So what IS in a name? Quite a lot when you start to unpack it.
As a celebrant with the charity Humanist Society Scotland, one of my roles is to perform naming ceremonies for families. These are mostly used as a secular alternative to christenings for babies and what a joy they are. Friends and family come together to hear the family’s story, to learn about why the name was chosen, to reflect upon the hopes, dreams and aspirations for the baby’s future, and most importantly – to formally give them their name.
There are lots of added extras that can be woven into a naming ceremony to make it that wee bit more special. Provided there’s no religious content we’ll find a way to make sure that any ceremony is entirely personal for each family. Symbolic gestures and readings are often included, as are promises from special people in the child’s life. What goes into a naming ceremony is really only as limited as the imagination.
Naming ceremonies are heart-warming, happy and (especially if there are a lot of young children around) sometimes completely chaotic. They are great fun, family events and I just love doing them.
So why feel moved to write something for a wider audience on the subject?
The past year of working as a naming celebrant has provided a lot of food for thought about names; how integral they are to our view of ourselves, and how much it matters that we can relate to and rely upon them. Although most of us rarely give our own names much thought, think how quickly we correct others if they get it wrong.
Some years ago, my stepdaughter changed her name to Leigh. She did so as soon as she was legally able to at 16. She explained that she wanted a name that was more gender-neutral than the one she’d been given.
Upon reflection, I realised that she had always hated her name –preferring her family nickname and giving us some serious side-eye if we ever forgot. We did not understand that this was coming from an extremely profound place.
If I’m honest, I thought little of it at the time. As far as I was concerned, if she wanted to have a different name that was up to her and I would completely support her decision. Most (although crucially not all) of the family were of a similar view. I had no understanding of how very important the change was for her and why it mattered so much. I think I get it a bit now.
If names are important, and we have occasions specifically to formally name children, then surely – if an adult is changing their name – this should be just as much a cause for celebration? Adults can explain the reasons and the emotions behind their new name in a way that young children cannot. And – let’s face it – can celebrate with everyone else too!
Adult naming ceremonies have long been available through Humanist Society Scotland, but they seem to be very rare. I suspect this might be about a lack of awareness, which is why I wanted to write this piece.
There are many reasons an adult might change their name. It may be that they have simply never liked the one they were given. The potential within the trans community is obvious, or it could be that – like Leigh – there is a desire for gender neutrality. Whatever the reason, it is always important. If we choose our own name, we should not only shout that from the rooftops, but we should find a way to celebrate. It is an opportunity to make it clear to everyone that the old name is no longer relevant or welcome, to thank all those who have supported and championed the change and – perhaps – to draw a line in the sand for anyone who has been less supportive.
Leigh and I have spoken about this often. I wanted to know if a naming celebration for family and friends would have been useful at the time. Here’s what she had to say:
“When I changed my name legally things finally felt complete. I never resonated with my birth name and would wince when people called me it. Changing my name to a gender neutral one finally made everything fit into place. Had I known about naming ceremonies back then, it would have been something really amazing; to celebrate becoming the person I always knew I was!”
If you would like to discuss holding a naming celebration for yourself or a friend or family member, please visit the Humanist Society Scotland website, where you can search for a local celebrant:
Or if you would like more general information about the work of Humanist Society Scotland, you can contact the office on: firstname.lastname@example.org