So, first off, how do a person and his or her name get to match? Is this because their parents/family instinctively choose an appropriate name? Is it the child who unconsciously tries to live up to what his or her name implies? How do the wishes and expectations the family has for the child come into play? How do name and personality influence each other as the person grows?
And, in addition, what exactly determines who will get called by the full version of their name, by an abbreviation, or even by a nick-name, and what do all these choices mean?
I’d like to start with my own name: Heide (which means both heathen and heath in German) Barbara (which means stranger, barbarian in Latin). I´m quite sure my parents were unaware of the fact that both names pretty much mean the same, just from a different point of view. And it is interesting for me to see how much these names seem to have shaped my life even at times when it would never have occurred to me to sit back and think about the significance of my name, let alone wonder if I was living up to it.
And then there’s the fact that Heide has no real diminutive. I have always resented that in a way. I felt I was missing out on endearments I could have been called with. Funnily this is connected with one of the reasons why I was given this name: My mother’s name can be shortened and she had to deal with the same problems Sam/Sammy had. And she hated it. And she wanted to spare her kids that fate.
Back to Supernatural: So how does the use of names come into play in our show? How do the name choices in the beginning reflect the creator’s expectations for the character, and how do they shape the characters´ development and growth in the course of the seasons?
Let me start with Sam and Dean. How did the brothers´names get chosen?
Here’s a quote from Wikipedia (“Supernatural (TV Series)”)
“When it came time to name the two lead characters, Kripke decided on “Sal” and “Dean” as an homage to Jack Kerouac‘s road-trip novel On the Road. However, he felt that “Sal” was inappropriate for the main character, and changed the name to “Sam” – Wikiquote from “Fact scarier than fiction”. The Daily Telegraph. March 8, 2007
So Dean got his name from another character on the road, and Sam got his because it almost sounded like the name of another character on the road, but was more appropriate?
Is that it?
From Jasminka´s wonderful WFB article: “What’s In A Name?” we learn that both Dean and Sam carry names that seem to fit them very well. As far as we know, Eric Kripke, their creator, who chose their names, had his visions of how the overall story would go pretty much mapped out from the start, and therefore must have had a general idea for the brothers´ personality. At that point, however, even he couldn’t know how the finer nuances would play out and make a difference.
Sam carries a name that has hidden depths, much as he himself does. It sounds like a simple, common name, but when seen in its long form, it’s a very old name, a name that famous people have had before him. So in its most immediate connotation, it’s a name that promises greatness, significance, without specifying the exact nature of that significance. It invites the bearer to strive for greatness without telling him exactly how to do this, thus giving him the freedom of choice.
And Sam does strive. Of the two, he is the one who wants to better himself, the one to try and realize his full potential, he is the one to look for a greater meaning. He is also the one arrogant enough at one point to believe that he alone could make a difference, that he alone was meant to save the world , as we all saw in Season 4.
There are three different versions of his name people can choose from. He is Samuel, Sam and Sammy, all the same man, the same name, but different ways to look at him. So Sam gets the luxury of being confronted with and thus exploring the different aspects of his existence by having people call him or not call him with different variants of his name:
Sammy is the beloved kid brother and son, the dewy-eyed geek, the sensitive compassionate soul, and also a little idiot who can´ t be taken seriously. Coming from different people and in different situations, it is used for expressing affection or disdain.
Samuel, the name he never gets called with, is the man at his fullest, all potential realized, the complete man he isn’t yet and never will be, because no one is ever complete.
Sam is the grown and growing man, the one with aspirations, the one who wants to better himself, to be the best he can be, to live up to his potentials, to be Samuel. Having Dean and others at least sometimes switch between those versions, and not use one of them at all, keeps reminding him and us of his many facets, thus forcing him to find a balance between all the things he is and could be.
With Dean it’s very different. Dean’s name seems very appropriate as well. It closely relates to the main role he plays in life: big brother, protector, mentor.
However, in his case, this name also pins him to the role, it’s both a name and a function: how very fitting for Dean who has trouble defining or even seeing himself outside of what he does for others. As there would be no point to a dean without others connected to him, Dean sees no point in his existence without having people he can take care of. He is allowed to be great as well, but the name suggests that his greatness should not cross the boundaries of his role. And every time he hears his name, he also hears what he is “meant” to do, over and over again.
This effect is enhanced by the fact there are no other ways to call him. He has, presumably, always been Dean and always will be. This also means that unlike for Sam, there are no real ways to express the different roles he has in people’s life through what they call him.
On the one hand this gives the impression of him just being whole and in balance, he is simply Dean, no matter which role he is currently playing. His one-version-only name seems to emphasize that and serves as a stabilizing factor.
One the other hand he loses that other aspect, this being confronted with him having many sides and different roles for different people in different situations. Dean is always Dean, he has his own roles, but is never invited to introspection the way Sam is. Incidentally it is Sam who is the far more introspective of the two. Did this, in part, grow out of his being confronted with the issue of who he is, over and over? Did Dean not do it, in part, because this confrontation never happened for him?
And, from a meta point of view, did those two characters behave and develop in this way because the quality of their name suggested that they might and the writers, perceptive as they are and have to be, picked up on that, and then it went from there? Or in other words, did the choice of names predetermine the direction of the characters´ further growth and development?
