What’s in a name?

robert harris loading coffee

I have a new-found respect for the work of William Shakespeare, after seeing Romeo and Juliet performed onstage these last couple of nights. He tells a great story, and the words coming from the actors’ mouths are secondary to the emotions being displayed. That’s what doesn’t come through in simply trying to read the plays. The annotations get tiresome, and the fact is these plays weren’t written to be read; they were written to be staged. For the first time in my life, I understand that.

Maybe Shakespeare’s most well-known line–and he has many of them–is in the balcony scene, where Juliet calls “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” People who don’t know the first thing about Shakespeare know that line, 400 years after Shakespeare first penned it. But there’s another, also well-known line that Juliet speaks in the same scene.

Juliet is trying to come to terms with the fact that Romeo is a Montague, and she is a Capulet. Their families are enemies, and Juliet cannot understand why that should get in the way of her feelings about him. She asks the audience “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose would, by any other name, smell just as sweet.” And he’s got a point there.

Abraham Lincoln–who was known to be an avid Shakespeare enthusiast–would ask this question of his son: “How many legs does a dog have, if you call a tail a leg?” His son would answer “Five legs” and Lincoln would say no, reminding his son that calling a tail a leg did not make it a leg. The gist of this, I think, is that you can name something whatever you like, but that does not change what that thing actually is.

I use Shakespeare and Lincoln, two men I have great respect for, to bring up the fact that I have a very good name, but also a very common one. I share my name with many, many people and, as I discovered this week, an AP reporter in Great Britain.

So when a story that I wrote–under the name I’ve used in everyday life since I was about 12–became a big thing on the internet, I have no doubt that this reporter got inquiries and calls from people thinking that he wrote it. I hope this wasn’t an annoyance for him, and I apologize if this was the case. It’s mildly frustrating for me because I don’t write for a living–although I’d like to think it might happen some day–but getting recognition for what you do is half the battle. And that’s impossible if someone else shares that same name.

There was a band in Los Angeles in the early 1970s that called themselves Mammoth. They started playing in clubs, doing the things that a band has to do to get noticed, but they had a problem. There was already a band named Mammoth, and people were never going to get to know their Mammoth if they had to figure out which one it was. So the newer band changed their name to reflect the last name of the guitarist and the drummer, and so Van Halen took flight. I think that name change worked out pretty well for them, so I’m going to try it for myself.

I can’t use the more formal version of my name, since that’s also the name of an established novelist (and I’m very fond of his work). It’s the name of a coffeehouse chain in New Zealand, as well, and one of my goals in life is to one day go to New Zealand, so I can walk around with a cup of coffee bearing my name (and his). So that’s out, too.

The most logical thing to do, then, is to look to my middle name. I’ve written before about how much I admire Lincoln, and how fortunate I feel to carry his name around with me through life. I’ll never be Abraham Lincoln–nobody could–but I can honor him, while also setting myself apart from all the others who share my name. So my Twitter handle is now going to be my pen name, as well. And if there’s anyone else out there using that name, they’re just going to have to get used to the competition.

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