The Weight of the Proper Name (Book Review)

Book: La Force du Nom: Leur nom, ils l'ont changé
Edited by
:  Celine Masson and Gad Wolkowicz
Publisher: Editions Desclee de Brouwer, 2010
Reviewed By: Mavis Himes, Spring 2012, 484 pp.

Being fortunate enough to be able to read psychoanalytic texts in a second language, especially the mother tongue of the Lacanian field, it has been with pleasure that I read La Force du Nom, a book on on the proper name and its impact on human subjectivity. The breadth and scope of the content, the quality of the writing, and the sensitivity of the authors make it a book that I hope will be translated one day for the English-speaking audience. It is a book that addresses the psychoanalytic, as well as sociopolitical, significance of the proper name, while challenging a certain complacency toward those whose name has been altered, either voluntarily or involuntarily.
A birth, a breath of life, a name. From the first moments of the creation of human life, we are, each of us, granted a name—both a given name, or first name, and a family name, or surname. This name becomes another birthplace in which we live. It is our own personal and unique residence. To be without a name is to be without form or qualities, without shadows, without dreams, without imagination, without a soul. For it is only through an act of nomination that we become an "I," and to say "I" is to occupy a space in the world.

To live without a name is to live on the margins of life. It is to belong to the kingdom of animals that roam through their world nameless and anonymous. To remain without a name is to live on the periphery of life without access to an Other. As the king of the Phoenicians says to Ulysses, "Tell me the name you go by at home—what your mother and father and countrymen call you. For no one in the world is nameless, however mean or noble, since parents give names to all children they have" (p.119). Every human being, from the time of his birth, has a proper name as a "vocative unity," or a "calling into being" of his or her own uniqueness. When asked the question, "Who are you?" it is by pronouncing our name that we first respond.

The proper name is our most intimate house and the place from which we begin all discourse. Through our name we greet the world and the world, in turn, addresses us. The letters that compose this name are the windows that permit access to a universe of meaning. Through this world of meaning, we observe the other, and from there the other tries to create an image of us. This intimate house forms a reflexive shelter from which we look out at the world, interpret its meanings, and react to its encroachments.

Our name is the witness of both a personal and collective history, a mark of our identification in the world. From history to history, from son to son or daughter to daughter, the name—that of the father from a symbolic point of view, and that of both the mother and the father from a legislative point of view—is a branding of transmission and filiation via speech and language.

During the time of the Greeks, only one personal name was given at birth for both men and women alike, and women did not change their name upon marriage. Names usually consisted of two common names in a composite that reflected a flattering meaning (Megacles, or "of great fame"), the name of a god (e.g., Apollodorus, or "gift of Apollo"), or personal circumstances (e,g., Didymus, or "a twin"). The choice of name was open, but it was customary for the eldest son to be named after his paternal grandfather. Later, a patronymic indicating a subject's lineage was added.

By Roman times, every man and woman had at least two basic names, the praenomen, or forename (e.g., Titus, Marcus), of which there were relatively few, and, more importantly, the nomen or name of the gens or clan. In addition, there was frequently a cognomen, which functioned as a kind of nickname added after the nomen. Often the cognomen was handed down from father to son and came to represent a subdivision of the clan.

The proper name is neither accidental nor arbitrary. Its reference is a vital part of humanity, an element of an individual, as well as an ancestral identity. The surname links us to our family history, our lineage, and our family tree. Through the designation of the family name, whether patrilineal or matrilineal, we enter the geneaology of our ancestral history and are thereby recorded in the family tree. This inscription into the family history marks us with our social and cultural origins, beyond the particularity of the family. In some cases, the name is also a geographical and/or ethnic marker. For example, Katchachurian, O'Reilly, MacLeod, Van Deusen, and Diamontopolous are all signifiers that indicate not only a connection to a family tree, but also signify a country of origin.

Names given to children predate their birth. In this sense, the name announces a particular uniqueness in an inaugural sense; before someone can know who they will turn out to be in the course of their life, they are named. This unique being is without any quality at its beginning and yet already it has a name. And this name, given by another, is not chosen. The uniqueness that pertains to the proper name is always a donato, a given, a gift (Cavarero, 2000).

Perhaps the paradox of the given, or first name, is that it is given to an infant in the absence of any preordained or known qualitities, yet at the end of one's life, it becomes the phonetic glue of one's identity, sealing the biographical story and the autobiographical one. We often tend to think of the person as fitting their particular name, unable to imagine any other.

