Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

What’s Your Name Called?

Posted by Neal on December 17, 2004

Here’s a passage that always struck me as a little odd:

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.
(Luke 1:30-33)

Not, “Thou shalt call him Jesus,” but “Thou shalt call his name Jesus.” The name of his name is Jesus. Why a name should need a name of its own is not addressed, nor is what Mary’s son’s actual name should be.

OK, so of course we all know that Mary’s son’s name (as well as his name’s name) is going to be Jesus. So it looks like we have a kind of recursive function going on here, such that:

for all X, name-of(name-of(X)) = name-of(X)

In other words, not only is the name of Jesus’s name Jesus, the name of his name of his name of his name is Jesus, too. It’s Jesus all the way down.

Ah, but I’ve glossed over another detail that needs attention. The angel didn’t actually say the name of the name would be Jesus; he said the name would be called Jesus. Often the two mean the same thing, but they don’t have to. At least not in English, though saying “I call myself” is the standard way of giving your name French and Spanish (Je m’appelle and Me llamo, respectively) and probably other languages. I’ve always wondered how people make a distinction between what they’re called and their true names in these languages. Can you say something like, Je m’appelle Spiff, mais elle m’appelle Flash, et mon vrai nom c’est Marv?

Evidently Lewis Carroll wondered about these questions, too. In this passage from Through the Looking Glass, he makes a four-way distinction along two dimensions: being vs. being called on the one hand; and one’s name vs. one’s actual self on the other hand:

“You are sad,” the Knight said in an anxious tone: “let me sing you a song to comfort you…. The name of the song is called ‘Haddocks’ Eyes.'”
“Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?” Alice said, trying to feel interested.
“No, you don’t understand,” the Kinght said, looking a little vexed. “That’s what the name is called. The name really is ‘The Aged Aged Man.'”
“Then I ought to have said, ‘That’s what the song is called’?” Alice corrected herself.
“No, you oughtn’t: that’s another thing. The song is called ‘Ways and Means’: but that’s only what it’s called, you know!”
“Well, what is the song, then?” said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
“I was coming to that,” the Knight said. “The song really is ‘A sitting on a Gate’: and the tune’s my own invention.”

Lewis Carroll gets my “You’re so literal!” seal of approval for the week. If you haven’t read this book or Alice in Wonderland, read them now for even more literal-minded humor!

10 Responses to “What’s Your Name Called?”

  1. Anonymous said

    Given that his name was not “Jesus,” but “Yeshua,” it’s logically consistent for his name to be called “Jesus.” Heh 🙂

  2. This reminds me of the belief in some ancient cultures that knowing someone’s “true” name gave you power over them. The saying, “speak of Devil,” the full version of which is “speak of the Devil and he will come,” is a reference to this belief: by speaking the Devil’s true name, you could summon him. Because of the power of “true” names, people in these cultures typically went by alternative names (essentially nicknames) instead of their true names.

    Okay, I have to admit that my history is suspect here, since much of it comes from reading fantasy novels and playing D&D. But I think the notion that true names have power did come from real cultures, not just the imagination of fantasy authors.

  3. Anonymous said

    Maybe it’s the strange way in which ‘name will be called’ is translated in hebrew or aramaic. I know that there are lots of peculiar translations from hebrew to english in the bible b/c hebrew sometimes has more hidden meaning or that there is no direct translation in english. And weren’t names really important in the biblical times? They weren’t even allowed to say ‘Yahweh’ to refer to God, they just said ‘holy of holies’ or something like it.
    Names were supposed to be very significant to what the baby will become. Women during tragedies or famines would name their babies(Ezekiel, Isaiah), ‘suffering b/c God has forgotten our plight’ and such. Maybe the emphasis on the words ‘call his name’ is to emphasize what his duty/purpose will be; Jesus: saviour of the world.


  4. furious said

    Interesting post!

    You ask about je m’appelle x, mais elle m’appelle y etc.

    It seems that the issue of real and false names is important in pop music:

    “Well they often call me Speedoo but my real name is Mr. Earl,” later rephrased in Paul Simon’s “Was a Sunny Day” as “She called him Speedoo but his Christian name was Mr. Earl.”

    But even better than that is in the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon”: “Her name was McGill, and she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy.”

  5. Anonymous said

    I’m a little late catching this, but what the heck: A previous commenter had it right. This is an artifact of the translation. The Greek text which the Authorized Version translates as “and shalt call his name Jesus” is ‘kai kaledeis to anoma autou Iesoun’. So far as my limited Greek goes, this seems like a pretty literal translation. The construction carries over into the Vulgate, ‘et vocabis nomen eius Iesum’ and into Wyclif’s translation, ‘and thou schalt clepe his name Jhesus’. The construction strikes me as unidiomatic in English, but I interpret this merely as a mediocre translation which likely was considered traditional by the 17th century.

    Richard Hershberger

  6. Neal said

    Thanks, furious, for the pop music references, and a big thank you to Richard H. for providing the Greek and Middle English versions of the verse. I’d suspected, as did sk, and as RH confirmed, that the wording might be a translation artifact. But for readers who just take it as it appears and incorporate it into their English grammar, there must be a rule along the lines of what I proposed.

  7. I don’t think that expression is great Greek either. It calques a Hebrew expression instead. There are a lot of Hebraisms/Aramaicisms in the text of the NT, and it’s heavily debated whether this is because the original text was in Aramaic/Hebrew, because the original authors were thinking in Aramaic/Hebrew, or because the original authors were mimicking the syntax of the Septuagint (most scholars seem to agree with option 3).

    Bible translations have always been painfully literal though. The expression makes its way into Coptic, for instance, byt hat means.

  8. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Neal: Swedish has a similar proverb about mentioning someone by name, but it doesn’t involve any Biblical characters. Instead, a Swede who bumps into someone he’s just mentioned (for better or worse) might remark: När man talar om trollen, så står de i farstun. (Rough translation–“Speak of the trolls and they’re in your living room.”)

  9. The Ridger said

    In Russian you can say either “What do they call you?” or “What is your name?” (Kak vas zovut? or Kak vashe imya?) The “What do they call you?” is the more usual, and neutral, with the other usually being for identification purposes.

  10. dainichi said

    The Danish version of the proverb is

    Når man snakker om solen, (så) skinner den (When you speak of the sun, it shines)

    I wonder how this version came to be so positive compared to the English and Swedish versions. It seems almost too positive for the typical sarcastic Danish mentality, which might be how this vulgar version came about:

    Når man snakker om lorten, (så) lugter den (When you speak of the turd, it stinks)

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