What's in a name?

What's in a name?

Lots of things. We are attached to the sound of our names. Scientists say only the voices of our children or lovers can cut though the din and catch our attention like the sound of our own names.

Names are personal. Very personal. We get in the habit of identifying with the sound of our name, and the written symbols that identify it. In many ways we become that sound, or that set of symbols. Mary says "I am Mary" as easily as she notes "My name is Mary."

Millions of people identify with a given name other than the first one in the series written on our birth certificates. Even if you are not one of these people, you do know many of them.

Many --a surprising number-- of statesmen, artists, race car drivers, movie stars, crooks, musicians, and business moguls whose names you recognize actually have *another* given name or two sitting in front of the one you are familiar with.

The name you recognize as "their name" is a given name other than the first one in the series.

Very likely some of the co-workers and friends you talk to every day also have additional given names listed on their birth certificates in front of "their name," the one that you know.

What's the point?
There is a hidden world of onomatology or onomatistics [the study of names] out there you may have missed. Becoming aware of this aspect of your social world can be entertaining, shocking, revealing, or at the very least it can help you understand the world a bit better.

Good old "Dan Smith" who lives across the street might actually be named "Lawrence Witherspoon Armstrong Danforth Smith," but uses "Dan" to honor a beloved uncle who earned a silver star in WWII. "Jane Doe" from the office could be "Dorothy Jane Doe," who is estranged from her abusive alcoholic mother, also named Dorothy, and is not fond of people who assume they can call her "Dorothy" without asking first.

Obviously, understanding middle names isn't going to lead to a cure for cancer or become a route to world peace.

But thinking a bit about middle given names adds a certain richness to your experiences of other people and the world we live in. And it might prevent you from hurting the feelings of someone you care about. That's all. That's enough.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Middle name stories --mine

I never used my first given name. There isn't anything wrong with my first name. But it is the same as my father's, I'm not a junior, and so it was a bit confusing.

For clarity in household communications my folks just skipped over my first given name [identical to my Dad's] and went right to my middle one. Made sense. I never really knew I had another name in front of the one I used [or that it mattered] until I was well into public school.

No one who knows me, knows me by my first given name, so it causes no end of confusion when the new receptionist at the dentist's office or the phone bank college kid from the cell phone company calls or asks for someone with that name. I've even had people cut off business they were conducting with me because they tried to call and were told they had the wrong number because "no one with that name lives here."

My poor Dad used to end up getting much of my junk mail, doctor's appointment reminder calls and credit card solicitations because my current girlfriend or roommate or other friends or neighbors would direct these wrong-name-folks off toward my Dad. [Just before Dad died the credit bureaus conflated our credit reports in this bizarre, combined, monster bad report. My name, his social security number, my address, his phone number. A nightmare that took months to resolve that could have been avoided, of course, if they had just used our full names]

Now Dad is gone and --now that I think of it-- I suppose I could start using my first given name if I wanted to. Dad doesn't need it now. But for decades I've been called and identify with my middle name. I "am" that name in the odd fashion people have of "being" some label or characteristic.

While I am fond of both my given names [lots of family history in them both] I really just want to continue to "be" who I have always been, the person who uses my second given name.

All my life I have been asking people who want to use "my first name" or [more insulting] my "real" name to just use my "full name" [all of it--how can you argue with that?] and that is likely what I'll continue to do. Stops confusion. Stops arguments. My *whole* name. Hard to argue with that. Yet people sometimes do argue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this site. I cannot tell you how many times at a doctor's office or wherever I get called by my first name, yesterday they said do you prefer to be called "James or Jim?" I said I prefer to be called Mike or Michael.
I am James Michael Pomputius II, called "Mike" or "Michael"
The funniest was when the red cross called to confirm my blood donation appointment, and they said "is Jimmy the Greek there?" Wrong twice. I'm called Mike or Michael, and my last name is Lithuanian, not Greek.

"Real" names and who gets to decide?

By some estimates more than 30 million Americans use one of their legal names other than the first one as their "proper name." In many American subcultures and in the rest of the world, people have four, five, even six "legal" names.

For all of these people the old misleading standard of "first name, middle initial" on fill-in-the-blank forms are not just annoying and frustrating, they are inaccurate and misleading.

The reasons for preferring one of your legal names over another are as varied as the reasons for choosing those names in the first place: honoring an ancestor, avoiding confusion in a family full of people named "James" or "Mary," changing social norms [i.e.: at one time Carrol and Hillary were primarily men's names], or just plain personal preference.

The point is that it is your name and you can use it as you please. Or that is how is should be.

As a friend of mine once pointed out: "The system exists to serve us, we don't exist to serve the system." Indeed. Remember that line and drop it on the next 'First name, middle initial please" person you meet.

Sadly, many millions of us have wasted thousands of hours during our lives arguing --futilely-- with bureaucrats on every level regarding our "real" names.

"...the system exists to serve us, we don't exist to serve the system..."
Most anyone --and there are millions just in the US-- with a name that does not conform to the "first name, middle initial" standard can offer examples of where this unrealistic standard caused them mind-bogglingly frustrating, if not dangerous and even life-threatening, confusion.

Carbon copies are dead. Data storage is almost free. We don't need to scribble information on little slices of dead trees. A newly smaller and increasingly interconnected world means we all deal with a much greater variety of people in our daily lives.

When is this "first name, middle initial" nonsense, a relic of the 18th century, going to change?