The significance of the name is born out by naming ceremonies and rituals, and the cultural and/or religious significance surrounding them. In Christianity, naming typically occurs at a christening and is performed by a priest. In Judaism, naming of a son occurs on the eighth day of life at a brit milah, or circumcision ceremony, whereas a daughter is named at a zeved habat on the first shabbat following the birth. In Hinduism, naming is also considered to be sacred, and occurs ten days following the birth in an elaborate ceremony known as Namkaran.

Not only the ritual, but also the choice of a given name is significant. Whereas the surname is fixed, either patrilineal or matrilineal, the first name is more flexible and often reflects personal opinions, cultural norms, or religious practices. I want to name my daughter Liza after Elizabeth Taylor or Ginny after Virginia Woolf; I will name my son after his uncle who is athletic and strong so that he may reflect these qualities; we will name our child after dear grandmother. In many cases, tradition dictates a procedure overriding the personal.

In a parallel fashion, our name accompanies us to our grave and reinforces the notion that our name links us to a preexisting social order into which we are born—the lineage into which we are born and the legacy we leave behind. As Lacan points out,

Whenever we find a skeleton we call it human if it has been placed in a grave. What reason can there be for placing this debris within a stone enclosure? For this to be possible a whole symbolic order must have already been instituted, which entails that the fact that a gentleman has been Mr. So-and-So in the social order requires this to be written on his headstone. (Lacan, 1955–1956/1993, p.96)

In psychoanalytic terms, the proper name has both theoretical and clinical implications. According to Freud (1913), names may take on particular significance in the unconscious of certain individuals. In Totem and Taboo, he discusses some of the anthropological studies linking nomenclature and totemism. For example, quoting Max-Muller, he writes, "A totem is a clan mark, then a clan name, then the name of the ancestor of a clan, and lastly, the name of something worshipped by a clan" (p.110); or quoting Pikler, he writes, "Mankind required both for communities and for individuals a permanent name which could be fixed in writing…The core of totemism, nomenclature, is a result of the primitive technique of writing" (p.110). The relationships between name and totem thus establishes a kinship tie that links the individual to the clan, and in this way, to ancestral lineage.

Lacan argues convincingly about the significance of the proper name in two of his seminars: Identification (Lacan, 1961–1962) and Crucial Problems in Psychoanalysis (Lacan, 1964–1965). In both these seminars, he elaborates on the significance of nomination as a unique signifier that is untranslatable, nonreplaceable, and the first "kernel" of what will become the subject of the unconscious, that is, the founding of a subject. In one of its functions, Lacan notes, the proper name covers the irreducible lack that is constitutive of the subject, and a second function is as a signifier for the inscription of a subject into the Symbolic order of langauge and culture.1

On October 18, 2009, at the Jewish Museum in Paris and on November 1–3, 2009, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an international and multidisciplinary colloquium was held on the question of the proper name. This colloquium was sponsored by several French and Israeli organizations.2 In fact, this was the third colloquium in a trilogy of culturally based works that began with Shmattes, la memoire par le rebut (Rags: Memory through Scraps),3 sponsored by Mahj in Paris in March, 2004, and followed by Panim/Pnim: l'exil, prend-il au visage? (Face: Does Exile Show on One's Face?) at the University of Bar-Ilan and at the Museum of Modern Art in Tel Aviv in 2006. It was the same principal collaborators who organized all three colloquia, which they termed travails de culture.

A documentary entitled Et leur nom, ils l'ont change (And Their Name: They Changed It) formed the basis for the colloquium that culminated in a book of a similar title.

The documentary describes seven families who changed their surnames:

  • Fajnzylber/Fazel

  • Wolkowiicz/Volcot

  • Frankenstein/Franier

  • Sztejnsztejn/Stenay

  • Finkelsztejn/Finel

  • Rozenkopf/ Rosent

  • Rubinstein/Raimbaud

All of these families changed their names after World War II in order to franciser (Frenchify) their name so that their children could carry a name that would not identify them as Jews and prevent their families from once again becoming victims of anti-Semitism. What is significant is that several third-generation children, those born with the change of name, participated in this documentary as a way of learning about their family names.

It is clear that the Nazis eliminated the names of Jews and branded them with numbers as a form of dehumanization. As noted by one author, killing the bodies meant killing names and killing names meant killing the symbolic. To kill the name was to seal off and to amputate the untenable and insupportable flaws the Nazis perceived in the Jews. Although all of these name changes were made with the aim of prevention, it is the offspring who are now challenging and questioning the masking of their identity through a name that conceals and hides a part of their ethnic identity. The dilemma is that the legal system in France, as in all European countries, prevents the return to names a consonance etrangere (foreign-sounding names). Obviously, this has raised a number of questions regarding what it means to have a name that comes from abroad, what is French citizenship, etc. For those of us in North America, such a law does not exist and it is possible for anyone to change their name at will, within the constraints of certain legal procedures.

