The real origin of this phrase is unknown, but it is stated that this was also coined by Shakespeare. In Act-II, Scene-II of Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says this phrase in reference to family and family name of Romeo. She says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” This implies that his family names have nothing to do with their love, and they should be together. Since Capulets and Montagues hate each other, love is forbidden merely due to these names.
The importance of a person or thing is the way it is; not because of what it is called. Simply, it means the names of things cannot affect what they actually are. This line is, in fact, very profound, suggesting that names are just labels to distinguish one thing from another. It neither has any worth, nor gives true meanings. Only an individual or thing has a worth when it deserves it; for example, even if we call a rose with entirely different names, it would smell the same, as it does by its name as “rose.” Likewise, Juliet links this with Romeo that his name is just a label, and that he would stay the same for her.
This phrase is very common is poetry and everyday life. For instance, poets and lovers call their beloveds with different names like rose, lily and shining star, etc. Usually people name their pets with human names and many other names. It is used in birthday or celebratory speeches to flatter the person that he is a praise worthy. It can be used in awarding distributing ceremonies to call legends and keynote speakers. However, it is best used with its conjoined sentence “What is in a name.”
Juliet says this phrase in lines 43-44, Act-II, Scene-II of Romeo and Juliet. This phrase implies Shakespeare’s belief that the name means very little, but individual’s worth counts.
“Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? …O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.”
(Act-II, Scene-II, Lines 38-49)
Juliet is trying to argue that though Romeo is from a rival’s house and named as Montague, it does not matter to her as long as they both love each other.
The idea of this line is love, beauty and family names. In the following lines, Juliet talks to herself that the name of Romeo is a meaningless and an artificial convention ,and she loves him as a person not due to his family name, or Montague name. Out of the love for Juliet, Romeo rejects to bear the name of his family and vows as Juliet’s lover, as she asks him to be “new baptized” and “deny (his) father.” In fact, this line encapsulates the tragedy and central struggle of the entire play. This is not only evocative but highly suggestive phrase when combined with the previous one.
- Run on Line: The idea moves into next line, as there is a run on line.
- Metaphor: Smell is a metaphor for qualities or characteristics related to flowers.