The issue of names and naming is interesting. Names are a rich source of cultural information. They tell us about our history, and our social networks.

In a recent Linguistics class, I brought up the topic of names with an exercise that you can do, if you like.

Try making a list of all the names you have. Don’t skip any. Think about nicknames, or alternate versions of your name that you’ve used. Could someone use more than one name for you? What does it mean if they pick one or the other?

Usually people find, as I did, that names tell about our history. No one calls me ‘Dan’ or ‘Danny’, unless they knew me when I went by those names. Internet names can tell about our interests — sometimes I’m ‘fontor’ or ‘GoodReason’. And a lot of names have to do with our social system; family titles like ‘Dad’, or a name that belonged to a relative that’s been handed down (as is the case with my actual ‘first name’, Thomas). There may even be names that people aren’t supposed to know. Maybe you don’t like your middle name, and you’d rather people don’t know it. Sometimes nicknames between intimates are kept private.

Sometimes names are conferred ritually, which brought me to the LDS temple name. I explained to the class that in my former religion, when someone is initiated into the temple rituals, they’re given a new name which is never to be revealed, except under very limited circumstances.

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” said one student. “What’s the point of having a name, when no one can use it?”

Why indeed?

I answered this way: Who gets to name a comet? Whoever discovered it. Who gets to name a person? The parents. In marriage, a man sometimes gives a woman part of his name, which reflects the social agreement of the time that she belonged to him. In other words, the act of naming is done by the one who has ownership (in some way) over the thing being named.

So the act of naming something isn’t just to create a way to refer to someone. By giving a new name to someone as part of a temple ritual, the church could be seen as asserting its ownership.