La Force du Nom: Leur nom, ils l'ont changé explores and examines questions related to the dilemma of the proper name and nomenclature noted above, with a particular focus on name changes in Ashkenazi Jewry in France. In the papers based on the colloquium presentations, the reader is exposed to the questions with which all of the collaborators are struggling: What does it mean for subjects to wear/carry a name (porter un nom) that they didn't choose, but that was transmitted to them? And, more specifically, what is the impact of Jewish names that either carry the trace of a continuity (in cases where the transmission of the name remained the same for many generations) or that bear the mark of a rupture by the name changes undertaken by parents, a breach not without its effects on subsequent generations?

Although the description of this text might suggest a particularly Jewish, and hence rather limited, scope, in fact, like the two previous travail de culture noted above, the themes covered here have strong universal resonances. Name changes occur frequently among the immigrant populations in all cities. Not only have immigrants voluntarily changed names to avoid identification and persecution, but there are also involuntary name changes made through immigration ports.

More than one writer mentions the anecdote of an elderly Polish Jew who has been advised to choose an American-sounding name when he arrives so that the civil state authorities will not incorrectly translate his name. He asks advice from a baggage handler who proposes the name Rockefeller. He repeats this name several times but when he arrives at the desk of the officer in charge, he can't remember it. When asked his name, the Jew replies in Yiddish, "shoyn fargesn!" ("I've already forgotten it"), and so he ends up with the very American-sounding name, with Gaelic origins, of Sean Ferguson.

As clinicians, we are all exposed to the significant implications of the name and name change. As noted by Daniel Widlocher in the collection under review, "there is no psychoanalytic cure without which the proper name in the mind of the subject is not taken into consideration" (p.356). The origin of the name, the history of the name, and the place the name plays in the identity of the subject are usually approached in the preliminary sessions and then enter the analysis in word play, in symbolic equivalences, in dreams and omissions.

La Force du Nom opens with a series of very short vignettes by the original collaborators and sets the tone for the rest of the book: a prose poem ("A Name is a Rose of the Winds"), a song poem ("A Given Name of Silk"), a personal memoir ("The Frontiers of the Name"), a lyrical overture on the accent of names as a trace of places, and an informative preface on the prehistory of names. Written in a particularly intense voice by the principal organizer and editor of La Force du Nom, Masson's piece, "The Accent of Names as a Trace of Places," introduces us to the singularity of each name in its sonority, emphasizing the uniqueness of pronunciation, the savor of the name in our mouths, the literal vibrations of our own name voiced, and the name of others which link us, through sound, to the weight of our ancestors. She writes that names, like faces, identify us, reminding us that these names stick to our skin, and in trying to get rid of them, they return like significant carriers of our origins.

The first section, entitled "Name Changing in History and the Hebraization of Names," begins with an article by Nicole Lapierre. Lapierre, a sociologist, discusses the situation of name changes in France, especially after World War II, where name changing was frequently an attempt to de-Judaize names in order to avoid further sociopolitical conflict. Three subsequent articles, written by a jurist, a lawyer, and a philosopher, each comment on the legal status of names and name changing today in France. Given the rigidity regarding a reversal of the law in France, many people are challenging the current laws in France today. An interesting short piece by Meir Waintrater, the editor in chief of Arche, describes a personal vignette when he was 7 years old living in Paris. When the teacher asked whether there was anyone in the class who was not French, young Meir raised his hand and said "I'm Jewish." The teacher, described by the author as a republican, immediately responded, "C'est francais." Years later, Weintrater begins to question the implicit message of "C'est," of "that is French."
In addition, a number of authors discuss the general situation of name changing among Ashkenazi Jews. Beider, another linguist, outlines the history of name changes among Jews over the past three centuries. As a chronicler of names, he gives an extensive list of names and their Slavic, Russian, Austrian, and other Eastern European derivations. By contrast, the analyst Régine Waintrater discusses the two faces of Jewish names: the public secular name and the private Hebrew name, which is always identified as a given name with the identifying tag "son of" or "daughter of" plus the given names of the parents (e.g., Sylvia, daughter of Sam and Sarah, or Barry, son of David and Edith). By pointing this out, she raises the question of the psychological significance of the patronymic. Writing about the situation in Israel, Aslanov, another linguist, points out that almost all immigrants to Palestine from 1881 onward hebraized their patronymics as a way of turning the page and beginning a new chapter, thereby burning the bridges to the legacy of the diaspora and the baggage of exile.

