The Significance of Names and Their Impact on Identity and Society

“What’s in a name? ” This age-old adage has been thrown around a lot throughout the centuries, and yet it remained to be just the rhetorical query that it is. However, in the realm of the growing trend of digging up family trees through genealogical tracing, it would seem that this interrogative statement has come to prove to have a more profound significance than most would ever care to consider. In dealing with the question of the significance of names, it is most basic to recognize its function in a societal context.

The most practical function of it in any given community is that of identification.

The name attached to the subject, be it a person, animal or thing, allows for a recognition as to the existence of said subject – imaginatively or factually. This paper, however, is only interested in the significance of names, particularly in the context of families or genealogical histories, and the effects of its influence on one’s identity.

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It will not attempt to delve into the many possible motives behind an individual’s pursuit for knowledge as to the identities of his or her ancestry, but rather, will try to examine the resulting consequences of such quest for familial knowledge, and its effects, if any.

As mentioned earlier, the social function of names is to provide recognition, to allow for an organization in a construct as complex as communities and societies. Familial names, especially, work as a kind of branding, not merely on objects or properties, but on real people.

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It clusters them together, connoting their connection either by blood or by law, and it is in these connections that the innate curiosity as to just how common are the traits of individuals from the same clusters – families – truly are. For purposes of discussion, this paper shall argue that identities have two sides to it, just like any other story.

One would be the nominal identity while the other would be the personal identity. Nominal identity can be taken as that affiliation attached to a person based on his or her name, the clustering mechanism of society thus coming into play. Personal identity, on the other hand, is – for lack of a more succinct term – personal, or that which is innate and exclusive to the character of the person. While these two types of identities appear to be two distinct ideas, it will be shown how they essentially lead towards one path, which is that of the shaping of the individual.

Now, nominal identities, or in its simplest form names, allow members of society to determine who is related to whom. More than the given name of an individual, it is the surname that provides for that branding that puts the individual into a certain group. But although it would seem as if the use of names is practical at best, truth is that name affiliations do hold great significance in the affairs of the individuals carrying it. For one, it is the name which carries the family pride. It is not strange for us to hear of stories about people going to great lengths to protect the family name because the family pride is at stake.

This protection of reputation is an object of obsession for some, especially those who have great family histories. Probably what can best describe this obsession with family names and its protection is another classic saying, that is, “the fruit never falls far from the tree. ” Or in this case, the family tree. Taking that quote squarely within the context of this paper, the fruits would be the members of the family, while the tree would be the whole lineage taken holistically. Why then would people want to ensure that their names or surnames are well-protected and untainted from less-than-reputable accounts?

To ensure that they remain in good company, or at least an impression of it, that’s why. Because as the saying would show, name affiliation does not merely end with sharing a name; people coming from the same family tree most likely share common traits as well. Therefore the presumption is that people sharing the same name, and thereby the same genetic strands, are more or less sharing the same personality or character traits. That is why in character assassination, it is mostly common to first attack the identity of the person not based on things that he or she has done in their lifetime but based on the name they carry.

Since human interaction doesn’t always happen face to face, it is then up to the name to represent the individual, and thus hopefully give a good first impression. Take for example the case of the Uruguayan Hitlers. In Leonardo Haberkorn’s article, “The Hitler Dynasty,” he delved into the existence of persons living in Uruguay carrying the name Hitler, and the corresponding effects it has on those carrying the said name. Without a doubt, the name arouses a very strong, negative image, thanks fully to the man responsible for the Jews’ ethnic cleansing more than half a century ago, German dictator Adolf Hitler.

While the Hitlers of Uruguay obviously have no connection or affiliation with the Aryan Hitler, by virtue of the name and the character of the personality it has come to solely represent, the stigma is thereby passed on to them. This stigma is still largely felt by some of those carrying the name, although a couple would claim that they do not mind having Hitler for a second name despite knowing the transgressions the “original” Hitler committed since they do not have anything to do with that anyway (Haberkorn).

They are just namesakes, plain and simple. However this outlook, while positive, is frail at best. Because in this case, the bias is against the name first, and then the person, and so as names are the gateway, so to speak, to knowing a person, having a name that elicits such pre-established biases already blocks the way for others to at least want to get to know the person carrying that name.

