When I heard that my cousin Donny’s daughter, Cherie, had named her baby Cohen Michael, I knew it wasn’t because she was a Philo-Semite and wanted to show solidarity with the Jews. On the contrary, I would have bet my bottom dollar that she was completely unaware that Cohen (from Hebrew, kohen, priest) is the most common Jewish surname and indicates priestly descent. And I would have been right.
Turns out, Cherie named her baby Cohen after a character on the O.C, whose name is Seth Cohen but is referred to familiarly on the show as “Cohen.” Turns out, there are lots of people out there who watch the show and thought it was a cool name. In 2004, Cohen first appeared in the top 1000 baby names, and last year it climbed to 393.
Naming our children was not easy for me. Maybe I viewed the whole undertaking as bearing more gravitas than it actually did, but, like all parents, I was taking many things into consideration, from wanting to honor the memory of the dead to not wanting the name to be too ethnic or too unusual. I wanted names that could be transported and translated easily into the worlds that my children, specifically, move in – my Christian family in Indiana and our Jewish family in New York, Israel and elsewhere. Most importantly, I didn’t feel their names should be a reflection of my personality, because this was their name, one they would take with them all their lives. Study after study has directly linked people’s names to how others perceive them and therefore to their own self-esteem and ultimately, to their physical health and success. So Elmer and Herbert (my family) were out, as were Zvi and Tzippora.
What we call people was also on my mind this week with the controversy surrounding Senator Harry Reid. In the forthcoming book, Game Change, he is quoted as having referred to President Obama as a light-skinned African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Politically correct this might not have been (though I would argue that there’s nothing inherently unkind or even pejorative about it), but it doesn’t change the fact that it is a statement that most would believe to be correct. He is somewhat light-skinned, and Barack Obama has no distinguishable accent. Barack Obama’s intonation is that of every-man. And that’s partially why he’s president. Frankly, we do want “every-man, or every-woman” to represent us, and if President Obama can relate to each group individually with his choice of language and speech patterns, then more power to him. Don’t we all do it, one way or another, using a certain voice with family and another with friends and yet another professionally? When I’ve gone to Jewish fundraisers here in New York City, I’ve noticed how, when the honorees get up to the podium, their speech is littered with Yiddishisms and they fall into that sing-songy, Borscht Belt intonation. But I’m guessing they don’t channel their inner Jackie Mason at their board meetings.
Anyway, for some, it was the word “Negro” (from Portuguese, negro, black) that was deemed offensive. When I grew up, the word “Negro” was considered proper, even respectful. Indeed, “black” would have been viewed as being a slur.
There’s a real double standard as to who is allowed to use what names and what words. Jews call other Jews Jappy all the time – it makes me cringe, but sometimes I’ve used the term because it’s the fastest way to get across my meaning. Yet, if a non-Jew says it, we cry anti-Semitism. Likewise, even though I’m aware that I don’t “look” Jewish, I’m not offended if Jews say to me, as many, many have over the years, “You don’t look Jewish.” I don’t assume it’s intended to make me feel that I’m an outsider, not authentic. It’s just how they see it. Conversely, it’s only in the safety of my home or with my close friends that I would say someone “looks” Jewish or doesn’t look Jewish. In the past, I have quite innocently said, “I didn’t think you were Spanish/Jewish/black,” and have been reprimanded or glared at. I wasn’t indicating that looking one way or the other was good or bad, it was simply an observation, much as, “Oh, you sound Australian. I didn’t realize you were South African.” Often, by the way, the people I was talking to were a mixture of races, and so I was half right. Just so you know.
Language is fluid, as are our identities. What meant something yesterday means something entirely different today. My sister, Sarah, called me to read a passage from a 19th century novel in which a character had reached his “crisis.” Like me, Sarah is a closet philologist, and she looked it up and discovered that “crisis” originally meant “turning point,” usually with respect to recovering from an illness. Thus, in 19th century literature, it wasn’t a stretch to apply the word “crisis” to a different turning point, that point of no return, the orgasm. Sarah is currently working on a project centering around the use of the word “cougar,” a word that describes a woman over 40 who is sexy. Is this a sexist word, with its predatory-like connotations? Or not? Depends on who you ask.
Words and names are subjective. What we call ourselves, what we call others – it’s all connected to how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves through others’ eyes. But there are no language police out there who offer the final authority on defining what those words mean and what’s acceptable and what’s not. Nobody owns words or definitions or names, and nobody can arbitrarily decide that Cohen must be a Jewish last name or that a crisis is something that one must struggle through.
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