It was Shakespeare’s Juliet who, bedeviled by family feud, uttered the question, “What’s in a name?” Along the way, she threw in that bit, once as fresh as a daisy but now as well-worn as Axl Rose, about roses smelling as sweet by any other name.
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“Tis but thy name that is my enemy,” she tells Romeo. “Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.”
In so saying, Juliet sets herself against not only Capulet family tradition, but also (not that she would have cared) against Jewish tradition, which imbues names with a great deal of significance.
“One should always be careful to choose for his child a name that denotes righteousness, for at times the name itself can be an influence for good or an influence for bad,” the Midrash tells us (Midrash Tanhuma, Ha’azinu 7).
The Hebrew language, naturally, has a saying about what’s in a name: kishmo ken hu (k’SHMOH ken hoo), literally, “as his name is, so is he.” This means that someone lives up, or down, to his or her name, that the name reflects the nature of the person. This is a particularly prominent idea in kabbalistic thought.
The phrase comes from Samuel I, when Abigal, the wife of the boorish Nabal (later to become a wife of King David) describes her first husband to her soon-to-be second husband: “Let not my lord, I pray thee, regard this base fellow, even Nabal; for as his name is, so is he [kishmo ken hu]: Nabal is his name, and churlishness [nevalah] is with him” (25:25).
Elsewhere in the Bible, the origins of names are often described, with a kind of word play, as representing a concept connected to the child or the parent or the circumstances surrounding the birth.
The prophet Samuel, Shmuel in Hebrew, was so named by his mother, Hannah, after a long and prayer-filled battle with infertility, because “I have asked him [she’iltiv] of the Lord” (I Samuel, 1:20). Perhaps the best known example is that of Isaac (Yitzhak), who was called so because his mother, Sarah, laughed (vatitzhak) when she heard that she would bear a child, saying, “After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (Genesis 18:12).
Nowadays, people use this term about companies and organizations as well as people, as with a 2010 letter put out by the employees of Habimah, which was officially recognized as Israel's national theater in 1958, saying they would not take part in an Israeli actors’ boycott of the cultural center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. Why? “We think that art must transcend political conflicts,” they wrote, adding that their performances are intended for all Israelis: “The Habimah national theater kishmo ken hu – a national theater.”
Of course, the saying still applies to individuals as well. And not all of them are Israeli.
The 2011 sex scandal surrounding Anthony Weiner, the former U.S. congressman from New York who tweeted a photo of his (underwear-clad) wiener and sent sexually explicit messages to multiple women, led to rampant overuse of the word “sexting,” dozens of jokes on late-night TV and the Democratic politician’s resignation from Congress. (Though, the affair dubbed Weinergate didn't stop him from running for New York City mayor, and losing two years later.)
Although the Israeli media didn’t cover the story nearly as thoroughly as the U.S. press did, it should be no surprise by now that one of the Hebrew articles about it, published in Israel Hayom, was headlined “Kishmo ken hu.”
Or, as Conan O’Brien put it on his talk show when the news broke: “Congressman Weiner is in a lot of trouble since he tweeted those pictures. But good news for him, he just found out he’ll be allowed to keep his porn name... Anthony Weiner.”
To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at email@example.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.