Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
What’s in a Name?


And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death -- even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.
Philippians 2:8-9

"What's that?"

"That's a cow."

My daughter lolls against me as we read Animal Sounds together, occasionally reaching over my belly to point at a picture or turn the page.

"What's that?"

"That's a rooster"

"What's that?"

"That's a pig."

We are classifying things lately, and my waking hours have become a nonstop taxonomy of the whole wide world. "What's that?" I answer about a thousand times a day as she points her way around, asking for names of things I know I've given her before.

She turns the page. "What's that?" I ask, before she has a chance.

"Kitty," she says.

"What's that?"

"Dat's duck. Quack quack."

"If you know what they are, why do you keep asking me?"

She doesn't answer. Repetition is the cornerstone of learning, I remind myself, and I know her developing neural net derives comfort from this litany of repeated questions and answers. I understand this need -- I attend a liturgical church, a church of questions and answers printed out in prayer books that, after years of use, fall open at the slightest touch to the Holy Eucharist, Rite II. What's that? I'm asking every Sunday, and it is the Gospel or the Peace or the Body and Blood of our Lord, same as last Sunday, and the Sunday before, and every Sunday before that back to Henry VIII.

"What's that?" my daughter asks again. "That's an owl," I say. "'Owl' being the sound we use in the English language to represent that bird." I point to the page. "It's a totally arbitrary relationship, actually, between the sounds of words and what they signify. That could just as easily have been 'book' or 'bunny.'"

She looks at me as if I've lost my mind.

"Owl, mama."

"You're right," I say. "That's an owl." So much for my lesson in semiotics.

I've been pondering the names we assign to things lately, and the relationship between the two: the name and the object, the sound and the signified, their arbitrary and sometimes contradictory natures. The baby inside me stretches a leg into my ribcage, and I think about this tiny person, as yet unnamed, and the lifelong relationship with a name we will bestow at birth. Will the name shape the child? Or the child shape the name?

Every Sunday I pray a prayer that begins "Our Father," taking comfort in the repetition of the words as I pray my daughter someday will as well. But ask me if I believe God has a gender, and I will say no. God the Son had a gender in the person of Jesus, but as for God -- God the Father, the triune God? I don't think so. The Bible talks about humanity being made in the image of God, and I think both of those essences -- male and female -- are reflected in the Godhead. Which is not to say that I think God is a woman, or that part of God is a woman; I don't. I think God is beyond gender, or at least beyond our understanding of it.

So why do I call God my Father? History, tradition. I don't believe calling God "Father" changes how I perceive him (again, with the gendered language) and I know it doesn't change the essence of who God is. God is so much more than I could ever hope to wrap my mortal mind around; any metaphor I apply -- Father, Creator, Redeemer, Friend -- is going to fall hopelessly short.

The practice and significance of naming swirls through my mind as my daughter and I move through our daily course in Toddler Taxonomy 101.

"Abby?" she asks one day.

I'm stymied. "Abby?"

"Abby," she says again.

We don't know anyone named Abby, and I wonder what she's saying.

"Abby," she repeats with emphasis.

"Are you hungry? Thirsty? Do you want me to play with you? Do you want to take a nap?"

She looks at me with an expression of exasperation.

"Abby," she says significantly, before toddling off.

Over the next few days, "Abby" is an incessant cry. Who or what is Abby? I think. It's driving me slightly crazy. It's not "kitty," it's not "happy," it's not anything, apparently. And yet she persists in saying it.

"Abby!" She calls. "Abby Abby Abby Abby!"

I'm wishing I'd never heard the word, as I go through every single object in the house, every book we've ever read, every movie we watch and every song on her CDs, asking over and over again, "Is this Abby?" None are, yet Abby is obviously important enough for her to keep saying it. I'm about to go bonkers.

"Abby?" my daughter asks brightly when my husband comes home from work.

"What is this Abby she keeps talking about?" he asks.

"I don't know," I say. "But this weekend you're going to figure it out."

He's game. I sleep in on Saturday morning and wake to ask if he's made any progress.

"Depends," he says. "I know about a hundred more things it's not, including cereal, milk, VeggieTales, kiss, hug, and low-frequency bandwidth."

"Abby!" my daughter yells. I shake my head.

Later in the day, I pick her up from her nap and call downstairs to my husband: "Hubby?"

"Abby?" my daughter says, with nearly pitch-perfect imitation of my voice, and I almost drop her.

"Abby?" I say. "Is that it? Does "Abby" mean "Hubby?"

She beams at me. "Abby! Abby Abby Abby!"

We have solved the mystery: "Abby" is "Hubby." She bounces delightedly in my arms, crowing her word.

"It's you," I tell my husband as I shift her weight into his arms. "You're Abby."

"I am?" he asks.

"Abby," says my daughter snuggling into his chest. And he is. He is Abby, he is Hubby, he is Daddy, his essence unchanged no matter what we call him. And I think of the similarities, essence unchanged regardless of signifier, of name: Father, Abba, God.

That night I am reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Pauline Baynes' magnificently illustrated edition with a radiant drawing of Aslan the lion on the cover. My daughter comes to stand beside me as I read, studying the picture on the cover.

"Kitty!" she finally says, pointing to Aslan.

"No, honey, that's a lion," I start to correct her, but the words stall on my lips. I look at her earnest little face, watch as she breaks into a smile, her eyes absorbing the picture's details.

"Kitty," she repeats again, happily.

"That can be Kitty," I say. And it can. I'm sure Aslan, the real Aslan, wouldn't mind a bit.

Elrena Evans holds an MFA from The Pennsylvania State University and writes the column Me and My House. She is co-editor, along with Literary Mama Editor-in-Chief Caroline Grant, of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press 2008) and the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, forthcoming from DreamSeeker Books. She writes for Her.meneutics, the Christianity Today blog for women, and lives with her husband and three children in Pennsylvania.

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I love this. So many times in our house, we end up saying "Weeell, that could be a duck." (Instead of "No, that's a peacock/bluejay/parrot...) The best thing about the misnaming is how it reveals things from fresh eyes. Like, did you ever notice how a llama sort of looks like a cross between a bunny and a giraffe? I didn't- until our daughter called it a bunny-giraffe.
My 18 month old calls his sunglasses, "Allah": eyeglasses. It always makes me smile. And when we talk the other day with his brother about when they were born, he said, "Like Baby Jesus! And the Angel's name is Mary!" I thought you could appreciate that clarity in the confusion. This was a gorgeous read.
This reminded me of a story my Dad told us of his eccentric friend Andy who would try to 'educate' us by pointing to the ceiling and declaring 'Floor!' and then to the floor - 'Ceiling'!! no wonder we all turned out a little odd. Also I started thinking about Judith Butler and Gender Trouble.. and I started wondering on the significance of language. Words are so fluid, it amazes me how we manage to define things at all. Again I really enjoyed this piece :)
Elrena, what a lovely piece! The words we use are important, of course, but they can also be shifted so easily. What a great reminder.
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