Esmeralda: What is your name?
Esmeralda: What does it mean?
Butch: I’m American, honey. Our names don’t mean shit.
Names have power. They have power in that they frame the conceptual boundaries of what a thing is and is not. The names we give to the constituents of our reality dictate to us the context in which they exists and thus engenders a shift in the manner in which we relate to the named objects. Is a foreign national living in the United States sans the proper authorization an ‘Illegal Alien’ or an ‘Undocumented Immigrant’? Is the apartment ‘small’ or ‘cozy’? Is someone ‘closed-minded’, or simply ‘set in her ways’?
The other night I was at dinner with friends and the topic of conversation turned to the names of persons, and whether or not it is acceptable for a person to change their given name. Being a guy who changed his name, I obviously had no problem with this, but I was quite surprised to discover I was in the minority. Given that names do have power, and that all of us are clearly aware of it as we spend an inordinate amount of time using names to frame our ideas in the best possible light, why would we be so recalcitrant towards changing our own name to the same effect? Are we being closed-minded, or simply set in our ways?
Admittedly, this incumbent power of names makes changing one a difficult thing to do. Of all the possible things to call yourself, what to pick, and why? Further, once you set upon changing your name, you are no longer able to hide behind the follies of your parents. If your given name is Karl Banannapants, then you can acknowledge and even lament the stupidity of your unusual surname without having to do anything about it. Society relieves you of responsibility for it as you had no say in its assignment to you. However, if you’re a guy who’s given surname is Smith and you change it to Banannapants, then you’ve made a conscious decision for which you are, in the eyes of the world, culpable.
My dinner companions, all but one, agreed with the above assessment. Changing your name, unless through marriage or from something like Banannapants to something innocuous like Cook or Smith, makes you a joke. Why? Because names aren’t ‘real’ unless they are given to you by your parents or gotten through matrimony. Further, it’s somehow hubristic to take the power of naming and apply it to yourself. You don’t get to define who and what you are. Except under specific circumstances, your name and all the baggage that came with it, is something you’re stuck with.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it ignores the fact that every one of us has the ability to name ourselves. There is no law that says you have to keep your name, so why give Mr. Banannapants a free pass to bemoan his given surname when he is quite capable of doing something about it? Logically, he is just as culpable for the name he accepts by default as he is for the one he chooses. Further, every single human being that ever was or ever will be has a name that was invented by somebody somewhere. Many of us in the ‘states (myself included) have surnames that have been mangled either by immigration officials or by members of our family further up the genealogical tree looking to get a job, appear less ethnic, escape the law, etc. Why should a person be expected to simply accept the muddled and almost always meaningless amalgam of consonants and vowels that is their birth name?
Sartre wrote of people acting in ‘bad faith’. In coining the phrase, he was addressing the manner in which a person refuses to acknowledge their freedom to choose, opting instead to blame others, society, or fate for their circumstance. Like the captain who consciously furls the sails and allows her ship to be set adrift, a person acting in bad faith is seeking relief from her inherent ability to define both themselves and what matters to them by abdicating that responsibility to the capricious whimsy of the rest of the world. Germaine to the topic at hand, would not a lack of attention paid to something so fundamental as your name be an act of ‘bad faith’?
Obviously, the ability to act does not necessitate that the ability be exercised. Just because one can change their name, doesn’t mean they have to. Further, you may be perfectly happy with your name as is. This lady is – and right on! All I’m saying is that your name is important enough to be reflected upon, and perfectly valid if changed from whatever dippy thing your parents came up to something equally dippy you came up with. After all, despite the fact that names matter, here in America, they don’t mean shit.
Below is a list of names. Without cheating (that is, without clicking on the link), see if you can guess which names were changed and which weren’t. Ready? Go!
image and snippet of dialogue are from the film “Pulp Fiction” copyright 1994 Miramax Films