When I was a teenager, I changed my name from Emma to Rhiannon. There were lots of other girls my age called Emma, and if you called ‘Emma!’ across the park, or the street, or the playground, I didn’t turn around, because I assumed you meant someone else. This rendered it less than functional as a name, so I chose a new one.
A while later, my mother remarked that people had started asking her whether she had Welsh family. This was a complicated question – and a new one. After a while, we realised that people who had heard my name, and correctly but often tentatively placed it as a Welsh one, asked this sort of question. It’s hard to answer, because answering the question doesn’t answer the question – if someone asks me whether I have Welsh family, and I say yes, or indeed no, or sort of (it’s very much ‘sort of’, as it happens), I have answered the question they asked, but if what they wanted to know was about the origin of my name, I haven’t told them what they wanted to know. Questions like these are based on false assumptions – that your name was given to you by your parents, for example. In our society, this assumption may be reasonable – in the sense that statistics are on that side – but it’s far from always right.
What other assumptions do we make when we name things or people? In my academic work, I am interested in ways in which people name God, and this obviously has a bearing on that; but there are lots of other settings in which it also matters.
One example which I think is interesting for what it might say about naming generally is the giving and use of nicknames online. In my early days on the internet, it was standard for everyone to use a screen name, a nickname often not traceable, or not easily traceable, to your real life identity. This has become much less common with the advent of Facebook, and was never universal (and there are many parts of the internet where it is still standard – Twitter handles, for example, even if your name is given in full elsewhere). Before that, my experience of being given nicknames was mostly the things my classmates called me at school (which I won’t repeat here; suffice it to say that they had all the cruelty and lack of creativity common among children). A screen name, though, you choose, and you can choose different ones for different sites: context is very important indeed. Someone known as buffylvr83 might well also be called techgrrl10 on another website – and on yet another forum, this same individual might be able to login and post as admin.
In the debates about the use of real names online, it’s sometimes said that people should be able to use their paperwork names if they haven’t done anything wrong (usually people who say this haven’t thought about – or don’t care about – people who’ve changed their gender, or are being stalked or bullied, etc.). Besides some assumptions about the realness of the names on your paperwork, i.e. the name it’s easiest to verify, I think there are some assumptions about the use of the same name with different groups which don’t actually stand up to scrutiny. buffylvr83/techgrrl10/admin is a clear example, but of course lots of people use a different name, or variant of their name, at work, or to publish under – and when all these different contexts collide on one social networking site, lots of people find ways in which things turn weird.
Thought for another day: does this make it appropriate to name God differently in different contexts – such as prayer, liturgy, theology, interfaith discussion, and outreach?