A Point of View: Can your name shape your personality?

image copyrightALAMY
image captionClaire Danes as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1996)

Does what we're called have any bearing on who we are? Writer Will Self echoes Juliet's famous question, and attempts an examination of self (and Self).

When Juliet desires her lover Romeo to abandon his patrimony so as to take possession of her, she utters these immortal lines: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet." That they should have become quite so celebrated is surely because they express a fundamental truth - or indeed truths. Shakespeare was writing 350 years before the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein developed his theory of language − yet he strongly anticipates its basic contention, which is that the meaning of a word is purely a function of how it's used. We call something a "radio" because this combination of phonemes is commonly recognised by our interlocutors to refer to the machine which allows you to hear the BBC. If instead we began referring to this device as a Romeo then that's what "Romeo" would come to mean − rather than being the name of a star-crossed lover − while the ascription "radio" would lose its semantic charge and become simply a conjunction of arbitrary sounds: "oh", "dee" and "ray".

This way of understanding language is now so engrained in our collective consciousness it seems merely common sense - yet to grasp quite how radical a departure it was we've only to reflect on the theory of meaning Wittgenstein abandoned in its favour. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the philosopher propounded the view that every linguistic signifier ("word" to you and me) is a sort of miniature model of the thing - or action, or person, or idea - that it refers to. The details of this theory are less important than its overall form, which is congruent with our equally commonsense intuition that language is representative of reality in the same way a portrait is a likeness of a person. "But hang on a minute!" I hear you, dear, acute readers complain through the ether. "Didn't you just say both views of meaning are equally commonsensical? How can this be so?" Well, in what follows I hope to elucidate − but first let's return to that midnight Veronese balcony. Juliet Capulet may only be 13 years old, but she's already a brilliant semiotician.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

image copyrightALAMY
  • Austrian-British philosopher, author of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953). His Cambridge colleague Bertrand Russell described him as "the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived".
  • Born in the Austrian town to one of Europe's richest families in Linz (where he is thought to have attended the same school as his exact contemporary Adolf Hitler), he spent most of his adult life teaching at Cambridge University

Less famous than the rose analogy, the opening lines of her soliloquy apparently attack a mutant strain of the representational view of language, one dubbed nominative determinism: ''Tis but a name that is my enemy / Thou art thyself though not a Montague / What's a Montague? It is nor hand nor foot / Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part / Belonging to a man. O! be some other name." Of course, with the name "Montague" the idea that it could determine its possessor's fate by reason of its meaning alone seems absurd, since it has no obvious one beyond designating the members of that family. Yet there are names which are also common nouns, verbs, adjectives and even adverbs - names which if you plug them into Professor Capulet's formula produce rather more ambiguous results: ''Tis but a name that is my enemy / Thou art thyself though not a Self / What's a Self? It is nor hand nor foot / Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part/ Belonging to a man. O! be some other name."

It's difficult to say when in my life I became aware that my own name had this divided semantic nature − but I certainly knew by the time I was at primary school, and the other kids had gathered in a ring round me in the playground chanting "Self-ish! Self-ish!" And people have continued to find it risibly apposite ever since - especially in conjunction with the equally commonplace cognomen, Will. I suppose if I'd wished to negate the bizarre notion that a name can determine its possessor's character and proclivities I shouldn't have read philosophy at university, a subject requiring frequent use of the terms "will", "self" and especially "self-will". Nor should I have dabbled in psychoanalytic theory, or submitted myself to psychotherapeutic practice, both of which entail obsessive attention to the nature of your… self. As for becoming a writer, the profession demands a bizarre alternation of swaddled isolation and naked self-exposure, which, in my experience leads its practitioners to become - almost to a man and a woman - fearful bloody egotists.

I cannot recall a time when I haven't registered a susurrus of amusement on announcing my name. The other day at New Broadcasting House a receptionist was calling a cab on my behalf and, as people often do, was having difficulty with it. So I said, as I so often heard my mother saying when I was a small child: "Self as in 'Yourself'." The receptionist began dutifully saying "Self as in 'Yourself'" to whoever was on the end of the line, while the assorted minicab drivers and security folk gathered around the desk chortled merrily at my daft designator. Of course, I've long since been inured to this - just as the essential oddity of being called by the common noun denoting the human subject has never really impinged on me as much as others. I'm often asked if my name is pseudonymous - a nom de plume, perhaps, which has escaped its papery confines - and yet every time I'm still faintly surprised by the suggestion, because my earliest memories are of a world in which everyone was called Self, so it seems entirely natural to me.

If people persist in commenting on the name's strangeness I trot out the standard ethnography. Self is a name that, if not common, is certainly not rare in East Anglia - there are lots of Selfs up around Cromer in north Norfolk. The etymology is that it's a contraction of "sea wolf", which was what stalwart English peasants dubbed the Viking invaders. So, nothing to do with egotism at all - yet the name has still made its mark on me, such that I, more than most, find similar ones endlessly amusing. One of my favourite plays is Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, which hinges on the phenomenon of nominative determinism, and features such characters as Bones the osteopath - while I can never hear a name that implies its possessor has a given attribute, without making that attribution. In my household the utterly blameless and perfectly continent philosopher Alain de Botton is always referred to as Alain de Bum-Bum.

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionCromer: Famous for its crabs, its pier - and its Selfs

Childish, I concede - but just as with those schoolboys who taunted Will Selfish, there isn't a hint of malice. Rather, when I come to analyse my behaviour around names I realise I'm pretty much permanently up on that balcony with the precocious Professor Capulet. The arbitrariness of our designations for objects and creatures that - so far as we can tell - lack consciousness, don't tend to bother us. In their case "What's in a name?" seems an entirely valid question. Yet when it comes to our own selves we wish to be indubitably true. We desire to be recognised for who we really are, and seek in our very ascription the means of uniting our intimate identities with our social selves. Yet this is an impossibility, for we know full well that the self we constitute at any given time is a shape-shifting and ephemeral phenomenon, while the mask we present to the world is just that - a caricature of an assumed "essential self", both simplified and bowdlerised so as to be recognisable to different people in different places at various times.

The name "Will Self" is used to designate a single individual − while simultaneously, for me, it truly means this bewildering and inchoate state of multiple "me"s ceaselessly coming into being. It doesn't matter if your name is John Smith or Anne Jones, you'll still feel from time to time the uncanny sensation that, so far as you're concerned, it's only an arbitrary series of phonemes. Juliet convinces her lover that he'll "Retain that dear perfection which he owes / Without that title". But we're never entirely persuaded of this, and instead live out our days in this curious state of being readily identifiable only on condition that we're wilfully misunderstood.

More from the Magazine

image copyrightThinkstock

When parents spend hours poring over baby name books they may imagine that their choice will have a major impact on their child's life. But do names make a difference?

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.