levmore1_Rob CarrGetty Images_new name washington team Rob CarrGetty Images

Rules for Renaming

With the historical names of public and private institutions increasingly being challenged on the basis of contemporary norms and values, what criteria should determine whether a name stays or goes? Three tried-and-tested procedural solutions are worth considering.

CHICAGO – When Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” he meant that the essence of something is not determined by its label. Calling a plum a pear does not make it taste any different.

Names do have some meaning, of course. Every child is warned against “name calling,” even by those who like to think that words, unlike sticks and stones, do no harm. The names of Civil War generals, ex-presidents, the Sacklers (of opioid fame), and the Washington, DC, football team  have been removed, refused, challenged, or changed. No reasonable person today would take on the name Hitler, or even Adolf for that matter.

Names are intensely personal. When a transgender person takes a new name, their old name is called a “dead name.” The implication is that the new name signifies a new person; the old person, and their affiliated gender, has passed away, and a new person, with a new gender and name, has come to life.

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