The Naming Way: Part I

“Oh, Melvin, I was afraid I’d lost you.”

“Do not worry, Sandra. I will never leave your side again.”

“Melvin, I….”

“I know, Sandra. Don’t say another word.”

This is an example of a typical conversation between lovers found in the pages of a vapid romance novel or in a scene from a stale TV movie. There is something surreal about conversations like these, besides the predictable and vacant phrases. The problem is that in real life lovers don’t say each other’s names.

When we want to speak with someone we know very well, we tend to use visual cues, such as a nod, to get their attention, rather than speak their name. Sometimes we will look at them with our eyebrows raised, head tilted slightly back, mouth ajar, and wait for them to lock eyes with us. Whatever the strategy, it would be unusual for close friends or lovers to use each other’s names in conversation. If we must get their attention verbally, we usually use a name that is pet or nick. However, in books, plays and movies it is important that the audience knows which character is speaking and to whom they are speaking. Because of this need for clarity, writers will have their characters say each other’s full first names with unsettling frequency. This can make dialogue suspiciously formal, causing the audience, or reader, to reject the idea that the characters are in a close relationship. If you really love someone, you don’t say their name.

In casual relationships first names are exchanged commonly. In fact, this stage is often called first name basis precisely because members call each other by their first names. Once the relationship has evolved beyond this form, members no longer rely on noises to identify one another; this is known as no name basis.

In the workplace first names are employed because the purpose of verbal communication in this setting is efficiency and accuracy. Using a first name is the fastest and most definite way of identifying another person, besides a colored number system as was used in Star Wars. Since employees only interact because of their voluntary slavery, there is often little interest in fostering meaningful relationships.

In the education system students are known by their first name, while teachers and professors are known by their last name. This is because teachers want to segregate themselves from the students. Having students call them by their last name is a sign of respect and reminds students that educators are more powerful and of a higher rank than students. Sometimes teachers and others in respected positions will ask to be called by their first name in order to encourage a more comfortable, level relationship with young people. This is merely an attempt to mingle with youth by those who refuse to accept that they are old and uncool.

There is one scenario in which name-saying is more abundant than any other: public prayer. In this setting, the person speaking will say the deity’s name at an unrivalled pace, often using it more than once in a single sentence, though the name is altered slightly each time in order avoid seeming too repetitive. The cause for this is not easy to discern. Maybe the speaker, like the writers mentioned above, is merely clarifying the identity of his target for the audience. Perhaps repeating the deity’s name is a form of worship. Whatever the case, using a person’s name that many times in a conversation would be gratuitous and unnatural.

As an entertaining experiment, next time you see someone with whom you are on a no name basis, greet them using their first name in full length. Continue using their name in this way in each subsequent sentence. It’s weird.

In part II we will explore the origin of names, how they are chosen and some pitfalls to avoid.

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