A Deep Sense of Sheim

Do roses always smell as sweet?

“I am so tired I can’t even keep my kids’ names straight!” How often do you experience something like that? Mixing up names can be very frustrating. You might see it as an indication of our own fatigue, stress, or lack of presence of mind. You might also attribute it to diminishing memory.

In some of the most famous lines in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet proclaims:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title.

Her words run deep and most correctly apply when there is forethought into changing one’s own name, or the name of a loved one. Yet, when one inadvertently misnames another, the sound might not be as pleasant.

New research, published this past October, indicates that misnaming has little to do with our state of tiredness or memory retention. It seems to be a common phenomenon based on the way our brains process information. It might also indicate something about how we access that information when we are under time pressure or are distracted.

A fundamental aspect of cognition is that our brains chunk information, or group it together. We try to create orderly file systems in order to process, make sense of, and retain the overwhelming amount of information that we encounter. That is part of the reason that mnemonics work so well to help us remember things. When learning the order of operation for grade school math, “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” makes more sense to us as a group of words than “Parentheses Exponents Multiplication Division Addition Subtraction” or even “PEMDAS.” Therefore, we can group that sentence as one, so it is more easily accessible and processed in our memories (which might be part of the reason I still remember it from elementary school).

The recent study suggests that our brains do a similar thing with names. We group people’s names in virtual file folders. We might place all children in the “children” folder. Sometimes, perhaps when we are short on time or lack focus, we access the folder, and grab the wrong file, such as a different child’s name. This same phenomenon can happen with coworkers’ names. Since coworkers are often grouped in the same folder, it is easy to access one file or name instead of another.

It seldom happens that the folders get mixed up. It is not as prevalent for someone to mistake a family member for a coworker’s name or vice versa. What if you find that you do? It might indicate that that coworker is in a “family” folder, so his name is able to be accessed instead of your family member’s. Why might this happen?

There might be other aspects of our psyche that are involved in our cognitions and categorizations, in addition to those research findings. Misnaming might indicate something about ourselves and the person we are addressing. For example, someone might be grouped in multiple areas of memory. A close friend might be categorized as a “friend” and as “family.” You might sometimes think of him as a friend. On occasion, you might use your sibling’s name for him, too. That can indicate that he is somewhat of a brother to you, as well. What if you often misname your sister with you friend’s name? That might hint to you that you have some aspects of a closer relationship with your friend than with your sister.

In addition, there might be fluidity in your mind from category to category. In large families, one might chunk “older kids” and “younger kids” in two groups. It might be that it is most common to misname older kids for one another or younger kids for one another. What about the child that is in the middle? He might sometimes be misnamed for an older sibling, and sometimes for a younger one. It might depend on his behavior or the situation and his parent’s frame of mind at that moment. Is mom seeing him as one of the younger kids or the older ones at that second?

In a broader sense, sometimes misnaming might indicate the lack of uniqueness that a person has to you at that instant. If a parent interchanges names, it might partially indicate that he loves all the children he interchanges names with equally, or that he feels that way at that time. On the other hand, it might demonstrate that he is seeing them more prominently with the identifying factor as “children” rather than as individuals.

What if you switch spouse and children, bosses and parents, or rabbis and friends? Those inadvertent switches might indicate something to you about the way you are processing that relationship at that moment. It does not have to mean that you are equating them. It could mean that there is some commonality that your mind is processing at that specific time.

The representation that a misnomer has to the user, and the one who is being misnamed, might differ based on the situation. When Juliet tells Romeo that she loves him for who he is, not for his name, she is using it as a mechanism to draw closer. On the other hand, inadvertent misnaming might create distance, or just be humorous or irrelevant to both parties.

The subjective value we give to names may wax and wane in communal and religious significance, as well. Our Sages greatly laud the Jewish people for not altering their Jewish names during their two centuries of brutal Egyptian labor and bondage, which we begin to read about this week. That intransigence was seen as a demonstration of extreme fortitude. The Jews preserved their national identity despite their being subjected to work that could have shattered their morale.  (It is interesting to note that the entire Book of Exodus is also commonly called Shemos – lit. “Names.” That is also the plural form of the word sheim – name used in this title.) At the same time, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe O. C. 4, 66) observes that in post-Exodus Judaism there have been many renowned Jews that have solely used secular names. He posits that the supreme importance that our Sages attributed to the preservation of distinct names was when there were few other characteristics that defined Jews. After the Torah was given, Judaism had its own legal system and codes, and maintaining distinct names paled in importance. Likewise, the significance of names or misnaming may depend on situational factors.

Thinking about your misnaming might provide insight into yourself and your relationships. What might be true for you at one time might not be how you are feeling at another time. Alternatively, it might ring so true that you prefer not to notice it. That might depend on if you are willing to looking beyond the name. Will that help life’s roses smell even sweeter?

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