It was in Shakespeare’s tale of warring families and the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet where this questioning phrase first appeared:
‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.’
So what is indeed in a name?
Names have a power and an intensity all of their own. By naming we impart identity and belonging, association and family. Names can confer status and meaning. Just look at the number of books aspirant parents can purchase when they are at the point of choosing a name for their as yet unborn child. Equally names can indicate age or cultural background and heritage. Indeed not so long ago there was a debate about whether some names were more likely than others to offer greater advancement and opportunity to their holder.
What we are called matters to us. We grow into our birth names, or change or shorten or adapt them to suit who we are and what we want to present to the world.
So it is important that we hold on to that part of our identity which is captured in the way in which we allow and expect others to address us.
The American novelist and blogger Ronni Bennett (see www.timegoesby.net/) was advanced in years when she wrote:
“Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t call me honey or sweetie. My name is Ms. Bennett.”
When I first started working in social services it was not uncommon for staff, especially for folks with a learning disability, to use language such as ‘the girls’ or ‘the boys’ or to treat individuals in a manner as if despite their elder age, they had somehow moved to the other end of the age spectrum. Most said at the time that it portrayed a sense of caring and nurture. I remember too how a very proud older relative objected audibly to me that she was made to feel like a child by the staff in the hospital ward she was temporarily resident within.
In older people’s services in care homes and care at home/housing support I think by in large we have long since moved on to use language respectful of age and individuality. The same alas is not true of wider society.
I still come across professionals and others in our communities whose attitudes to age and those who are old are very unreconstructed. Names or language may seem an incidental issue on which to focus but its an issue that lies at the heart of the dignity and human valuing which good care and support offers.
But language can also foster and perpetuate stereotypes. I have read recently of the work of Becca Levy, the Yale professor of epidemiology and psychology. Her research focuses on ageism and highlights that most of the stereotypes around ageism are developed and adapted when we are still very young. Reinforced as we grow older, they can then become self-stereotypes with dangerous consequences. Her studies have shown these negative beliefs can diminish our own individual capacities and can as a consequence reduce and affect the quality of our life and longevity.
“Stereotyping also stops us from knowing the person behind the assumption. Which explains why some people shout at the elderly even if there’s no hearing problem or when adult children take over the decision-making of a still-capable parent.”
So according to Levy it is very important that we counter negative stereotyping with positive images of ageing and being old with our young children. Her work highlighted one study where 66 percent of 4 to 7-year-olds said they wouldn’t want to be old. In another, the majority of reactions from all children asked how they’d feel about becoming elderly were rated as negative. They included, “I would feel awful.”
Seeing age as a positive in nursery rather than as something to be avoided would be a start to addressing the stereotypes! Using language and names that affirm individuality and identity rather than using language to depersonalise and diminish would equally help.
So what’s in a name? The whole of a person’s life, rich and potential; full and meaningful; past story and future living. So let’s not limit our naming and let’s challenge the stereotypes.
Dr Donald Macaskill