What does the rectification of names mean to Confucians?
Confucianism believes in social harmony that is achieved through stable relationships. To achieve stable relationships rectification of names is essential. Rectification of names simply refers to designating names appropriately and matching these names to responsibilities or actions such that a particular name has a set of responsibilities attached to ensure there is no confusion between the names or the responsibilities allocated to each. This generally provides the appropriate channels and form of interaction between different relationships towards the aim of fostering social order.
Each person has a designated social name within their society; this name accords them certain specific responsibilities to others while expecting a particular action or response from the society. For instance there are defined relationships between rulers and subjects, parents and their children, husband and wife, among others, with expected behavior and actions between them. Thus a child can only act as a "proper" child and this is expected to eventually foster stable societies where each member understands their place and responsibilities.
To Confucians, the idea of rectification of names means that people should use the right words to describe things and that things should live up to their names. There should not be cases in which something or someone is called one thing but acts as another.
To Confucians, a stable and just society is built on everything being in its proper place. Parents should act as parents, children as children, rulers as rulers and so on. This is where rectification of names comes in. If, for example, a person is called a parent but does not act as a proper parent would, society as a whole is harmed. Therefore, rectification of names is important. People must act in ways that are proper for those in their station.
Rectification of names, then, means two things. It means that things should be called by their proper names and that those who have a certain name or title must act in ways that are appropriate to those names.