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If Names Are Not Correct, Language Will Not Be In Accordance With The Truth Of Things*

May 17, 2010

Names are an important key to what a society values. Anthropologists recognize naming as one of the chief methods for imposing order on perception.
• David S. Slawson

Imagine that your name is Javier and that your teachers claim it’s too difficult to pronounce, calling you Jay instead, despite your repeated attempts to help them. You are polite, but persistent, and willing to accept almost any variation, but they are recalcitrant. Imagine that after years of this, you give up and call yourself Jay. You still don’t like it, but no one asks, so you don’t tell. Then one day someone does ask and years of resentment pour out. Such a little thing—a name—but such a big difference it would have made to have heard it.

Imagine that your name has an ethnic flair and you are asked by someone who’s never met you and knows nothing about you if, as an ethnic person of color, you would speak to a group of people and discuss the choices you’ve made with your life “staying out of gangs and off drugs, going to college, listening to teachers and parents, and so forth.” The reality of your life is negated by their assumptions about who you are and where you came from.

Imagine that.

I’m thinking of names because the mail brought me yet another batch of unsolicited junk addressed to Ori Wilkozin, Wilkori Zinn, and Zinn Oriwilk. Having three last names with a hyphenated first does provide a challenge, but the endless variations are surprising. If we can get lengthy mathematical combinations correctly transcribed, names seem to me to be much easier to eyeball than 5972980-4’19762 3988.

The mathematical challenges if the situation were reversed are articulated in Norton Juster’s (1970) parable, The Phantom Tollbooth: “Why, can you imagine what would happen if we named all the twos Henry or George or Robert or John or lots of other things? You’d have to say Robert plus John equals four, and if the four’s name were Albert, things would be hopeless.”

I can forgive the O’Reilly-ing of my name since Bill has more fame than I, except that I cannot understand why the institution that granted my doctorate continues to spell my name incorrectly despite numerous emails, letters, and phone calls.

Imagine that.

Imagine that we listened carefully to people’s names. Imagine that we pronounced them correctly as best we could. Imagine that we did not mock those whose accents are different from our own—whomever they are—when our unfamiliar names did not flow sweetly from their tongues and our r’s trilled imperfectly and our gutturals were not and our mouthings missed the mark.

Imagine that.

What’s your name story?

Names, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried like so many of the earth’s marvels, beneath the dust of habit.
• Salman Rushdie

* Title quotation provided by Confucius.

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3 comments

  1. I think I will be called Jubi Lee. Jubilee is a state of exultation or jubilation. It is a season or occasion of general joy. I enjoy life even when I do stupid things. I am here to live and have experiences. I have so many things to do and people to interact with, live to touch lives and I have papers to grade. (lol) I am filled with joy. Those people who know me say that I’m smiling most of the time. I’m happy to be alive and even more happy to have knowledge of bigger things than life, it’s called love. That’s why I am jubilant.


  2. Funny! I had a dog named Meyer…because he was such a weenie!! LOL


  3. Okay, I couldn’t pick just one name. So, I went with; Cat A. Strophe (describing a normal day for me) and then Imagene A. Story (I day-dream A LOT)



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