According to many cultural traditions (and not a few works of fiction) a name is an important thing: to know someone's name is to have a kind of power over them. Often people believing this hide their true name and carry a different one, or possibly none at all.

This may seem like a kind of odd superstition, but it's still true in a sense even today in the modern world, thanks to the Internet.

Do you not want it immediately obvious to your boss that you post to questionable newsgroups? You probably won't put your real name on your posts to be found on Dejanews or a non-XNAYed newsfeed search.

Do you let your children give their full names out to strangers on the Net?

Were you inflicted with a truly horrendous moniker by sadistic parents? Get called lots of nasty nicknames in the past? Wouldn't you rather have a more comfortable name, like Muke ? ;) Why?

Anonymity and pseudonymity remain important concepts, because names have power.

There is a deep strain in Western culture that names have power, that the use of a name gives the speaker some degree of control over the named. What is interesting is that this tradition continues into our time.

In Genesis, Adam is given the power to name all the creatures of the earth, thus symbolizing his dominance over them. It was long traditional in Europe to have a secret name for a child, one which was not revealed except at the time of christening and which was not used in everyday speech. Popes and sometimes monarchs still assume a new name of office, different from their given name and symbolic of both the momentousness of the event and the assumption of an office of great power. Among more conservative Jews the word God is written G*d, for the same reason that the tetragramaton, the four-letter name of God (YHVH, from which we get the names Yaweh and Jehovah) was absolutely never uttered, except by the high priest on Yom Kippur.

What is quite interesting is that, even in our more "enlightened" age in which we have largely banished superstition, names still have power:

What is the worst possible sign a child can have that he is in trouble? His mother speaking his full name. "Mike, get over here!" simply does not have the same spine-chilling effect on someone as, "Jonathan Michael Anthony Humphrey, get over here!"

Overly-agressive speakers have a tendancy to insert their interlocutor's name into the stream of conversation: "I think you're wrong," has a slightly different tone to it than, "Bill, I think you're wrong." Once may mean nothing, but doing it again and again over the course of a conversation it has the cumulative effect of applying a steady psychological pressure from a stance of verbal agression.

Sales representatives and junk mailings make a point of littering their pitches with the name of the prospective buyer: "Erik, this is a special offer just for you. You, Erik Fitzpatrick, may already be a winner."

They do this for exactly the same reason that I become intensely irritated when grocery store clerks look at my name on the receipt and strugle to say, "Thank you Mr. Fit... Fitz... pat... rick?" They are assuming a far more familiar relationship than actually exists and by doing so inserting themselves into my psyche without invitation. Because names still have power.

But why? What gives them this power?

We are a species of language users, and Western culture is especially into understanding of the world through words. We use words and names to model things in our mind and test how they relate to eachother. By learning a new word we add a new tool to our mental toolkit and from this comes the idea that we are gaining power over something by knowing it's name.

Related to this, there is the old idea that each thing has one and only one name and that that name is what that thing is. Ever had an older relative scoff at the idea of changing your name? That's why. Just as a rock is always going to be a rock, Bob is always going to be Bob - whatever he may call himself, he's still Bob; that's just who he is. Aristotle is a major part of this tradition, for he held that each thing is a member of one and only one category, forever and immutable (which is the source of the "miracle" of transubstantiation).

So names are traditionally thought to be fixed. This is connected to the idea in many cultures that the power to name a thing is the power to control or even create it. In the Bible, God begins the entire act of creation by nothing more than a word of command: Let there be light.

Further, there is the fact that use of a person's name, especially a first name or nickname, indicates a level of familiarity, of intimacy. This is partially a matter of trust (in light of the power of names) but also simply a matter of time and experience. The use of a first name or nickname by a stranger or social inferior (students, children, underlings at work) can be cause for offense because it assumes not only social equality but a history of personal intimacy that may not actually exist. Also, there is the fact that each person is trained almost from birth to react to their own name. This is, of course, part of the reason we have names in the first place- to get a particular person's attention. To speak a person's name forces their attention to shift to the speaker- a tool which can be used benignly but can be also be a subtle form of verbal domination (see above).

See also:

names have power?
once you know a thing's name, you control it

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