What’s in a Name?

The Montagues and Capulets placed great store in their brand names, even to the point of stabbing one another, but the Capulet girl was a wistful voice: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Move from Verona across a few centuries to the United States, and the tension persists, especially among cranks whose affectation of being scandalized for personal gain outdoes the least righteous of the Pharisees. Ignorance of etymology fuels the fire of such people, and consequently there is the foolishness of banning the term “tar baby” from storybooks even though it has nothing to do with race. It is like an untutored man who is shocked to hear that his daughter has matriculated in public on her first day at college. There is the actual instance of the forced resignation of a mayoral aide in Washington, D.C., for using the word “niggardly” with reference to the city budget. A member of the city council, who objected that the term was racist, was weak in his grasp of Old Norse, origin of the root word nigla, which means “fussing pedantically over nonsense.”

Things got complicated when the shocked city councilman was called “homophobic” by members of the “gay community” which defended the mayoral aide as one of their own. Even the good word “gay” has become freighted with new meaning, and I expect that the Gordon Highlanders may next object that the Scottish folkdance, “the Gay Gordons,” has become misinterpreted. This is not helped by the fact that it is danced counterclockwise. Julian Bond, as head of the NAACP, an organization that has managed steadfastly to keep its official name, sensibly said of the niggardly incident: “You hate to think that you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding.”

There was real lack of understanding behind complaints about the trademarked name of the Washington Redskins professional football team, as racist and demeaning. That was shot down in District Court, the Court of Appeals, and finally by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. One of the original complaints came from a Native American who was one year old when “Redskins” was registered as a mark in 1967. I myself have no case against calling Native Americans “Native Americans,” and I am well aware that the Lenni Lenapes were tilling the land on which I was born for possibly eleven centuries before my natal day. In 1684 a Scots settler, perhaps a Gordon for all we know, said they were “gentle, kind and good.” That was in New Jersey, and anyone born in New Jersey is radically native to America, so I claim the name for myself as well.

Now the case against the Washington Redskins has been revived, and it is an echo of stirrings from the 1970’s when a group of “college activists” forced Dartmouth to change its symbol from an Indian to a Pine Tree, even though pine trees lack athletic prowess. At the time, to the embarrassment of mostly pale-faced campus “activists,” chiefs of tribes across the nation said in a survey that they wanted to keep the Indian. Dartmouth was chartered by King George III in 1769 “for the education & instruction of Youth of the Indian tribes in this Land in reading, writing & all parts of Learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing & christianizing Children of Pagans as well as in all liberal Arts and Sciences; and also of English Youth and any others.”

The King refers to “savage” tribes, as would the Declaration of Independence, protesting that His Majesty had allied the “merciless Indian savages” against the English in the colonies. The problem was not savagery but mercilessness. “Savage” is not a high compliment and certainly can be pejorative, but it is properly understood with detachment in the sense of its Latin source silvaticus, meaning wandering and wild, which would apply today to the typical undergraduate, whose vocabulary is much more limited than that of any of the Algonquian language groups.

In this there was nothing racist, for categorization according to color took hold more tenaciously and systematically only among the Rationalists of the late eighteenth century and subsequent Social Darwinists. Jefferson himself extolled the integrity and potential of Indian culture in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” to which he appended a speech of the Mingo chief Logan lamenting the destruction of his family by a white settler, as comparable to anything in classical or modern oratory. Recent scholarship has argued that “Redskin” was a rare usage before the nineteenth century and referred not to race, but to war paint designating strength and bravery, rather the way the head of the Society of Jesus is called the “Black Pope” because he wears black and not because of his skin.  But now we have a Jesuit pope who wears white, so that muddles things.

The term “Redskin” was a translation of the Peau-Rouge neologism of the benign and longsuffering French Jesuit missionaries. It was also self-referential, and the chief of the Sauks, Quashquame, was recorded in 1825 as referring to his “Red Skin nation.” James Fenimore Cooper popularized the term in allusion to native people he thought “comely” and never as an insult. Not infrequently did various sachems refer to Europeans as “red men” because of how they were sunburned by an unfamiliar outdoor life.

If we want to play social engineers with the names of sports teams, we shall catch a host of problems worldwide. Consider some of the names of teams:  Albania—Kuqezinjte (Reds and Blacks); Rwanda—Amavubi (Wasps); Poland—Bialo-Czerwoni (White and Reds). It may be that there is not a majority of Irishmen now among Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” but that is a stereotype if ever there was one. No team calls itself the “Fighting Anglo-Saxons.” Then there are the “Ragin’ Cajuns” at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and the prospect of the Minnesota “Vikings” ever taking on the Hawaiian “Rainbows” conjures overwhelming carnage. Worse would be the Penn “Quakers” up against Yeshiva University’s “Maccabees.” Christendom College has the “Crusaders” which would please King Louis IX, if not President Obama, who has suggested whitewashing the Washington Redskins, although he subsequently welcomed to the White House the NHL champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. It is nice to know that the cerebral New Jersey Institute of Technology manages to field a team called the “Scots Highlanders.” There loom the problematic Gordons again.

