420 years, to William Shakespeare's play
Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene II) in which Juliet says to
Romeo from her family's rival house of Montague:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. ...
Now, as far as this play is concerned, we may agree with Juliet that
it does not matter what Romeo's name is, and that he will be 'equally
perfect' without it.
However, can we accept, in this day and age, that Juliet (and William
call rose "a name"?
No, Rose is, but rose is a word!
And the difference between words and names is as fundamental as in set
theory the difference between a set and its one or more members.
(Even a singleton is not identical to its only member.)
The members of a set may all have names, and yet, even if these names
are all different there is a noun, such as rose or, at
least theoretically, a noun phrase, such as human being which
refers to all of them individually, and to the class
Once we use the word name in its proper sense, the question
What's in a name? becomes a real one to which an answer
diametrically opposed to what is implied in Romeo and Juliet
What, for instance, would Juliet, whose Italian name is
Giulietta, have thought of Romeo if his first name had ended in
an a instead of an o; would she still have fallen in love
(Traditional Italian is not the only language to have no, or hardly
any, sex-and gender-transcending names for persons.
Full names for boys and men end in o, and those for girls and
women in a, or else e, in Italian.
The male name Andrea is an exception.)
Of course, there are cases in which the one name or the other
does not make any difference, but in too many other cases there is a
tiny difference, a huge difference, or something in between.
Names or systems of naming may express and remind us of sexual
if not sexism, or
they may express and remind us of the beliefs and practices of
political and religious, or other
and they may express and remind us of the verbal symbols and symbolism
of a particular speech community, or a group of such communities.
It is considerations to this effect which constitute the content of my
As far as its form is concerned, What's in a Name? consists
basically of four stanzas of four lines of eighteen to twenty
syllables long (with history pronounced |HIS-tri|); only the
last stanza contains two extra lines of fifteen and fourteen
Each of these long lines —too long for an ordinary poem—
consists of two predefined halves of approximately the same lengths,
so that the prose poem can very well be presented at either full width
or at half width, especially on pixel screens; and, later on, also on
There is no planned meter or rime scheme, but those who are sensitive
to it will notice the rough-and-ready alliteration in phrases such
as sounds and syllables (|SAUNDZ an
SI·l·a·b·alz|) and the more sophisticated
alliteration in phrases such as capable and inclusive
(|KEI·p·a·b·al and in-KLOO·s·iv|).
(For the meaning and use of alliteration, see my
Vocabulary of Alliteration.)