Language is powerful. We have seen recently on the world stage how the choice in language can sway large groups of people to either reject or identify strongly with orators. I feel the power of language when my fingers slide across the keyboard, or when I nail a phrase that perfectly captures my thoughts. And amongst language, there is perhaps nothing more powerful than naming: when the essence of a person, object or idea is condensed into one word.
In the Bible, one of the first things God does after the world comes into being is naming his creations. In myths and fairytales such as Rumpelstiltskin, the only way the miller’s daughter can escape her fate and save her child is to find out Rumpelstiltskin’s name. Only then does she disperse his power over her. Naming is central to Superhero stories, too, where often the hero’s identity is hidden from all but his closest allies. Think Batman (Bruce Wayne), Black Widow (Natalia Romanova), Captain America (Steve Rogers), Wolverine (Logan) or Spiderman (Peter Parker). They are flesh and blood until they assume their superhero mantle, which sparks awe and fear amongst the everyman and enemies alike. In Harry Potter, Rowling too plays with this idea. The wizarding community avoids saying Voldemort’s name, almost as if giving voice to it will attract the dark wizard’s attention.
In real life, one of the most important first acts a parent undertakes is naming their child. This responsibility is not lost on parents. They wade through baby name books and internet sites seeking out meanings, playing with the sounds of combined names, considering nicknames and associations. The names we choose for our children convey a wealth of sometimes unintended information: religion, gender (or in the case of some celebs, gender neutrality), class, personal tastes such as whether you are more classical or adventurous in your choices, even political persuasions such as when you name your child after a historical figure or literary character. Still, according to a Mumsnet survey, 1 in 5 mums regrets the name she chose for her baby. Little wonder that choosing names can become a pressure cooker when you are seeking to appeal and appease conflicting groups of people: the baby (whose personality will take time to become apparent), grandparents, social circles.
As we grow older, we exert influence over our names by expressing preferences for nicknames, or can change our name by deed poll. Catholics choose a saint’s name when they are being confirmed. Friends of mine recently chose to combine their surnames when married, a shared future symbolically reflected in their merged name. Then there’s the anecdote I remember reading years ago – but sadly can’t find the reference article for – about a baby in the 1960s, whose parents decided not to give him a name, because they felt it would be fairer for him to choose his own as his personality took shape. At eight years old the boy felt so much pressure to choose a fitting name, that he decided on the most common one he could think of: John.
I’ve often wondered whether my birth name, written in black and white on a CV, without meeting me, has an impact on how often I am invited to interview for jobs. Do we prefer things we are more familiar with, that mirror who we ourselves are?
It’s polite to ask and try to remember someone’s name. There was a colleague at a former job, who used to get under my skin by turning to me in meetings and saying ‘And you are?’ She knew very well who I was. Deliberately not using a name is power play. It is at best rude and at worst dehumanising. During slavery, slaves were often renamed by their owners or received names inherited from their enslaved ancestors in an attempt to strip them of their identity and sever their former ties of belonging. The goal was to control. In prison, prisoners may sometimes be referred to by their numbers; they are no longer individuals, but there to receive a punishment.
Naming too can confer honour. In Britain, the Queen gave William and Kate a new title on the occasion of their marriage. We name streets and buildings after people, who have achieved great things. A family name can grow to be a brand. In a world where marketing is of ever-increasing importance, a name creates a first impression. It should capture the essence of what is within. Likewise, a book title: it should tell us what to expect; it is an initial hook that seeks resonance with the reader, and if it fails, the reader’s attention will pass to another product.
As a writer, taking a pseudonym can lend the freedom to give yourself wholly to your imagination, without the shackles of your real life identity. J K Rowling did it with her crime fiction, presenting herself as Robert Galbraith. Mary Ann Evans was known by her pen name George Eliot, allowing her fiction to be taken more seriously at a time when women writers were not the norm. She didn’t identify with the stereotype of female novelists, who wrote only light-hearted romances. Conversely, stripping a writer of a chosen pseudonym can do their creative career harm, as shown this year by the outing of Elena Ferrante, known for her Neopolitan novels. Ferrante rejected personal fame, choosing creative freedom over it, citing how the literary landscape can sometimes be unkind, especially to women. She didn’t want readers to mull over her life, to be focused on whether her fiction was in fact autobiographical. So she chose to write incognito, until the veil was lifted by a journalist.
When I was a young feminist, it used to irk me how the words ‘woman’ and ‘female’ were taken from the root stems of ‘man’ and ‘male’. I wanted a unique word that didn’t set men and women in opposition to each other, or show that men and women complemented each other. I wanted a word that was powerful in its own right. As I’ve grown older, I realise that my instincts lie still in that very fresh teenage place. Words shape us. They carry hidden baggage that plays a role in framing thought. They shape how we think. Take the current narrative around ‘alt-right’, which some argue normalises extremist movements. Naming trends are linked to certain social scripts, and every time we name, we need to be aware of its innate power to back up existing narratives, to gift a clean slate to something where a historical narrative exists, to dilute facts, or award them more power than they deserve.