We have not yet reached the nadir of the Nika Riots in Justinian’s Constantinople in 532. The city was as sports crazy as we are, which is always a sign of decadence, and the Hippodrome was right next to the royal palace so that the emperor could watch the races at home before the days of television.  His wife Theodora was a sports fan even more fanatical than Justinian and helped stoke the violence that destroyed much of the city including that greatest of churches, Hagia Sophia. The teams were harmlessly named the Blue and the Green, but they came to represent political parties and, worse, theological parties, for the Blues were orthodox believers while the Greens were Monophysite heretics. Politics and religion played out in the circus was a volatile combination, and about thirty thousand were killed in one of the worst riots in history.

What then is in a name? I refer to Our Lord who says: “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). One theory is that since Jesus is speaking here to the Church in Pergamum, this is an allusion to the temple of Asclepius, on whose marble pillars were carved the names of those healed there, rather like votives in Lourdes and Fatima. More likely, it is sourced in the custom of ancient Rome to give the winner of a contest a white stone inscribed with his name as an admission ticket to the victory banquet.

All of our games are foolish unless they are understood as intimations of the great race that is set before us, which is life itself. It is so great a run and so ennobling an adventure, that to sully it with silly politics and mindless bias is to risk the prize of the Heavenly City where all the tribes go up. So, dear Juliet Capulet, it would seem that there is much in a name, and all depends on Him at whose name every knee should bend.

Fr. George W. Rutler


Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016) and The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017).

  • Don

    A really wonderful essay! I always manage to learn something from Rev. Rutler and get a few giggles along the way!

  • JIM

    My alma mater, Marquette University, a very good Jesuit university, some time back changed its nickname from the “Warriors” to the “Golden Eagles” because Warriors was ….. well ….. insulting to someone somewhere. As it turned out it was never the name that was the problem, but rather the mascot. The mascot had evolved from a student wearing a goofy looking over sized paper mache Native American head in the 1960s to an image of a proud honorable Native American (See the Florida State Seminole for example).

    The administration I suppose needed to cleanse from the university’s history any vestige of its Warrior past lest there be any further thought in any alums brain of that silly over sized head. So, they threw the baby out with the bath water. Out went the name and the mascot.

    In 1977 the Warriors from that small Jesuit University in Milwaukee surprised the world and won the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. The Golden Eagles never have.

    What’s in a name indeed!!

  • Guest

    I love reading anything by Fr. Rutler. It is a real joy.

    My only question is which is more absurd? Worrying about the name of some team or our culture that is obsessed with so-called sports? I would call it even.

  • Steven Jonathan

    Dear Father Rutler, another wonderful article! The race baiters and their speech codes transmogrify faster than mold grows on bread. How are we to keep up?
    It would be wonderful to learn what your keen mind and incisive wit would have to teach us about bullying, the new catch-all term for explaining all social discomfort whether it comes from our own vices or those of others.

  • Adam__Baum

    This would be wonderfully reasoned piece except for one thing. This controversy has nothing to do with reason.

    It is all about power, the power of the President, using a familiar strategy (identify a target, freeze it, isolate it) to use the influence of his office where authority does not exist.

    It’s all about showing that the individual is naked and alone before a strange god and therefore serves the state or will be extirpated.
    In 1961, this was a resonant warning. Perhaps it will resonate here.


    • Uuncle Max

      It falls to you, grasshopper, to stand out naked in the public square with a sign hanging around your neck proclaiming

      “I don’t get it”

  • markkrite

    An incomparable article of erudition, grace, class, style and deep religiosity, as we’ve come to expect from a disciple of Ven Bp. Fulton Sheen, no slouch in intellectual matters himself. In fact I would pronounce it a classic, Thank you, Fr. Rutler, for this wondeful piece, and God Bless.

  • Vicki

    “This is not helped by the fact that it is danced counterclockwise.” LOL.

  • Ruth Rocker

    Wonderful article. It’s always a pleasure to read Fr. Rutler’s writing. He is clear, concise and entertaining, all skills sadly lacking in today’s print media.

    All this kerfluffle over a sports team name is complete nonsense. I’m quite sure that if a poll was taken in the “offended” population, no offense would be taken by them. It’s only the “PC” crowd who cares. I’m an alumna of the University of Oklahoma. Boomer Sooner is a frequently heard phrase and OK is generally referred to as the Sooner state. But that, too, is a pejorative term. It refers to the opening of the “Indian Territory” land to white settlers. There were a few who jumped the gun at the starting line, thus getting to the “good” land sooner than they should. No one seems to have a problem with that.

    I’m originally from Lawrence, KS, where the University of Kansas has the Jayhawks. This term originated during the Civil War and anyone called a Jayhawker was being insulted. It refered to the tendency of Kansas troops to be a little rougher than needed to repel the pro-slave element trying to invade the state. I can guarantee you that there is no one in that area who is offended by the term (except those at K-State).

    And then what about all the other pro sports teams with “offensive” names. The KC Chiefs, the Cleveland Indians, the Denver Broncos (don’t want to offend the native horses), the Pittsburg Steelers (offending the hardworking steelmill hands), the Dallas Cowboys (hardworking cow wranglers), and on and on. We quickly go from the sublime to the ridiculous with this.

