A name (nāma or samaṭṭā) 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 their birth, the first rite of passage a person underwent was their name-giving ceremony (nāmakaraṇa).
Adjectives of certain virtues or objects considered auspicious were often used as personal names (mūlanāma). Other names were patronymic or matronymic, i.e. ‘son of’, e.g. Sariputta, Nātaputta and Māluṅkyāputta. Nick-names based on an individual’s appearance or habits were also common, e.g. Daṇḍapāṇī (Staff Carrier), Dīghanakha (Long Nails) and Oṭṭhaddha (Hare Lip). Occasionally people were known by a name related to their work, for example the carpenter Paṭcakanga (Five Tools).
Only higher caste people used their clan name (gottanāma) as what we would call surnames, e.g. Bhāradvāja, Kaccāyana and Vāseṭṭha. The Buddha’s personal name was Siddhattha meaning 'He Who Attained His Goal' while his clan name was Gotama which literally means ‘best’ (tama) ‘cow’ (go). 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 ‘Friend Gotama’ (Bho Gotama) or ‘Monk Gotama’ (Samaṇa Gotama).
The ancient Indians had a superstitious belief that a person’s name had the power to influence their situation or destiny, a belief that the Buddha gently poked fun at in the Nāmasiddhi Jātaka. In this story, a young man Pāpaka (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 traveling 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 Jivaka (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 he 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 has decided to keep his old name (Ja.I,402).
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,86). He taught that there is no self and yet often used the words ‘yourself,’ ‘myself’ and ‘oneself.’ When this apparent contradiction was pointed out he said: ‘These are mere names, linguistic conventions, expressions and designations commonly used in the world which the Tathāgata uses without being mislead by them’ (D.I,202). He knew that while questions like: ‘If there is no God then who made the world?’ are grammatically correct, they are misleading. If ‘who’ is replaced by ‘what’ the whole nature of the question and therefore the answer changes. Consequently, he taught that if some theological and philosophical questions are going to be answered so that they lead to genuine understanding, they might first have to be clarified (vibhajjavyākaraṇiya, A.II,46). Someone once asked him: ‘Where does the enlightened person go after death?’ which is in some ways equivalent to the question, ‘Where does your lap go when you stand up?’ As a part of his answer, the Buddha explained that although it is grammatically correct to say that a fire ‘goes’ out, it is incorrect to assume from this that it ‘goes’ in a particular direction or to a particular location (M.I,487).
However, outside theological and philosophical discourse, being picky and 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 ‘bowl,’ a ‘basin,’ a ‘dish,’ a ‘vessel,’ a ‘tureen,’ a ‘concave container’ or a ‘rounded receptacle.’ 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 Pāḷi ācariya, for which there is a perfectly good English equivalent, ‘Teacher.’