What's Really in a 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 called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes

In this lover's lament from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, a lovelorn Juliet speculates how Romeo's personality might be altered if he were to change his name. Although she argues that Romeo's essence would be unaffected were he to don a new name, Shakespeare was clearly aware of the profound impact that his characters' names would leave on his audiences' imagination.

In his quest to find a name to embody his teenage hero's lusty passions and likely sensing that subliminal messages buried in names can stimulate our senses, Shakespeare mutated the word romance to create Romeo. A slow-motion replay of the name's pronunciation reveals the following effects.

R-o-m-e-o

As the initial letter of the color red, the universal color of sexual arousal, the R radiates carnality as it rolls off the tongue in a rough simulation of a contented cat, a lover's call to arms, and the promise of dark passions. It is the classic full-bodied, red-blooded letter full of sexual tension and sensuality embodied in the words ravish, racy, rapture, reproductive, relish, racy, randy, and ravage.

r-O-m-e-o

The very pronunciation of the letter O forms the mouth into an expression of surprise and sexual ecstasy. This explains why the O is associated with sudden emotional surges as in ooh, orgasm, oo-la-la, oh-oh, oops, and ouch. This facial cue is so powerful that even chimpanzees recognize this expression. Hooting an ooo ooo sound when excited or aroused, their mouths likewise form the shape of an O.

r-o-M-e-o

The melodiously mellow hum of the letter M begins the second syllable, evoking feelings of motherly warmth and tenderness. The physical cues spawned by its very pronunciation evoke the image of a light kiss when the lips are softly pursed together. Its moderating influence accounts for its appearance in the word mother of almost every language on earth: moeter in German, mer in Vietnamese, imma in Sanskrit and Hebrew, matka in Polish, and mama in Zulu. Perhaps this is the reason why infants make an umm sound when they communicate their need for mother's milk and why chimpanzees smack their lips with an mmm sound when signifying approval.

r-o-m-E-o

When pronounced even silently, the letter E forces the face into a shape that is universally recognizable as a wry smile (as in say cheese). As we shall see in upcoming chapters, these facial expressions can have powerful effects on the emotions of the listener, which explains the emotional elements embedded in the words egads, eroticism, excitement, erogenous, ecstasy, earnest, eek, envy, exuberance, expressive, and empathetic.

So when the letters of R-O-M-E-O are combined into this single name, their subconscious cues are powerful and persuasive. This subconscious power is also buried in words throughout the English language. For example: it's no coincidence that we think of Romeo and Juliet as lovelorn sweethearts. For when we examine the vowel pattern in the word lovelorn, we find that the same sequence of vowels (o-e-o) appears in the word Romeo! These identical vowel patterns are also found in the sexually charged words bordello, whoredom, womenfolk and Bolero, Ravel's sensual musical opus popularized by the movie 10.

It was with this instinctive understanding of the power of emotionally loaded letters that Shakespeare created the name that has become synonymous with a vigorously potent lover.

Names in The Simpsons

The inherent effects of how letters in a name can to define an individual's personality is not limited to masters of literature. Consider the more contemporary example of The Simpsons, the longest running television show still in production. When series creator Matt Groening designed the characters for this dysfunctional but sympathetic family, he carefully - perhaps unconsciously - selected names for his four-fingered family members that would herald their personality traits. Homer, the hapless yet happy-go-lucky patriarch, sports a name comprised entirely of gently flowing letters without the sharp edges of explosive bilabials. The almost-whispered letter H is the defining letter of home, hearth, hope and heart, and when it is combines with the letter M, (the symbol of motherly tenderness) it creates words suffused with the unambiguous down-home qualities of homely, home, hombre, and homily. That's why no matter how extreme or impulsive his behavior, the audience can be confident that Homer will soon snap back into his munificent role.

And then there's Marge, the patient and long-suffering homemaker. Her name studiously begins with the classic letter of maternal warmth, emphasizing her unbreakable bond to her brood. But there's an edgy side to her name too revealed by the gruff letter G, which is the letter of grumpy, growl, grab, grapple, gruel, and glum. However, it's significant that the G in Marge is the softly pronounced version of the letter, which displays fewer of the snappish implications of the 'hard' G. These qualities are strongly reflected in the benevolent themes of words like genuflect, genial, genuine, and gentility.

Bart's hyperactive personality couldn't be more aptly telegraphed by his name. Not only is it an anagram of brat, the name begins with the bilabial letter B and ends with the fricative letter T, which requires the speaker respectively to make an explosive sound with his lips and sharp contact with his tongue against the palette. The BR combination of letters imparts an unmistakable sense of intense activity that we find in the words bright, brilliant, brash, brave, breezy and brusque, while the letter T, triumphantly tooting the name's termination, is associated with the sharp-witted spirit of tang, talent, turmoil, tweak, and tallyho.

Like Homer, Lisa - the erudite music loving, environmentalist of the family -- has a name with no hard edges. The letter L imparts a gentle lilt to the name's pronunciation, which is why this initial letter is the standard bearer of life, liberty, love, and learning. It is also the letter of musical expression as seen in words like lullaby, Lorelei, and la-la-la. Finally the softly sensual letter S- hints at her as yet unrealized sexuality.

Baby Maggie is Marge's name in miniature. Since words that end with the high-pitched IE sound are invariably associated with youth and innocence (baby, bootie, doggy, and kitty), Groening simply appended the infantilizing sound to the end of her name to symbolize her terminal infancy.

Illustrations of the powerful effects of letters in words proliferate in literature. Notice how Tennyson's alliteration of the letter M resonates with our yearning for the maternal embrace in The Princess:

Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro' the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

While, to infuse his poem A Red, Red Rose with its romantic textures, Robert Burns completely avoided the discordant tones of the initial letters B,K,D,C, and G, and opted instead for softly sensual R's, M's, L's, and O's.

O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
That's sweetly played in tune.