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July 31st, 2008

Bratwurst, Rose

What’s In a Name?

Posted on 2008.07.31 at 20:47
Current Mood: curiouscurious
Current Music: I Got A Name - Jim Croce
Here’s one of the mysteries of the human language, at least in this culture. It may not be on a par with the Big Questions — e.g., How did the universe begin, what is our purpose in life, how lucky is Adam Sandler — but it’s a mystery nonetheless. It’s this: Why are some people referred to socially by just their last names, while others are referred to by their first names, their full names, or their nicknames?

It’s not as simple as it may first strike you. Think back to grade school. If your experience was anything like mine, it started right there. I was definitely a last-namer in the parlance of most of my classmates. In my case, I think it was a way of distancing themselves from me, since I had few friends and was a bit of an oddball. I know; you’re so shocked to hear this. Then there are the practical cases where two or more people have the same first name. But even in that case, I see where one of them will usually be awarded the honor of being a first-namer, while the rest are relegated to last-namer status.

This trend continues right on through adulthood. A former co-worker of mine was almost invariably referred to by her last name, and it isn’t at all clear why. Her first name was Michelle – a simple enough name to say. Yet everyone referred to her by her last name, which had more syllables than her first name. She was very popular and well liked, so there was no distancing factor apparent. It seemed more a term of endearment somehow.

Upon reflection, it’s kind of odd that I would have been a last-namer in school, since I came from a large family and went through most of my school years with at least several siblings in other grades at the same time, so yelling my last name across the playground had the potential to garner responses from siblings who were not being addressed at that moment.

While I think there may be several reasons why people utilize last names in this way, a primary reason seems to revolve around personal status. It seems that referring to someone by their last name can be a way of inferring a kind of authority over them, or a right to sit in judgment over them (think military). It can also be a positive status tool; a way of inferring that the speaker is so cool that they can refer to a fellow cool person in this detached manner. Detachment, after all, is often a key component of coolness.

I’m open to additional ideas and opinions. I’m also curious – in what circles are you/were you referred to by your last name? I don’t just mean at the DMV or the doctor’s office; those don’t count. But are there social circles you’ve traveled in where you found yourself being referred to by your last name? Or where you last-named other people habitually? And what do you make of that?

Postscript — It’s a little ironic that I should be addressing this topic here on LJ, since I assiduously avoid using last names here out of respect for other people’s privacy – and my own!

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