In certain cultures, names are pretty important.
In ancient Hebrew culture, names carried a lot of weight – they defined your life and identity. Many Bible names have been absorbed into English without their original significance counting for much – we just tend to pick names that sound nice. But for Hannah, who had been barren, the fact that she pleaded with God for a son and He gave her what she asked for led her to name her child Samuel – “heard of God”. Hannah‘s own name means “grace” or “favour”. Isaac (“he laughs”) was so named because his mother Sarah (“princess”) – who had been barren – laughed in disbelief when God said she would bear son to Abraham (“father of many nations”) in their old age.
Meanwhile, Jacob has the not-so-pleasant meaning of “he grasps the heel”; it’s a figurative way of saying “he deceives” and this trait characterised his life. Another poor boy was given the name Jabez, meaning “pain”. I’m sure every other mother suffered too, but she and Rachel are the only ones who went as far as naming their child after what they went through in labour. Ben-Oni “the son of sorrow” was lucky his father Jacob had the tact to rebadge him Benjamin, or “son of my right hand”. Jabez begged God to bless and protect him so he would be free from pain (1 Chronicles 4:9-10).
Chinese culture is similar to Hebrew culture in that names always carry a meaning. An Ecuadorian friend of mine on more than one occasion told, not without a certain degree of glee, the following joke: “How do the Chinese name their children? They throw them down the stairs and see what sound they make.” Awfully racist but actually quite hilarious to someone unfamiliar with Chinese dialects – some words really do just sound like noise to us. But a lot of thought goes into giving a baby a name. Generally there are two parts to a first name, and one of them will be a “family” name common to siblings of the same sex and, at least in my family, also cousins of that sex on the father’s side.
In Australia (and the Anglo English-speaking world more generally), a person’s name matters insofar as it is not a potential source of ridicule for a kid growing up. There are some very weird name choices out there (boys names for girls,
awkward unique spelling, and also some names invented from scratch). Sometimes a child will be named after a grandparent, and I know a couple of people named after a place of sentimental value to their parents. But usually a name is chosen because it sounds good or “we just like the name”.
So my parents, rather than giving me a Chinese name and an English name (I think they wanted to be clever or something), decided to combine the thinking of both cultures: they came up with Chinese names that sounded like English names but complied with the rule about the family pattern and had a pretty meaning to boot.
My name means comfort. It’s pronounced “Sue Anne”.
Which is warm and fuzzy (or new agey) and I’d never dwelt much on its meaning. I was just thankful because despite people getting tied up over spelling, at least it didn’t sound weird. But the other day I heard a sermon translated from Cantonese which used my name as a verb. The speaker was talking about Psalm 23, and the comfort that God as Shepherd gives us. That was a cool moment.
It also made me think about whether I am “living up to” my name. Am I a comfort to those around me? Do I want to be? Well, yes – I hope I am. But actually, I also want to be different and challenge people around me to reassess their own lives and ways of thinking. So, how do you say “challenge” in Chinese …?