Shakespeare asked this question, commenting “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This is spoken by Juliet in the play Romeo and Juliet. Juliet is lamenting the fact that the Romeo she loves is a Montague, the family that her own Capulet family is in feud with.
’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
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. [Act 2, scene 2]
Romeo would still be Romeo without that title: in other words, if he were not a member of the enemy family. Yet, is this true?
The phrase “a rose by any other name” has become part of common speech and reinforces the idea that it does not really matter what something is called, what matters is the essential substance of the thing itself. There is some truth in this philosophy, but it is only one side of the coin. Names and the choice of words that we make in describing something do have an influence and this influence can sometimes make a crucial difference. During the period of the war in Iraq I happened to be travelling and as a result saw a particular incident reported on TV in three different countries. One party in the incident were differently labelled in the different broadcasts. In the USA they were referred to as “the terrorists”; in the UK they were referred to as ‘the insurgents”; and in France they were called “la résistance”. These labellings made a huge difference to the way in which the watcher was likely to understand the report.
In Buddhism, the term rupa is often extended to nama-rupa. Nama means name or noun. A name is a special kind of rupa. The name is not the thing it names, but it is its indicator. The name is a rupa in that it triggers the same response that we have to the thing itself. However, names also have an additional effect because the name itself has a meaning and an affective tone.
The meaning of a name can have a wide ranging effect. Meanings have many associations. My mother’s name was Irene. Irene was the goddess of peace in Greek mythology. My mother was certainly a peacemaker in the family, perhaps sometimes too much so. She took it as her mission to pacify any dispute or “unnecessary unpleasantness” that might occur. This was her strength and her weakness. This is often the case.
My own given name, David, means beloved, especially, beloved of God. It is the most common name in the bible. Romance and religion have certainly been big themes in my life.
In Buddhism, ordainees receive a new name. This is something to live up to. The name may reflect an aspect of Buddhist teaching or it may be the name of a saintly figure from the past. Studying the life of an exemplar from the past can be an important element in spiritual cultivation.
The names Montague and Capulet probably seem just meaningless words to the modern reader, but to the audience of Shakespeare’s day, more familiar with French, the allusion to sexual roles in Romeo being the pointed mountain (mont aiguë) and Juliet being a cape or cloak to wrap around it, would not be lost.
The lives of individuals are often significantly influenced by their name. Think about your own name, both the personal name and the family name. What does it mean? Who gave you your name? What is their message to you in giving you this name? Such questions can sometimes be revealing.
Names also crop up in popular songs and stories. My mother was certainly touched by the fact that when she was coming of age there was a very popular song that had the refrain “Good night, Irene, goodnight, Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams” which gave a particularly romantic twist to her image just at the time she was meeting my father, Kenneth, whose name, incidentally, means handsome. Again, one could not have the name Romeo today without being influenced by the play and its associations. Some Spanish men are called Jesus - a lot to live up to. The name Juliet, related to Julius, originally meant child of Jove, the king of the gods.
So probably Romeo might not have retained that dear perfection which he owes if he had had a different title. Romeo, related to Romulus, the founding hero of Rome, from the family of the pointed mountain, would have been shaped at least in some degree by the labels that were all his life attached to him.
In a similar way, our clients have been affected by their names. Their attitudes to the people around them have also been affected by the names that those significant others were known by. This is a significant dimension that the therapist needs to take into account.
Similarly, the therapist is sensitive to the choice of words that the client makes in describing something. The English language is full of near synonyms that nonetheless have different emotional associations. Getting exactly the right word may have a releasing effect. The word accesses material. Rupas open gates to the psyche and words are rupas; getting le mot juste can be like a key to the gate.
This means that it is not just a matter of using the right word; it is also a matter of, as it were, holding the word before the client. While the client remains mindful of the key word there will come with it key images, key emotions, key meanings and an unfolding sequence of associations that does the work of therapy. The therapist does not need to interpret, so much as simply keep the door open.
If a client uses what seems like a powerful word, it is worth repetition. The fact that it popped out of the client’s mouth tells us that it is a door and that behind that door there is something energetic. Sometimes it pays to repeat such power words several times so as to keep the client focussed on the important material that is associated.