There is one aspect that has to be mentioned when dealing with names that I won’t go into too much here: Both Sam and Dean often go by false names, giving them completely different personas on a regular basis. It rarely happens for an extended period of time, but it does allow them to take a break from who they are, to be someone completely different, to hide and rest in the shadow of someone else. Getting called by many different names, “being” different people, I imagine, will probably make it easier for them in a way to put their personal issues into perspective. It probably has a certain destabilizing effect as well, though, too many personalities, false or real, and you might get in danger of losing yourself. However, this is pure conjecture so far, and maybe another topic worth exploring.
There are other people in the Supernatural world, of course, other uses of names worth having a look at:
Mary is just Mary. We don’t learn enough about her to find out if and how her name influenced her. We do however know that the effect of her being this unattainable – lost – perfect, almost iconic mother figure, an “Ubermutter” (Ubermother) as we would say in German, is enhanced by the choice of name in her case, by the image this name creates and by the fact that there is just “Mary.” Had her name been, say Patricia, and everybody had called her Patty, the overall impact would have been quite different.
Did anybody ever call him Johnny? Not that we know, not since we knew him.
I imagine that in his later years, no one would have thought of it: he was a hard man, no Johnny, and not daddy either. Unlike for Sam, there is no fuller version to his name, no ideal he can try to live up to, no idea beyond the hard man he is stuck in: this is maybe on of the biggest differences between these two characters who share so many character traits.
There’s another interesting aspect to John: When he was in soldier mode, his sons – whenever they accepted their role as subordinates – called him “Sir”, the most disconnected and impersonal way they could address another man. He ceased being John and he ceased even being their father, let alone Dad, in those moments. And if he was aware of that he probably welcomed it. The disconnection expressed through this way of addressing their father helped them all keep their minds on the job at hand and their feelings out of it. It probably helped them survive sometimes. It sure scarred them as well, all three of them.
There is a bigger name hidden in here as well, not as old as the others, but a solid strong full name. Everybody calls him Bobby, though, actually the equivalent of Sammy as far as name-structure goes, and, one would think, the least fitting version of his name for a man his age and personality.
So why does he get called Bobby?
Is this because the people who care about him instinctively try to help the man who has been hardened by his experiences, by appealing to his softest part, reminding him of the child in him? Unlike Sam, he doesn’t seem to mind, because his issues are different: He has no need of anyone acknowledging the fact he’s a grown man, everyone is aware. What he needs is connection, even though he shuns it on the outside, and allowing himself to be called Bobby is one way to at least start to achieve it, inviting it in.
She is living with her full name, she keeps getting reminded of the fact that she has to be “her fullest”, as strong as she can, on an everyday basis. Relaxing a little, have people call her Lis probably gives her an occasional break and a sense of connection in a world in which she must feel quite alone sometimes, in her struggle for survival as a single mother.
I am guessing she probably wouldn’t want to be called Lizzy though, because she can’t allow herself to let go to that extent.
It’s interesting that Ben has always been Ben, not Benny, not even when he was eight. He couldn’t be Benny, because that would have left too much responsibility for his mother to bear.
We don’t know if it was her choice not to call him Benny. I doubt it, I would hazard a guess that it was Ben who insisted he was not a little kid, unconsciously trying to lighten the burden on her shoulders (as a single mother of one son I know from experience that kids in that position tend to do exactly that). He felt had to grow up, making it easier for her.
Is just Samuel, it seems – even his wife called him mostly that – and the name is too big for him. He lacks connection as well, he is desperately seeking it now, and no one is there to provide it for him (yet). He is just Samuel, a lost soul in the guise of a strong man.
He was probably never allowed to be just Sam – admitting he is fallible. He couldn’t allow himself to be, he wanted to be strong and perfect for his family, to protect them, and he failed. Now he is actually a little Sammy looking for a way to go on. Him being “Samuel” though keeps people at a distance, and they fail to see the lost little boy.
This one is fairly simple and straightforward: Castiel is the angel, and Cas is Dean and Sam’s friend. Dean sometimes simply calls Cas, their friend, and Sam and Dean both use “Castiel” to pray to the angel, to summon him.
While Sam effortlessly switches to the notion that their friend is an angel to be treated and talked to respectfully as a general rule, Dean seems to have trouble with that. Every time he uses his friend’s full name he gives the impression of doing it ironically, as if he felt slightly, or very foolish for doing so. Cas is now simply Cas to him, not Castiel, the angel. He seems to dislike being reminded of the latter, Sam, not so much.
And then there´s Balthazar, the one with the absurdly difficult and long name that can’t be made into anything else, and who gets a kick out of calling his co-angels, presumably two of the most powerful beings in existence at present, by quite absurd-sounding endearments, Cassie and Raphie. This tells us nothing about those two, but quite a lot about Balthazar – rogue angel and thief, who has decided to make his own rules.
There´s others, too, of course:
Johnny of lately, a guy not quite grown up yet, living a make-believe life with a doll and cruel in a way children would be cruel.
Jo, who uses and is called by a gender-neutral, or, if anything a male-sounding abbreviation of her name, stressing how being a hunter takes precedence over everything else for her and robbing her of everything else she could have been as well.
Ellen, with a full female name, stressing she is both feminine and awesome.
And I’m sure there are others that I have missed.
Some of these names will have been conscious choices by the writers to stress who they wanted the character to be. Yet some of them, especially those of characters that got to grow and develop a life of their own over the years, were chosen, but then started to interact with their meaning and gave both the name and the character more depth and a further layer for us to enjoy.
Thank you for taking the time to read this! If you have any comments and/or additional ideas, I would love to hear them.