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What's in a name? Culture, word associations, hope and pride

A fortnight ago, my cousin gave birth to a baby boy called Preston. This unusual name, which conjures the image of a smart young man in an oak-panelled billiard room, got me thinking about the significance of people's names and why we place so much stock in them.

I'm the kind of person who revels in the fortuitous congruences between people and their names, the kind of person who is likely to randomly comment: "He doesn't look like a Jonathan. She behaves like a Stacey." Perhaps that's what four years of studying literature at university does to you - the entire lexicon becomes fraught with meaning; a single name calls to mind the heroines of romances across the centuries, or at the very least becomes steeped in all kinds of weird and wonderful associations.

A university friend - a computer scientist, economical to a fault - was often exasperated by my tendency to draw tenuous links between person and name. If I wasn't trying to be a prying journalist, why did I always have to know the names of the people he was talking about? To him, the names of such strangers were meaningless trivia and forms of mental clutter, as irrelevant as their horoscope signs.

But for me, this was more than a journalistic obsession with details: Names are provisional pins in our mental maps of the world, a way of organising people in mental cabinets. They are placeholders for our early sketch lines of a person, giving these airy nothings, to quote Shakespeare, "a local habitation and name". (I've never read A Midsummer Night's Dream, but what's an English degree for if it does not make you good at pretending to have read books you should have?)

Irish playwright Oscar Wilde - wickedly witty and profoundly wise - as usual had some choice words to say on the subject. "My ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest," says Gwendolen in The Importance Of Being Earnest (1895). "There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you."

This may be idle romanticism and speculative nonsense, but behind every Wildean absurdity lies a kernel of truth. How many of us have been guilty of investing more meaning than we ought to in names?

There are plain awful names that provoke knee-jerk reactions, and others that we luxuriate in because they run over the eardrums like honey. But names also afford a certain degree of intimacy.

Many a secret admirer has dwelled at length on the name of a prospective lover, replaying and learning by heart the music of its syllables and letters.

In those pre-Facebook days, before I knew as many people as I do now, I used to be better at recalling names.

Still, many names are hard to forget. In secondary school, there were two people with quirky Chinese names Hong Dou ("red bean") and Dong Yi Dian ("know a little"), whose names I still remember even though I'd never spoken to them . One friend, who was born in the year of the rooster, had a name that translated into "golden chicken" in Mandarin.

Names are laden with social and cultural baggage. A name is never just a name, but the nexus of a lattice of associations - from your family, pop culture, other nouns that chime with it. Sure, a name usually has its own etymological roots - the "Wen" and "Li" in my name translate into "warm" and "intelligent" in Mandarin respectively. But the emotions and images these names evoke are in constant flux, constantly reorienting themselves like crystals in a shifting kaleidoscope according to our personal encounters with the people to whom they are attached.

No matter how wonderful their names may have sounded at first, I don't intend to name my first-born child after the kleptomaniac friend who stole my notebooks in science class, or the boy in primary school who threatened to puncture my arm with a stapler.

Other names can grow on you if you let them. Focus on a name long enough and these automatic associations may soften; dissolve. Dialect names that seem dated - "Geok"; "Eng"; "Huat" - regain some of their lustre when you make an effort to see them in the light in which they were conceived. Dwell on them long enough and you start imagining what life was like in that bygone era where jade bracelets still encircled many an unwrinkled wrist.

For most parents, naming a child is serious business - and so, many consult family elders, baby-name books and even fortune tellers to find something that will suit their child perfectly. In Thailand, most people go by nicknames - Gap, Bomb, Earth, Rainbow, you name it - rather than their actual names, supposedly for superstitious reasons.

There are people who change their names in adulthood as they believe this will improve their fortunes.

When I was studying abroad, I knew many Chinese people who adopted Western names because they felt their given names were too hard to remember or pronounce. Then there was a Singaporean university friend who gave himself an unusual first name that started with V - a letter absent from hanyu pinyin - to set himself apart from academics who shared the same Chinese surname.

Not having a name with any tricky J, Q, or X, I was adamant about preserving the integrity of mine as far as possible. I saw my name as an extension of who I was, and decided that people would just have to learn how to say it right. Sure enough, after the usual misfires - Wen, Wendy, Winnie, Whitney, even Mr Li (in the occasional e-mail) - most people got the hang of it.

One of the nice things about being back in Singapore is that here, I'm no longer "Wen Li Toh", but "Toh Wen Li", "Du Wen Li" in Mandarin; my name flowing the way it is meant to, no longer garbled to make it more easily parsed - first name first; surname last - by a Western audience.

My name, whatever it may mean to others tethers me to who I think I am, and is a piece of home I carry around wherever I go.

What's in a name? Nothing more than our parents' aspirations, our reputations, the cultural histories of the words that go into them and the varied lives of those who shared the same name. No less than the sum of several universes.

•#opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 30, 2017, with the headline 'What's in a name? Culture, word associations, hope and pride'. Print Edition | Subscribe