Comment: By any other name

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My name is not Sylvia. And yet a former superior insisted on calling me Sylvia, while knowing full well that my name was not, in actual fact, Sylvia. He appeared to be friendly enough but his smile was more of a smirk, like that of a little boy who was getting away with something naughty. I staged a mild protest. But he grinned all the more while delivering this inaccurate salutation, seeming pleased to have drawn a rise out of me. Soon others, those ranked beneath him, began addressing me as Sylvia too. They seemed confused. I protested further. But the mis-naming continued and, if I wanted to hang on to my bottom-of-the-pile job, there didn’t seem to be a right lot I could do about it.

My name is not Maureen. In a different work place, a person I was answerable to insisted on calling me Maureen, while knowing full well that my name was not, in actual fact, Maureen. He was joking around and laughing at his own ‘brilliant’ sense of humour. At first I laughed too, but after a while I couldn’t keep up the pretence. It felt too much like an adult version of the bored school boy who pulled my pig tails and I started to wonder what the actual heck was wrong with these people.

Names matter. Especially people’s names. There’s a kind of passive aggressive power play going on when we decide to use a name that someone doesn’t like or want. I’ve seen this sort of jokey, mild bullying tactic happen to others, and I’ve been on the receiving end of it too. It’s galling. But isn’t it lovely when someone, usually a professional, takes the trouble to ask what name you prefer to be addressed by? It’s a gesture of kindness, courtesy and respect. Claiming your preferred name is liberating. Re-naming yourself is an important autonomous act. Children sometimes do this when they reach their teenage years; we ignore their decision at our peril. For many, taking on the surname of another at the point of marriage also represents a major shift in identity.

Positive name giving, and re-naming, are viewed by some (mostly me) as a divine act. By this I mean that it’s not something to be done lightly. Back in my Sunday school days I noticed that in stories about the Almighty He was big on giving names to people and places. Re-naming seemed high on His agenda too. It’s akin to the gift of a fresh start, a new identity, a new role, a promotion, new purpose or fresh function.

It’s in this spirit of renewal that I’ve become a self-appointed nano name giver. I’m currently writing a book about some long forgotten places, parts of them have no formal name at all. I can see no reason why I can’t make up an appropriate new name for a tiny part of a place, especially when that part is nameless. Naming something gives it credence. A made up name can stick because just one person started using it, and if you really think about it every name for every place had to be made up by someone. So why not me? I’m hopeful it will catch on.

As a journalist the names of people, and especially places, hold a fascination for me. At some point in time every person and every place was nameless. Somewhere along the way, by accident or design, a name was chosen by one person. Someone was the very first person to utter the words Borsdane Woods or Rivington Pike or Blackpool or Leeds or Fred’s Field. And it caught on, just like with the Sylvia thing.

Val Fraser

Val Fraser is a trained journalist with over 12 years’ experience working on staff in various demanding media environments. She has authored/edited thousands of articles including news, travel and features. Val has authored/contributed to nine non-fiction books. A regular columnist, she stepped up to the role of Digital Editor in September 2022 and is responsible for the Sorted Magazine website.
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