The idea that names have power is one of those cross-cultural concepts that we are all aware of, on some level. It’s still the case that many celebrities – and aspiring celebrities – rename themselves at some point, though it’s fair to say that some do so because the name they were legally registered with is one they share with another well-known person. If you want to be a writer but your legal name is Jill Cooper or some such, it’s not unreasonable to pick something else. Some of us dislike our given names because they are old-fashioned, difficult to spell or pronounce, or because they simply don’t suit the way we perceive ourselves, or they have connotations our parents didn’t anticipate when we were born: there were a few magazine articles some 15-20 years ago exploring the lives of the last group of kids to have been given the first name Harry when the family name was Potter.
Those of us who are comfortable with the names recorded on our birth certificates still have our personal rules and preferences about how they are used, though – and we may well have additional names which we only allow specific individuals to address us by. Your lover or spouse might call you Snugglebum (or even Shitface, as a term of affection – *YKINMYBYKIOK and all that) but you probably don’t want your boss, co-workers or underlings to call you that. While it may be less the case now, I remember that my parents and grandparents and most of their generation bitterly resented being addressed by their first names rather than [title][surname] by health care professionals: they found it intrusive, presumptive, infantilising or all three.
People also change their names, sometimes, after a rite of passage. About 30 years ago, someone I worked with took on a new name after a religious conversion and it was officially communicated to the entire workplace that A would from now on be known as B. Some people still adopt a different surname after getting married, and some of them become annoyed by those who insist on using the name they went by previously – and don’t forget all those celebrities who got establishment honours at some point and insist on being given their full titles at all times. One of my favourite fictional villains, Simon Darcourt (who appears in a couple of Christopher Brookmyre’s books) has a habit of renaming his friends and acquaintances. While the new names he bestows are just regular names rather than open insults, those on the receiving end feel awkward and uncomfortable.
The thing is, whether you think religion is a load of old willy, or that women taking their husbands’ surnames is unfeminist, or that the honours system is corrupt and colonialist – or, for that matter, if you think that old people who dislike being addressed by their first names are uptight gammons who need to accept that contemporary manners include being ‘warm’ and ‘open’ and ‘informal’ – your opinion of someone’s name, or the term of address they would like you to use, is less important than theirs. Of course, mistakes can happen- if you knew someone well before a namechange, you might forget and address them by their former name, especially when the change is recent. You might, if you haven’t been formally introduced to someone, use the name you have heard other people using towards them, without knowing that this petname or nickname is only for their close friends to use.
An occasional mistake is no big deal (though you *can* be unlucky enough to encounter someone so touchy and self-obsessed that a single slip-up is taken as a declaration of war… just not very often).
If you keep on getting a person’s name wrong, though, you’re either showing them they are not important enough for you to expend any effort, or that you are actively trying to upset or annoy them.
Names have power. It’s worth bearing this in mind, not least so that you only affront someone’s dignity or hurt their feelings when you actually mean to do so…
Need something to read while you’re stuck inside? Check out the bookshop before you go…