What’s in a name?

God said, “No longer shall your name be Abram, but Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations…As for Sarai your wife…Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and give you a son by her. She shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Genesis 17.5, 15a, c, 16; my paraphrase)

A man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak. Unable to prevail, he struck Jacob, putting his hip out of joint; then saying, “Let me go, for the dawns comes.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me”…The man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32.24-26, 28; my paraphrase)


I’m a logophile. I love words.

My grandmother, Audia Mae Hoard Roberts, my earliest tutor, oft testified to what she considered “the efficiency of the English language,” given its large and constantly-growing vocabulary. Frequently she advised, “The more words you know, the more complex and nuanced can be your comprehension and your communication of your ideas.”

I took her counsel to heart. I love words.

And I love the act, the art of painting portraits of thought and feeling of my perceptions of the reality around and within me.

And I love to share these my depictions with others.

And I love to receive from others their views of life in this world; even and especially when they differ from mine. For this always challenges me to rethink what I think I already know.

Still, over time, treasuring the importance of relationships, particularly the aspects of mutual acknowledgement and acceptance one of another, I have learned that the most important words I know are names.

We have names by which we are known. Names chosen, some with the especial significance of historical familial lineage. Others for the power of their meaning due to their attachment to a particular time, place, or event or the pleasant sound when spoken or falling upon the ear. Still others, as expressions of syllabic and rhythmic creativity.

We have names, which, when shared, become gateways to others and ourselves. To speak a name arrests the attention of the one called, thus, opening an opportunity for greater communication, deeper connection.

And because of our names, we are not unknown. Even at death, we never are lost, drown in the ever-rising tide of history and humanity. For when a loved one calls out our name, we remain in the realm of the living.

© 2021 PRA

#thepowerofnames #eternallife

3 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. I love everything about this post, Paul. I love the two biblical accounts of people having their names changed. I love your accounts of your love of words and language and your convictions about the importance of names. I love reading your memories of Audia Mae Hoard Roberts, your grandmother. I think I would love to have known her. (Even though you have mentioned her before, I just noticed that her middle name, like both of my own grandmothers, was “Mae.” I love that connection with you! (I will also tell you that all FOUR of Ted’s and my grandmothers had the middle name “Mae,” which I still find a little astonishing. Apparently that name was a very popular middle name at one time!)

    Someone in my early life, I don’t remember who now, pointed out to me that when in scripture God had special work for someone, God often changed the person’s name. I remember feeling a little bit of a thrill about that piece of information, that somehow the new work, the special assignment, required a new name, a new identity in the world, to set those chosen for special work apart from their earlier identities and the more mundane parts of their lives. It has almost the same feeling as at baptism when we are sometimes told that the baptized person is a new creation in Christ.

    That all being said, I’ve had the same name since it was given to me at birth by my parents. I’ve always tried to figure out how I could claim that name-changed status of being chosen for something special in the world, but I’ve never managed it. All I can say is that I worked very hard to maintain and honor the name I was born with in most of the things I’ve done in my life. I came under a great deal of pressure to change it to “Allen” when I married Ted, particularly from Ted’s mother. She and I waged a fairly pitched battle over what I was to be called for several years, but I needed to keep the name I was blessed with and under which I felt I had done so much that I really had had no right to expect that I would ever be able to do. Finally, I think I helped her to see how important it was that my name be MY NAME, and she graciously thereafter used my name as I chose rather than in accord with her understanding of what marriage must mean for a woman’s name and identity.

    Yes, names are terribly important, sacred even, I believe. God recognizes, holds, and blesses our identities and what we do with them. They are the only things that we can leave here, that survive the deaths of our bodies on this earth. They help carry whatever we have done with our lives into the future. Thank you for reminding me of those deep and important truths today. I’m glad to be reminded.

    With much love,



  2. My dearest sister Karen, again, your reflections touch deep places within me.

    At times, with poignant tenderness that evoke my tears of happiness as when you discourse deeply on the sacred character of names. With joy, I thank you.

    And, at times, with impassioned remembrance that, via the power of your experience, touches my life in ways you could not have imagined. To wit, your recount of your contest with your mother in law regarding the taking of Ted’s surname as your own. You could not have known how you stirred afresh my regret. When Pontheolla and I married (and I do not know whether or how she might remember this!), we had at least one conversation about names. I assumed (wrongly — both in my presumption and, in my arrogance and insensitivity, that it did not occur to me to have mentioned it) that she would adopt my surname as her own. She desired to retain Mack as her name. In the end, and for all these years, Mack Abernathy was her compromise. I had not the compassion nor care to have taken her word for her word — both literally and metaphorically — that Mack was her surname. It was and is her graciousness that has allowed me to live with my ruefulness with some (any!) measure of dignity; however tarnished. With well-deserved sadness, I thank you.



    1. Dear Paul,

      Thank you for your very honest response to my post about my name. I confess I do feel for Pontheolla and feel a little sad about her need to compromise her very dear family name, but I also must freely confess that if Ted had professed even the slightest discomfort with my own choice about my name, I would have relented and become Karen Allen. (That’s what I would have done in 1977; it probably isn’t what I would have done even a few years later and certainly not today.)

      Times dictate our preferences and our convictions in some things, and I am happy that it’s now clear that most people can make their own choices about marital names. I know Pontheolla, just as I with Ted, loved and loves you deeply and was devoted to you sufficiently that she was willing to make the choice she made, since the issue was important to you. And I admire you even more than I ordinarily do for being willing to regret and publicly admit your regret that your preference necessitated Pontheolla’s compromise. We survive these things somehow and probably grow from them, no matter what our choice turns out to be.

      Please tell Pontheolla that now I will always think of her as Pontheolla Mack who loves and values you so much that she carries your family name also. And I will think of you as the man who loves and values Pontheolla Mack so much that you shared your name with her. Together you have accomplished much wonderful work under both names.

      Much love to you both,



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