Abner Doubleday, my six year-old puggle, is a pup of many names. Around the time I got him, in 2007, I named him “Abner” because I was on a big baseball kick. I’d recently watched Ken Burns‘ baseball documentary, and I was fascinated by the story of General Doubleday who, as legend has it, founded baseball as we know it today. In truth, he probably had little to do with baseball’s beginnings, and historians see the story as a complete myth. I liked that. I liked that the myth made a better story than the truth. In time, the myth had sort of formed into a better truth than the facts, and those are my favorite kinds of stories. So, “Abner” became my puggle.
Over the years, different friends and family have attached their own nicknames to Abner. My mother calls him anything from “Mr. Persnickety” to the “Regal Beagle.” Dad sticks with something far more fatherly – “Buddy” or “Short Round” or “Sir.” My sister referred to him as “Abner Snabner” or “Abs.”
My own names for Abner have varied over the years. In deference to a good dog at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house named Gilligan, I sometimes refer to Abner as “Señor Floppy Ears,” which was Gilligan’s nickname. Sometimes, I’ll keep it more simple with “Puppy Dawg,” or say something like, “No puppies allowed!” And right after I got back from Morocco, I was insistent on teaching Abner some Arabic, referring to him as “Muchkil,” or “Problem.” He didn’t learn.
I can’t help but wonder whether Abner has lived in to his names. I mean, if I had named him “Spot,” I guess he would still be the same dog, or would he? Would I have treated him differently because of the expectations I might carry out for a dog named “Spot”? And would that have influenced the dog he was to become?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of a name. I remember in graduate school, a New Testament professor pointing out that Jesus always makes a point to call people by name (or even change their name, which is even more authoritative on some level). When you know someone’s name, she pointed out, you have authority over them. If I call out in the street to someone, “Hey you! Hey, guy!” no one will willingly respond. Imagine being yelled at that way and how you might react. But if I call out your name, I’ve now asserted a kind of ownership. You have to respond. I’ve claimed you. In the crowd of people, I’m pointing you out by name, calling you forth – not just anybody.
So, our names are important and they go beyond conveying who we think we are and can even be a key to pinning us down, claiming authority over us.
Like Abner, I’ve had a lot of nicknames, I suppose.
In high school, I was Pip to all my friends, a shortening of Philip Pirrip of Great Expectations. My friend Zandrea gave me that name, and the TV show South Park solidified it with a character named Pip who was timid and nervous.
In the Boy Scouts, I had several nicknames as well. One year at camp, I was stung by a hornet and had to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night. The next morning at reveille, there were two scouts on either side of me holding me up for the salute to the flag, because I was so out of it on painkillers. The Scoutmaster named me the “Green Hornet,” in reference to the old show. Not long after that, I created a comic with a main character named Swirley Scout. I took on that name, occasionally, too. Then, in a side organization of the Boy Scouts, a secret fraternity within known as the Order of the Arrow, I earned the Vigil Honor and was given a name of the Delaware Indian tribe – Hattelu Lenapeuhoxen, or “He Who Wears Sandals.” Those were different days.
In college, I only had one name. It was a name I carried all four years. It was a name so deeply embedded into my identity – the only name people called me – that some people didn’t know me as Philip, and I even accidentally used it to sign an email to a professor one time. The name? Bolton. Which I, for a reason I don’t quite understand, chose to spell “B0lton” with a zero. The name was my pledge name, bestowed by my Kappa Sigma brethren while I was still a young pledge. It was a reference to a character in the movie Office Space – to this scene, actually. Supposedly, one day, I was cleaning the hall as one of my “pledge jobs,” and I was singing rap music under my breath when a brother walked by and I suddenly got quiet. They claimed I shared mannerisms with the character, Bolton, in the movie, which was fitting because my Sophomore year, my brother Chester and I reenacted this scene, destroying several desks, old computer monitors, and even an old printer in the fraternity parking lot. I loved the name and wore it proudly, along with my pledge brothers NAFTA, LuPe, Keebler, Diva, Chester, etc.
At Lakeshore, Troy called me Phil, and I began to notice that “Phil” was an endearing way of saying Philip. It was common for people up north to shorten my name like that, but when it happened down south, it was something people did with an endearing tone. I always introduced myself as Philip, but I definitely loved being called Phil.
Then, of course, there was Fouad in Morocco, named by my friend Driss. It means heart in classical Arabic. It’s definitely a name I miss.
There are other names. Some that stuck, some I wish hadn’t. A birth name, a pen name, the names of the characters in my stories, all my names.
I think I’ve lived into all of them and some of the expectations behind what those names meant to people. I’ve been the quiet and timid Pip. I’ve been the sandal-wearing scout, always prepared, except when I wasn’t. I’ve been Bolton, easily angered and socially awkward. I’ve been Fouad, all heart and little more.
Now, I think, I’m returning to ‘Philip’ and trying to get a handle on that name again.
My parents named me after the disciple. Once, my senior year of high school, I preached before the congregation at Lambuth Memorial. I used the scripture where Philip is with Jesus in John 14, and Jesus says something like, “Philip, have I been with you all this time, and you still don’t know who I am?” Philip: who spends so much time trying to figure out who he is and what he believes, and even when it’s all staring him right in the face, he still can’t quite put a finger on it. He makes a good companion to Doubting Thomas, the other character in this story. Of course, there’s some other interesting stories about Philip, too, like the Acts of Philip. Or in the Nag Hammadi texts. He seems to be a character who leaves the Apostles behind to go off on a mission all his own, though history has conflated him with a different Philip.
That’s probably all a lot of overly analytic hogwash. I mean, does everyone named “John” live into some expectation of what people think the name “John” means? Are all Sarah’s the same? Of course not. And yet, to say that society or culture or whatever doesn’t have some small say in our names, in how we use them, what we think they mean, and how we live them out, seems equally unfair. So, I can’t help but wonder how that name has shaped or continues to shape me. Just ask Puggle McPuggleson, King of the Couch, sitting at my feet, whether or not he’s lived into his many names, and he’ll probably wake up, stare at you momentarily with one eye open and then roll over exposing his belly and begin to snore.