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.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Other middle name stories and how this got started.

As I've dealt with what sometimes feels like a minor forced hobby [managing my names] I've met hundreds of people in the same bind everywhere I've gone.

One of my best friends in high school, Scott, has another given name in front of "Scott" on his birth certificate. He never used his first given name and despite the fact that he lived in our home for a few months, I never knew he had this other name in the series until I saw it on top of some bureaucratic administrative form from the school system.

Scott was embarrassed. Not by his any of his names, but by the complexity of the now-mandatory explanation. People get very tired of having to explain their names. Scott was a happy guy when I told him my similar story.

The standard formula always ends up putting Scott's first given name [but not his second] on his email accounts and W2 forms and medical prescriptions so he is always scurrying around --like I am-- asking people to change their incorrect assumptions so it doesn't confuse everyone even more.

Same with my Army buddy from El Paso, Steve. His parents wrote "Michael" in front of "Steve" on his birth certificate in honor of some ancestor he never knew. There is nothing wrong with "Michael as a name. But Steve didn't use that one. So Steve is always sitting, waiting in the doctor's office reading a magazine while the nurse wanders around asking for someone named "Mike" while they really need to be looking for "Steve."

[By the way. Please take polite note. It is bad enough that some people make assumptions about your name and ignore your own preferences. But those folks who feel the need to be cute and turn the wrong choice of name into a nickname make the whole silly situation even worse. Please don't be one of those people.]

Another guy, Brian, [aka James Brian] I worked with in Arizona claimed he lost a girlfriend one time because someone called his apartment looking for him using the first name he did not use, and this girlfriend somehow got the very-paranoid idea he was living under an assumed identity and hiding from the cops or something. Even after he explained the situation, she felt he had somehow betrayed her or been dishonest in some way. Likely Brian was better off without that strange girlfriend, but it would have been nice for them to have reached the decision in another way.

It is amazing the number of folks wandering around who have a given name --or two, or three-- preceding the one you know about, who don't use that first [or third or fourth] given name except when some staffer makes them put in on an insurance form or similar document.

Did you see our list of famous people who you know by their middle name? http://middlenamepride.blogspot.com/2008/02/list-of-dangerous-people-who-refused-to.html

That's just a sample. There are lots more.

I meet people with stories like that all the time. I think it is because of my "I-don't-put-up-with-much" perspective on life.

I will routinely stop some stranger in the DMV or dentist's office or wherever who decides they know me well enough to use my given name before they ever see me but --because they really do not know me-- mistakenly choose to call me by the wrong given name. [Or, worse, will make up some random nickname based on the wrong name....]

I feel it is my right to politely ask them to use the given name I prefer, and to make a note on their forms or in their file or database or whatever. That way we don't have the same problem in the future, it makes it easier for all of us, no confusion, no misunderstanding, etc.

I guess I don't understand why I would not do that. People don't hesitate to correct wrong-birth-date or wrong-weight or wrong-address information. Why would I not correct someone who had my name wrong?

Occasionally some stranger is rude and starts lecturing me about my own name. In that case I draw a firm line since it is after all my name, and they are mistaken, and they chose to meet my polite response with public rudeness.

In those cases random people often come up to me after one of these conversations [especially if the stranger has been rude to me and the necessary clarification became a bit louder] and these people will say; "Hey! I have always wanted to do that! My name is "Joe" [or whatever] but my first two names are "Raul Wyndotte" [or whatever] but I have always just put up with these rude people calling me the wrong name because I thought I *had* to. No more! I'm going to do what you did from now on."

So. I have sort of became an unwilling fighter for this weird little cause: "Middle name pride."

Is this the most important issue in the world? No. Is it worth disrupting the smooth operating flow of our economy or Democracy? Um. No.

But if you have ever been overlooked in a waiting room because a receptionist was looking for the wrong name, or had a check issued in the wrong name, or was called by some foolish nickname you did not like by some presumptuous stranger [example: Approaching "Richard" and saying; "Hey Ricky! Nice to meet you!" ] you may have some idea why my buddies Scott and Steve and Brian and I and all those people who have talked to me in lines or in reception areas over the years are a bit tired of being called the wrong name. It is rude. And incorrect.

"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?