My mother was appalled when she learned that Mr. Hill, my elementary school principal, had named his baby boy Sam. What in Sam Hill was he thinking when he burdened that poor child with a name like that? Some years later, Johnny Cash sang a song called "A Boy Named Sue" about a man whose father saddled him with a girl's name so he would learn how to defend himself. Marion Morrison faced a similar problem in life but solved it by calling himself John Wayne when he became a cowboy actor.
Celebrities, of course, routinely adopt names that are more glamorous, less ethnic or easier to remember than the ones they were born with. For that matter, many new arrivals to this country had their family names unceremoniously shortened at Ellis Island by immigration agents who couldn't be bothered with the original ones if they were too hard to spell or pronounce.
Family relations are sometimes tested by the naming of a new child. When my younger son was born, we wanted to give him the same name as my wife's Jewish uncle. However, we were careful to get his permission first, since the Jewish custom is to name children after relatives only when they are dead, and he was not. My parents faced no such constraints when they took my Protestant grandfather's given name as my middle name, even though he was still very much alive.
Nowadays, cultural and family considerations are rapidly giving way to other influences. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner report that parents lower down on the socioeconomic ladder appropriate names previously favored by the more affluent. Some parents signal their high aspirations for their progeny by naming them after brand-name luxury items, such as Lexus and Armani. One Connecticut woman even auctioned off naming rights to her child on eBay to GoldenPalace.com, an online gambling casino.
According to the biblical creation story, the first man was named after the substance from which he was formed. The name "Adam," which means "mankind," is a play on the Hebrew word for earth (adamah). In Hebrew, names are meant to convey the essence of the thing named. Thus, the wily old patriarch Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord through the night and was renamed Israel, meaning "he who strives with God." Jesus' Hebrew name, Yeshua, means "God saves."
Until it was named, the earth was without form and void. In the creation story, God literally called the world into being: light from darkness, firmament from waters above and below, earth from seas. He named the man for the earth and gave him dominion over it, including the power to name all the creatures who lived upon it. To name them, of course, was not just to put a label on them but to describe their essence.
Even though the man soon made himself a stranger in paradise, he retained the power to remake the world with his words. This, as much as anything, accounts for the condition that theologians describe as "original sin." The world that God beheld when he finished his labors on the sixth day of creation was pronounced good. But the man he created in his own image insisted on having the last word, and that word was "evil."
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything