Who gets to name Kamala Harris?
For those of us in the hearing world, the question may scarcely make sense. Vice President Harris is a grown woman whose name is well established (despite opponents’ attempts to diminish her by deliberately mangling it). But for American Sign Language users, the question was a pressing one after the 2020 election. Harris needed a name sign—a sign that personally represents an individual—as well as a spelled name.
Across languages and cultures, names typically have a dual nature. Names in spoken languages are both a sound and a spelling, with some flexibility in the pairings. ASL name signs, though, are much less tightly linked to spellings and much more individual. They are also more likely to be chosen or changed by people other than parents during the course of a person’s life, to reflect the person’s distinctive qualities.
In the case of Kamala Harris the choice was a complex and consequential one, as the New York Times recently decribed. Name signs, even for hearing people, are usually chosen by Deaf people who use ASL and understand the nuances of Deaf culture. Other aspects of culture and identity can add to the equation. To ensure that Harris’s name would reflect both her heritage and accomplishments, a group of Black and Indian Deaf women came together to create a naming process. They sought a sign that would fit Harris as a unique person, while honoring her status as the first female, Black and Asian US Vice President. Their ultimate selection:
“A hand gesture that involves rotating your wrist externally as your thumb, index and middle finger unfurl open. The name sign draws inspiration, among other things, from the sign for ‘lotus flower’ — the direct translation of the word ‘Kamala’ in Sanskrit — and incorporates the number 3 to underscore Ms. Harris’s trifecta of firsts.”
I recommend reading the Times article to see the Kamala Harris sign in action, and to see additional videos of Deaf people discussing their own name signs and how they came to be. It’s a revealing glimpse into a rich name culture, and highlights some universal name truths:
“New and creative” can be serious business. Our culture tends to equate “traditional” and “serious.” From literature to fashion, we’re inclined to treat new inventions as intrinsically lightweight compared to creations of the past. Naming a child after their great-grandparent, for instance, is considered a serious approach to baby names. But a look at the process of inventing name signs shows just how profound and considered creative naming can be.
“Meanings” are just the beginning. When talking about names, we often focus on the literal roots behind them. Yet the “meaning” of a name is transformed by the mere fact of it becoming a name. Names are simultaneously more abstract and more personal, and even new names taken directly from words are pulled in that new direction. We can see it happening in real time with customizations like taking an ASL sign for an initial letter and presenting it with a new motion, or taking an English word and subtly respelling it. The changes emphasize the individuality of the symbol.
A single name can hit differently as we go through life. A name assigned at birth, or a nickname acquired in early childhood, may not feel like a fit as we grow into adulthood. Trying on multiple nicknames is a common rite of passage for adolescents, and name signs can similarly change to reflect different stages and settings of life. But names can also grow with us, or into us. One man interviewed in the Times article described his name sign, chosen by a friend in middle school, as “not quite something I was exactly proud of.” But now, he says, “it fits me…it’s who I am.”
We won’t all have the opportunity for an elite committee to thoughtfully create our ideal names. But just contemplating the idea may help us appreciate the many facets of our own names, and the changing names around us.