In fact, most of these individuals do understand the repercussions of outright using their Hitler names, and so have refused to use it for any official documents or even in casual conversations. We need not look far, actually. Even in the ongoing campaign for the United States Presidential Elections, these same biases and prejudices attached to names do play its role out – and this following observation is absolutely devoid of any political biases.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama has the misfortune of carrying “Hussein” for his middle name. While he certainly had no say as to what name will be given him when he was born, and while “Hussein” carried no significant negative perception until recent history, opponents from the rival party saw how they can take this fact and turn it into an opportunity for themselves with the goal of discrediting Obama as a candidate worthy of inheriting the coveted office in the White House.

Introductions would be made at rallies, and the hosts of the event would have no qualms of stressing the “Hussein” part in Obama’s name, with the obvious intention of linking him with the fallen Iraqi dictator. Of course we know he is not related in anyway to Saddam as the Hussein in his name stands as a surname, while Obama’s is a secondary name. But regardless of this logical view, what remains true is that there is an attached stigma to Hussein, that which is of a leader of a rogue nation once recognized as a threat to America and its people’s security.

If that is not the stigma, then it is that Obama, given his un-American sounding name, is therefore un-American. Here we saw two examples of individuals who share the same name with two historical figures condemned by the international community at large because of the atrocities they have committed to their own people, and so to all of humanity. They’re not even related yet, and already we see how grave the repercussions can be to those who share the same name; what more if they truly are affiliated by blood or by law.

The other type of identity is the personal one, and this would probably have to do more with a person’s quest for seeking out his or her genealogy out of a sense of curiosity as to who they really are. Thanks to technology made even more accessible today, more and more people have taken on playing detectives in search of long-lost relatives, distant or proximate. It has evolved into a personal crusade that is a far cry from the scholarly origins of genealogical tracing.

With DNA testing kits costing a fraction of its cost some several years ago at under a hundred dollars (Harmon), the layman has then become bolder in launching in this historical adventure themselves. “Stalking Strangers” (Harmon) from the New York Times depicted the great lengths that people would go to just to get their hands on DNA samples of their suspected relatives. Of course, questions of privacy necessarily arise from these scenarios, but insofar as satiating the thirst for confirmation whether or not the guy who you just ordered coffee from is a relative kicks in much stronger than the concern for his privacy.

Again, as mentioned earlier, this paper will not even attempt to delve into what could be the motivating reason behind this newfound interest for tracing one’s family tree. What is inevitable, however, is to look into what could these “amateur” Sherlock Holmeses of genealogical tracing could possible get from all this exercise. Well, it seems that it’s quite a lot – not in quantity but in quality. Chip Rowe, in his blog entry, listed out the things that he hates and loves about researching his family tree.

The things he hate mostly are concerned with the tedious process of gathering data, as well as unearthing less than flattering family stories. The things he love, however, basically sum up the “good” effect said researching can do for one’s personal identity. He speaks of getting “a sense of the people” who formed us, thereby adding insight to how or why an individual turns out the way he does. This essentially reiterates the importance of knowing the past in order for one to truly understand and appreciate the present, so that he can prepare for the future.

While it is probably highly unlikely that newly discovered relatives would even want to rekindle whatever lost relationship they could have had, the important thing is for the searcher to find this sense of peace and comfort in knowing that he does belong to a family, that he is not alone after all. Says Rowe, “When you discover and meet a long-lost cousin, you realize you could have passed her on the street or flipped him off at a traffic light and not even realized they were family. ” This mystery is what further entices these people out on a DNA-hunt to continue their search for family.

Essentially, what this all boils down to is another old wise-saying: no man is an island. That is why in every opportunity, people will attempt to find out, or at least be curious about, the answer to the mystery of their identities. Because it is in this discovery that persons are given a motivation to improve themselves, either out of the feeling of necessity to break away from a stigma attached to their names, or out of a sense of fulfillment in knowing that somewhere out there, they remain to have family amidst the throng of strangers.


  1. Leonardo Haberkorn. The Hitler Dynasty. 8 Feb. 2008.
  2. Nplusone Mag. 22 Oct. 2008. <http://www. nplusonemag. com/hitler-dynasty>. Amy Harmon. Stalking Strangers’ DNA to Fill In the Family Tree: THE DNA AGE: Extreme Genealogy. 2 Apr. 2007.
  3. The New York Times. 22 Oct. 2008. <http://www. nytimes. com/2007/04/02/us/02dna. html? _r=1&ref=science&oref=slogin>. Chip Rowe. Things I Hate and Love about Family and Genealogy History. Media Inc. 22 Oct. 2008. <http://www. chiprowe. com/articles/genealogy. html>.
Updated: Nov 20, 2023
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The Significance of Names and Their Impact on Identity and Society. (2016, Dec 16). Retrieved from

The Significance of Names and Their Impact on Identity and Society essay
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