In terms of the climate following both world wars, all authors in this first section seem to agree that name changing is a concession, facilitating access to certain professional or environmental settings. Yet they also agree that the adoption of another name cements an ideological option heavy in its stakes. For some, there is a double identity revealed by both a hidden or concealed name and a public or social name.

The second part, entitled "'That Is Why They Called It (In the Name of…)' The Act of Naming in the Bible," focuses on the act of naming and the symbolism of names in Jewish sources and in Judaism in general. In Judaism, nomination has a significant bearing on both the collective and the personal. All of the vital force and energy of Judaism is concentrated on the proper name of divinity. The name of God cast in its signification as HaShem, or simply the Name, is full of a weightiness that is noted repeatedly throughout the Bible (God's name in all its declensions is mentioned 164 times in the Hebrew Bible, and fills volumes of religious commentary). This name is so powerful that there is an injunction against its being spoken, because one is forbidden to enter the essence of the Divine.

In this part of the book, a number of authors write about the impact of Jewish naming in the Bible (Francine Kaufmann), in midrash, in the commentaries (Thierry Alcolumbre), and in its function in both Judaism and Christianity (Alain Didier-Weill). A personal anecdote regarding the meaning of naming by a French jurist and political scientist, Raphael Drai, interrogates the question: what does it mean to name a child? He points out that in Judaism, naming is not a designation but a "calling." The singularity of the name, he argues, is that it is an appellation and holds itself out to be said, spoken. This section also includes the text of a brief play written by Fabienne Ankaoua, written specifically for the colloquium.

The third part, entitled "When the Transmission of the Name is a Transgression: The Family Romance of the Name," is the most psychoanalytically informed part of the book, and addresses the important question: what is the significance of the name in the unconscious? It is my reading that all authors here agree that although a proper name is both given and transmitted, each subject must appropriate it individually. In other words, the proper name requires some transformation in its transmission, a "grappling with," as noted by Goethe and cited in Freud's Totem and Taboo: "What thou hast inherited from thy fathers, acquire it to make it thine" (p.158).

Moreover, the authors remind us that although a name is given to each child, it is truly acquired only at the cost of a struggle, a fight with the father. If the name sticks, then the subject is recorded in the chain of generations, and this untranslatable signifier supports and transmits both repression and symbolic castration. For as Lacan writes: "The subject, as much as he is a slave to language, is he not even more so that of a discourse in a universal movement of which his place is already inscribed at birth in the form of his name?" (Lacan, 2002[1957], p.140).

Catherine Desprats-Péquignot asks whether it is possible (or impossible) "to inhabit a sense of home in one's name, to make it one's own place, one's chez moi, to be and to live in it, and to be able to sustain it." (p.275) After discussing the case of a little girl suffering from severe myasthenia whose name became a destructive force threatening her existence and her capacity to survive as a healthy subject, Desprats-Péquignot concludes that "to be born into one's name and to be able to recognize the name one carries, which one is given and which one appropriates—is not evident." Instead, she suggests it will depend on the way an infant is inscribed, is called, and is invited or not to recognize itself there. As in the case presented, we see how the name can have an impact on the legitimacy of the subject; each child itself, in the thread of its history, must locate and inscribe itself there, and sustain a place for itself as subject even in the face of conflict, familial or otherwise.

Jocelyn Hattab discusses the name as prophesy or destiny. She reviews the history of names, speaking specifically about the given name, and identifying the source of names in different cultures. In speaking about the first name, she concludes, based on her clinical work, that although naming gives life to an infant, the success with which a given name is integrated in the subject will depend on a variety of factors, including the parent's hopes and dreams, their projections and narcissistic wishes. Like Desprats-Péquignot, she concludes that name giving will inevitably be a place of conflict in relationships between parents and children.

Contrary to the emphasis placed on the patronymic or surname by many of the authors, Robert Samacher points out that there can be pas de nom sans prenom. He points out that the family name can or may designate a familial ensemble but does not singularize an individual. Instead, he claims that the given name(s) serves the function of nomination and its transmission. Using circumcision as the ritual around which this transmission is performed, Samacher demonstrates how the literal cut in the real of the body and the separation from the body of the mother allows for the nomination and the inscription of the paternal metaphor through the prenom. Both the mother and the father are sealed by law (paradigmatically in the circumcision rite) to support the incest taboo and thereby to acknowledge the castration of, or lack in, the big Other. Distinguishing between the patronymic and proper name, he concludes that the given name and/or the patronymic either can or cannot inscribe one as one of the names of the father, which will depend on the particularity of each case.

