A name (nàma or sàma¤¤à) is a word or words that a person, thing or place is known by. The nature of personal names at the time of the Buddha was very different from today. After a person's birth, the first rite of passage they underwent was their name-giving ceremony (nàmakaraõa or namadheyya, Ja.I,262; III,305). Adjectives of certain virtues or objects considered auspicious were often used as personal names (målanàma). Other names were patronymic or matronymic, i.e. `son of', e.g. Sàriputta, Nàtaputta and Màluïkyàputta. Nicknames based on an individual's appearance or habits were also common, e.g. Daõóapàõã (Staff Carrier), Dãghanakha (Long Nails) and Oññhaddha (Hare Lip). Occasionally, people were known by a name related to their work, for example, the carpenter Pa¤cakanga (Five Tools). Only higher caste people used their clan name (gottanàma) as what we would call surnames, e.g. Bhàradvàja, Kaccàyana and Vàseññha.
The Buddha's personal name was Siddhattha meaning `He Who Attained His Goal' while his clan name was Gotama which literally means `best cow'. This name reflected an earlier time when having a large herd of cattle was a source of wealth and pride. People who were not his disciples usually addressed the Buddha as Sir Gotama (Bho Gotama) or Monk Gotama (Samaõa Gotama).
The ancient Indians had a superstitious belief that a person's name had the power to influence their situation or destiny. The Manusmçti for example says: `One should not marry a woman who is named after a constellation, a tree, river, mountain, bird or snake, who has a low caste, a menial or a scary name.' The early Buddhists poked gentle fun at the belief in the magical power of names in the Nàmasiddhi Jàtaka. In this story, a young man Pàpaka (Naughty) hated his name, believing it to be inauspicious, and asked his teacher to give him a new and better one. The teacher told him to go travelling until he found a name more to his liking, return and he would rename him. During his travels, the young man came across the funeral of a man named Jãvaka (Life). When he expressed surprise that someone so named could die, people laughed at him and said: `A name does not give life or death. It only serves to distinguish one person from another.' Later Pàpaka encountered a slave girl named Wealth being beaten by her master for not earning enough money and a man named Guide who had lost his way. Realizing that one's destiny is not influenced by one's name he returned to his teacher and told him that he had decided to keep his old name (Ja.I,402).
Buddhism has always recognized that names are just convenient designations, appellations that can be and are given, changed and replaced by others. It also recognizes that the process on naming is usually a natural and informal one. The Atthasàlinã says: `There is no living being or thing that is not called by a name. The trees of the forest and the mountains are the business of the country folk. For they, on being asked ßWhat tree is this?û say the name they know, such as khidira or palàsa. Even when they do not know the name of a tree they will say ßThat is a no-name tree.û And further, that will be accepted as the name for that tree. And it is the same for fish and tortoises in the ocean, and so no'(As.392).
Like modern linguistic philosophers, the Buddha was aware that names can clarify or distort reality according to how they are used and understood. This is what he meant when he said: `Name dominates everything, embraces everything, brings everything under its influence'(S.I,39). He taught that there is no self and yet often used the words `yourself', `myself' and `oneself'. When this apparent contradiction was pointed out the Buddha said: `These are mere names, linguistic conventions, expressions and designations commonly used in the world which the Tathàgata uses without being misled by them' (D.I,202).
However, outside theological and philosophical discourse, being pedantic about names can lead to unnecessary disagreements. The Buddha said: `One should not insist on using local language and should not ignore normal usage. How does one do this? In different countries they might call the same thing a ßbowlû, a ßbasinû, a ßdishû, a ßvesselû, a ßtureenû, a ßconcave containerû or a ßrounded receptacleû. Whatever they call it, if one clings to one country's usage (while in another country), insisting that only it is correct, this is how one becomes insistent on local usage and ignores normal usage' (M.III,235). Despite this common-sense attitude, clinging to names is very common amongst some traditional Buddhists. For example, Thai monks in the West usually insist on being addressed as `ajahn' which is the Thai pronunciation of the Pàëi àcariya, for which there is a perfectly good English equivalent, `Teacher'.