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'What's in a name?" - Classroom Discussion

Below are a number of discussion questions exploring the significance of the names we have, and how they influence our identity. Teachers can decide how they would use these stimulus questions for their own students.

'That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.'
[Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet II.ii.]

Activity (before class or at the beginning of the lesson) - students in pairs or groups discuss the following questions:

  1. Why did your parents give you the first names that you have?
  2. Do friends or family ever call you by a different name?
  3. If you could choose a different name for yourself, what would it be, and why would you choose it?
  4. What does the Shakespeare quote above mean? Do you agree with it?

Did you ever think about?

  • How do parents choose names for their children? Do they name their sons and daughters after the loved ones, their own parents, aunts or grannies? Or do they choose a patron saint who would guarantee some protection from the powers above? Maybe their choices reflect their literary interests or a passion for soap operas, or admiration of celebrities. (All those Isauras, Dianas and Roxanas!) And once they have chosen a name, do they always use it consistently? Why do they sometimes feel that the name 'doesn't seem right'. It somehow 'doesn't go with the person'. Why are certain names considered to be suitable and others unsuitable for particular people?
  • A popular Australian actress of Polish origin is called Gosia Dobrowolska. Do you think a Polish actress in Poland would like to be known as 'Gosia' rather than 'Małgorzata'? Why?
  • Think of a teddy bear from your childhood days. Was it male or female? Do teddy bears have sex? What sex is Winnie-the-Pooh? To the millions of Polish readers Winnie-the-Pooh is 'he' and has the male name 'Kubuś Puchatek'. And yet in one of the Polish translations of Milne's book the bear is certainly female and her name is 'Fredzia Phi Phi'. After all, Winnie is a short form of Winifred, which is a woman's name. Which name would you rather choose? Why?
  • At a poetry seminar one of the participants asked the following question to the person who presented a paper about the poetry of Louis MacNeice: 'Isn't Louis a rather unusual name for a Northern Irish poet?' Do names carry information about the person's religion? And if a man's second name is 'Maria', must he be Catholic?
  • Think of women getting married. Sometimes they adopt the names of their husbands, sometimes they retain their maiden names. They may also use both names with a hyphen. How are such choices made? What factors are considered? Is it the question of which name sounds better? Is it a matter of convenience? And if not only, what else? And if the couple decide to get divorced, do women always decide to return to their maiden names?
  • During an official ceremony of presenting the prizes to the winners at a film festival, one of the actresses receiving the statuette corrected the person who had been introducing the winners and said 'Actually my name is Maja, not Majka.' What's wrong with using diminutive forms, terms of endearment or names suggesting familiarity during public ceremonies? Does it matter which sphere of life the celebrities are from? Are certain forms of address more appropriate for television presenters, artists or show-biz people than politicians, government officials, and church representatives? Why?
  • In the late 1950s Pamela Travers' series of books about Mary Poppins was published in Poland. The heroine's name was changed from 'Mary Poppins' to 'Agnieszka'. Why wasn't the name translated to 'Marysia', if Mary Poppins sounded too foreign? Maybe because it smacked too much of master - servant relations, which was ideologically wrong at the time. Fortunately the editions of the 1980s featured the real heroine, including her true name. As a reader do you like to have the names translated into their equivalent versions?
  • A few years ago I read in a local newspaper two innocently sounding phrases 'film według powieści Harpera Lee' and 'utwór Carsona McCullersa'. The journalists obviously assumed that both American writers were male. What makes the Polish critic so sure that 'Harper' and 'Carson' are men's names that they don't bother to check? Is it simply because in Polish women's names end in 'a'? But there are exceptions, like Miriam or Dagny. And anyway, what sounds 'male' or 'female' in one language, may sound completely different in another. Are such mistakes only a matter of sloppy journalism?

Follow-up activities:

You might like now to try the 'Gender Bender Names' quiz.

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