What’s in a Name?

By Randy Jackson

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet professes her love for Romeo despite the underlying feud between their families, by saying: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In saying this, Juliet expresses the notion that the name of something is of less importance than the underlying thing the name is referring to. This might be true for the beloved Romeo, he would still be the person Juliet loved even if his family name (Montague) were something else. But if names, more broadly words, have little to no meaning in relation to that which the word is referring to, then what of mantras, prayers, or even magic spells? Would any choice of words get the same results?

“Abracadabra” is a word we are all familiar with. In modern times, this word is associated with a campy version of magic, as when a rabbit is pulled from a hat. But its origin is far more serious. “Abracadabra” was first recorded in the Liber Medicinalis (Medical Book) by Serenus Sammonicus, a tutor and physician to the Roman Emperor, Geta (Publius Septimius Geta), around 200 CE. It was a medical incantation to cure certain illnesses. The treatment involved intoning “abracadabra” while inscribing it so that it could be worn as an amulet for eleven days which, it was believed, would cure the patient.

There is some thought that “abracadabra” is much older, handed down from the Aramaic (as early as the 11th century BC) to Hebrew; in that scenario, it would be roughly translated as “It will be created in my words,” “I create what I speak,” or perhaps – in the Hebrew – “It came to pass as it was spoken”; in any event, all the meanings had to do with the connection between the word and the creation of a reality. Indeeed, the word was still being used in the 13th century, inscribed above London doorways to ward off the plague.

In today’s world, the notion that words or sounds have some power to affect physical reality seems ludicrous to many. But this, I think, is shortsighted. To start, one would have to dismiss the solid research on the placebo effect, which, according to Harvard Medical School’s online magazine Harvard Health (2021) can range between 30% and 60% effective in a certain range of conditions. If the placebo effect is to “work,” the patient has to believe they are receiving treatment. To me, it doesn’t seem that much of a leap from someone receiving an amulet with “abracadabra” written on it in the 3rd century to a patient today who receives a sugar pill from a doctor in a white coat.

“Abracadabra” had particular meaning(s), based on the context, in the distant past, but it has a different meaning to us today. It is the meaning of a word to the person who hears it that fastens a name to an object (or concept) it refers to. In the classic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), author Walter M. Miller, Jr., describes a post-apocalyptic world where monks study an artifact for its spiritual significance. This artifact is in fact a contemporary grocery shopping list: “Pound Pastrami” has a different meaning after a nuclear holocaust than it would have had to a sandwich maker in 1959.

So, what’s in a name?

Our meaning of things. Romeo Montague is the guy Juliet loves, a rose is a beautiful flower with a delightful scent, and Sarah Palin™ (yup, she trademarked her name), is, well, Sarah Palin. Names hold our understanding of the objects they represent. Although it is possible to talk about names as being separate from the object or concepts they represent, we cannot talk about an object without using “its” name. Names (with the help of a few other types of words, like verbs) are how we transmit our thoughts to others. So … there’s a LOT in a name.

Then there’s the universal meditation mantra of “OM” (pronounced ah-uu-mm). Not a name per se, but it is still a sound we make to express something. “OM” is thus in a different category of sounds we make than those we call “names” or “words.” Names/words are the sounds we make to collectively understand the structure of our world. This is a “rock,” that is a “cup,” and we call that guy “Romeo.” “OM” is different. It is our imitation of a sound that in most Eastern religions is thought to represent the sound of the universe. By our vocalization of this sound, we seek something beyond the collective understanding of our structured world view.

Through our meanings of names like “rock,” “cup,” and “Romeo,” we lock down the structure of our perceived world, creating our reality. “OM” and other mantras are our attempt to reach beyond our reality, to understand something more. How could we puny humans with a bit of air passing over our vocal cords vibrate the sound of the universe? Well, maybe that’s all we’ve got. We use our vocal cords to name, structure, and communicate our reality, so why not use it to call upon the universe? Then to answer Juliet’s question about what’s in a name – everything, Juliet, everything.