What’s in a Name

When I joined the Walla Walla YMCA in 2018, I was intrigued to learn that the organization, originally founded as the Young Men’s Christian Association in England 175 years ago, had nationally rebranded itself as “the Y” in 2010. And that while specific affiliates, such as the Walla Walla YMCA retain their legal names as YMCA’s, collectively we are part of the newly-branded Y. The reason for this name change, as is often the case when organizational name changes occur, is that the Y decided to embrace the name by which it has been known by most of its members over the years.

This got me thinking about names in general. In remaking its corporate image to be most responsive to its members, the Y took advantage of the opportunity to expand its mission to encompass youth and teen development, healthy living and social responsibility. It remains true to its core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility. Today’s Y offers diverse and inclusive programs and services, embracing people of all races, gender, economic background and ability.

And that got me thinking about the names that we use to identify the myriad programs and services offered by the Y, in how we address our members and guests, and how the communities that we serve influence us and vice versa.

At the Walla Walla Y we emphasize programs that are intended to be responsive to interests and needs in Walla Walla and surrounding rural communities – with focus on youth and teens and adults of all ages. In recent times, however, a debate has sparked as to the most appropriate and least ageist way to identify individuals over the age of 65 (and even those as young as 55). “Senior citizen,” “elderly,” and “baby boomer” titles tend to inappropriately categorize people. And so at the Y we are actively joining a national discussion by asking our active adults to help us best name those programs that best represent their experience, maturity and distinguished life service.

At the Y, we strive to personally greet members by their names and this means understanding the diverse cultures that comprise our membership. We understand that across the globe different cultures adhere to different personal naming conventions. As example, Russian names contain three parts – a given name, a middle name based on the father’s first name (patronymic), and the father’s surname. So if Vladimir Aleksandrovich Petrov has two children, his daughter’s name will be Anna Vladimirovna Petrova (where the “a” at the end of all three names denotes “female”) and his son’s name will be Ivan Vladimirovich Petrov.

Chinese names typically consist of three characters – one character represents the family name followed by a two-character given name. The official name is used on the birth certificate and for school, however, a different name is used among friends, schoolmates, and colleagues.

With the vibrant Spanish-speaking culture in the Walla Walla Valley, we have learned that children from these cultures often have a given name (frequently a two-part name) and two surnames, one of which is the father’s family name followed by the mother’s family name. For example, a girl named Maria Lorena López Ramírez, may retain both López and Ramírez when registering for school and Y programs. It is acceptable to call her Maria Lorena. To make sure that we are respectful of the family’s desired name use, the Y’s Child Development and youth and teen sports programs will often ask parents for guidance as to the preferred names to use when registering their children in programs.

And then there are the couples who belong to the Y, many of whom represent nations from around the globe. We want to remain diligent in recognizing both American traditions and the norms of other countries. Here too we remind ourselves that some people change their names when they marry, either by taking a new last name, or compounding the two surnames. Other couples elect to retain their individual surnames. As example, in Canada, both common law partners and married spouses may informally assume the other spouse’s surname after marriage. In Austria, a woman must opt out of using the husband’s name upon marriage. In Germany, the couple may elect to combine their two surnames into one new single “family name” or elect to keep one of their original names as the family name or use a hyphenated double family name combining both surnames.

We also appreciate that many of our members were born or raised elsewhere and are reminded that countless cities and countries around the world have officially changed their names over time. The reason for such change makes for an interesting study in its own right. Changes may be due to such things as alterations in the political structure or social or religious control of a region, commemorative reasons or public consensus that the name is no longer representative. Those who love geography know that Persia is now Iran, Ceylon is now Sri Lanka, and Kampuchea is once again Cambodia. Closer to home, we know that the Alaskan village once called Novoarkhangelsk (“New Archangel”) is now Sitka and Moses Lake was originally settled as Neppel. And trivia lovers may appreciate that Halfway, Oregon was temporarily renamed, Oregon in order to secure financial support and 20 computers from an internet start-up.

The Walla Walla Y has been an important part of the history of Walla Walla, having been established here over 133 years ago. It is well known that the city’s name comes from a First Nations name meaning “place of many waters,” and identifies the place where several small streams run into a larger one. There is also a small rural town in New South Wales Australia named Walla Walla. According to experts in that area’s Wiradjuri aboriginal language, the name is said to relate to “strength or hardness” – believed to refer to the hardness of the granite outcrops in the area. However, there are others who believe that the Australian’s town name derived from “Walan Walan,” meaning “place of many rocks or rocks overlooking water.”

If the latter is correct, both Walla Wallas bear names related in some way to water. Water itself is a word known by various names in every language and carries both personal and societal importance. Whether one talks about water in terms of global impact or its importance to individual health, just as every drop counts so do the words we use daily. It’s all in the name.

© 2019 Walla Walla YMCA. The YMCA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity dedicated to Youth Development, Healthy Living, and Social Responsibility.
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