The fourth part, entitled "The Act of Nomination and the Power of Thought," is announced by two brief quotes: the first by Freud, from Totem and Taboo, and the second by Albert Camus:

Les mots sonts des revenants.
(Words are ghosts.)
Mal nommer les choses, c'est ajouter au malheur du Monde.
(To name things wrongly is to add to the unhappiness of the World.)

This part, the largest section of La Force du Nom, focuses on issues regarding the construction of memory and reality and the transmission of thoughts. Here the authors address such questions as: what it means to be a Jew today in a world of secularism; what is transmitted of Judaism in a Jewish name; and in those cases in which a name has been changed to sound less foreign or Jewish, what one can say about the transmission of one's Jewish identity.

In each of the papers in "The Act of Nomination and the Power of Thought," names are addressed in various clinical and literary contexts. For example, there is a piece on Lanzmann's film Shoah; on the polyphony of names in the work of the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld; on the name in three German-Jewish fiction writers; on Hebrew names in the works of Balzac, Flaubert, and Mallarmé; and on the translations and/or transgressions of names in various works of fiction. The latter article points out the importance of nontranslation of names, citing as one example among many the transgressive impact of modifying or translating Joyce's Leopold Bloom into Leopold Floraison (in French).

In addition, there is a wonderful piece by Michelle Moreau Ricaud, a French analyst, on the name change of the Hungarian psychoanalyst, Michael Balint, née Mihaly Bergsmann, in 1896. Balint apparently changed his name at 17 in the last year of his attendance at a lycée. In this article, we also learn of the Jewish roots of Ferenczi, whose name had been Fraenkel, and Rank, whose name had been Rosenfeld. According to a letter written from Balint to Jones in 1954 regarding some biographical details on a manuscript about Freud, name changes had been a la mode a cette epoque là, further stating that a number of Jews had changed their German-sounding names to those that sounded more Hungarian.

I agree with Gozlan, who closes the book, when she writes that what was striking about so many of the papers was the personal content, the weaving of the personal and the theoretical, as if one could not speak about this topic without the introduction of oneself. It is this that made this collection of papers such a sampling of creative and emotionally moving writing. Although not all of the papers are even meant for a psychological community, there were so many interesting facts to learn, so many clinical details to discover that enriched my appreciation of the proper name and its importance in our clinical practice.

Le nom propre fait vibrer intensement les cordes les plus intimes et les plus subtles de la pensee mythique4 (Cohen, p.56). Names are the indications and monitors of each person's personal journey through life, the voyage of a life and a death. The name is bestowed without a choice, without consent from the person upon whom it is bequeathed. Our name precedes us and follows us. We carry our name unto our death. Even before birth, there is a place for us in our family. Is it a burden or a release? A prophetic destiny? The name has a way of insinuating itself into the fiber of each of us and we come to grow into it, live out our name without any conscious awareness of its impact.

1. For a fuller explanation of the function of the proper name, see Himes (2005).
2. L'Université Paris Diderot; Akadem; Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE); la Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah; la revue Arche; le centre de recherches Psychanalyse, Medecine et Societe de l'université hébraïque de Jérusalem; and la musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme (Mahj).
3. This and other translations of titles/phrases from French to English are all the work of this author.
4. The proper name intensely touches all the most intimate and subtle chords of mythical thought.


Cavarero, A. (2000). Relating narratives: Storytelling and selfhood. London, UK: Routledge.

Cohen, E. (1999). Narrer les noms. In Le Silence du Nom et autres essais. Paris, France: des femmes.

Freud, S. (1913 [1912-13]) Totem and Taboo. The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XIII. London, UK: Vintage, The Hogarth Press, 2001

Himes, M. (2005). What's in a name? Reflections on Lacanian Perspective. Journal for Lacanian Studies, 3(2), 209–221.

Homer, (1960) The Odyssey. Trans. Ennis Rees. New York, NY: Modern Library.

Howatson, M. C. (1997). The Oxford companion to classical literature. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Lacan, J. (2002[1957]) 'The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud', in Écrits: A Selection (pp.138–168). Trans. Bruce Fink. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Lacan, J. (1961–1962) The seminar. Book IX: Identification (Cornac Gallagher, Trans.). Unpublished.

Lacan, J. (1964–1965) The seminar. Book XII: Crucial problems in psychoanalysis (Cormac Gallagher, Trans.). Unpublished.

Lacan, J. (1993). The seminar. Book III: The psychoses (Russell Grigg, Trans.). New York, NY: Norton. (Original work published in 1955–1956)

I did not include references for Pikler and Max-Muller as these are both quotes from Freud's Totem and Taboo, with page references in the text.


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