    People in this country are so quick to take offense where generally none is intended it’s amazing. How about if we all take a deep breath and a collective chill pill and focus on more important matters for a change??

  • Roddy Sunshine

    A truly exquisite article. Bravo to the writer!

  • Mack

    Wow! Bravo! Fr. Rutler speaks truth with courage, wisdom, and generosity. He must be punished for that.

  • JD

    FYI: The “Fighting Irish” is NOT a stereotype; it’s a reference to the “69th Brigade” aka “Irish Brigade” at Gettysburg. That’s why there’s a copy of Gettysburg statue of Fr. William Corby giving the Irish Brigade absolution, outside of Corby Hall in South Bend. Corby later became President of ND

  • John Albertson

    The official website of the Notre Dame Athletic Department says:

    where and how Notre Dame’s athletic nickname, “Fighting Irish,” came to
    origination (sic) never has been perfectly explained.

    One story suggests the moniker was born in 1899 with Notre Dame leading Northwestern 5-0 at halftime of a game in Evanston, Ill.

    Another tale has the nickname originating at halftime of the Notre
    Dame-Michigan game in 1909. With his team trailing, one Notre
    Dame player yelled to his teammates – who happened to have names like
    Dolan, Kelly, Glynn, Duffy and Ryan – “What’s the matter with
    guys? You’re all Irish and you’re not fighting worth a lick.”Notre Dame
    came back to win the game and press, after overhearing the remark,
    reported the game as a victory for the “Fighting Irish.”

    The most
    generally accepted explanation is that the press coined the nickname as
    a characterization of Notre Dame athletic teams, their never-say-die
    fighting spirit and the Irish qualities of grit,determination and
    tenacity. The term likely began as an abusive expression tauntingly
    directed toward the athletes from the small, private, Catholic
    institution. Notre Dame alumnus Francis Wallace popularized it in his
    New York Daily News columns in the 1920s.
    The opinionated diarist George Templeton Strong spoke ironically of the
    fighting Irish during the New York Draft Riots which began ten days
    the end of the Battle of Gettysburg. During those riots, Irish mobs
    unfortunately burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum, two Protestant
    churches and numerous public buildings and homes of abolitionists and
    lynched some 100 black people.

    • AnthonyMa

      Who was it took a poll of the rioters in 1863 to determine if they were all Irish? Who witnessed the red-headed O’Haire boy burning down the orphanage? Irish mobs, eh? No proof of that, but I’ve seen photos and film of colored mobs burning down Watts, Harlem, Detroit, Newark, etc. etc. etc.

      • Patrick Button

        Eh, the rioters were definitely Irish. They violently reacted against the draft that took Irish immigrants off the boat and onto a battlefield. Irish neighborhoods in the 19th Century were often not particularly nice places, and there is no shame in admitting that.

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  • catholicexchange

    Father Rutler, you are the Reigning King of Masterful Super Amazing…echhh, I’m speechless. Thanks, Father! -Dan Lord

  • ZuzanaM

    I have always enjoyed your program on EWTN, Fr Rutler, so it was no surprise that I found this article to be so very enlightening. With all the ‘failing marks’ levied against our public schools, this article points out the wisdom in the words of GK Chesterton, “It ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest among us…”. Obviously, your knowledge is from a far broader scope of study than that which is practical for public education. However, as GK also said, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” Sadly, the hijacking of education that occurred in the 1960s and ’70s in the US, ended the passing on of the great inheritance of Western Civilization, whose very soul is the Judeo-Christian Faith.

  • Edward Mulholland

    It won’t be long until the Dutch-American descendants of New Amsterdam complain about the NY Knickerbockers.

  • Hong Kong

    Father Rutler strikes again. Another great article. Thank you.

  • KyPapist

    Several years ago my alma mater (at age 35) sent out requests for suggestions on changing the sports teams’ name from “rebels” so as to avoid any future objections.
    I wrote back: Sure, and I even have a cheer for you. You can call yourselves the
    Thomas More S’mores! (Chant) When the going gets tough, We turn Yellow;
    We’ve got the Spines of Melted Marshmallows!
    I never heard back from them. KyPapist

  • Catherine

    I like the idea of looking back at the history of the term. I also admire groups who take what they believe to be a negative slur, then embrace and transform it (see “Yankee Doodle.”) I think it is somewhat interesting to conjecture that the name “redskin” at some point referred to war paint, rather than to organic skin color, but it has referred to American Indians, pejoratively, for some time. It certainly certainly doesn’t emphasize their gentle goodness. In the context of football, it’s obviously about how they are fierce and savage. Most other mascots are fierce animals.

    In any case, I can see why Native Americans might not like to be the mascot for an NFL team, regardless as to whether it is meant as an insult or a compliment to them. The “fighting Irish” made up a lot of the population of Notre Dame, and Irish people have had great success in America. Native Americans have never been a majority of players for the Redskins, and they still experience shattering inequality in American Society, generally. I get why some of them are and have been annoyed.