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Body of Language

A late-night series of thoughts on names.

My name is Paul Edmund Ford: a 16 letter sequence of letters and spaces, with oscillating letter-cases. My name is a reference to my body, a pointer to a physical being which moves through space.

The name obscures my specifics - appearance, origins, location. Knowing I'm American, and given only my name, no one could guess my roots, as there are dark-skinned and light-skinned Fords. A person might even assume I was a Ford auto dealership owned by a man with the last name “Paul.” Such a dealership exists, in North Carolina.

Yet if you ask me who I am, I'd say first that I am Paul Ford. I've occured as Paul Ford for 26 years and will likely continue until I die; when I'm dead I will be called forth from memory as Paul Ford. Everything I am has so far hinged on those two words, even though there are 100s of other Paul Fords in the world, and some of them have emailed me, one asking me to “keep our name cool.”

While Paul Ford is my sort-of-identity, if not unique, I could easily change the referent, and in a few months, people would simply take everything they associated with “Paul Ford” and match it to my new name. They would replace the “Paul Ford” pointer in their minds with a “Edwin Walsh” or “Roscoe Kothe” pointer, and the fact that I once was Paul Ford would become a fact hinged off of the Edwin Walsh or Roscoe Kothe file in their minds, rather than a pointer to my whole identity as it once was.

My PaulFordness is entirely violable and mutable, even though my name, yelled across a crowded room, will always raise my attention. I'll hear it through almost any amount of noise.

Since my own name is so common, and because there are other writers named Paul Ford, some people have suggested I change my name, and I wonder if I should replace all the occurrences of “Paul Ford” on the site, and the email addresses, and for those who stumble here from Google searches. Afterwards, I would never have been this person at all - my own private 1984 Ministry of Truth.

In fiction, aliases and secret identities crop up constantly. The most interesting genre heroes and villains are always switching identities, going in and out of personae. How many spy or detective films feature a star pulling out a fake passport, or pretending to deliver flowers, then kicking in the door? Authors seem fascinated by name changes, the shape-shifting of language, and many actors, when they prepare for a role, start with the name of their character, taking it into themselves.

Name changes offer unique protections, as the President's daughters know; each recently tried to sneak into bars with different fake IDs, someone else's name next to a similar-seeming image. The false name was a simple way to rearrange reality. Once you have the name you can do anything, make up any story, start again.

An author could turn this name-switching around, and write a story and print a thousand copies with a protagonist named “Jack Mackay” and the antagonist named “Woodrow Buttermore,” and in the next 1000 copies, switch the two names. On the Web, this bit of code is trivial - much simpler than printing the story, and possibly harder to catch.

After you'd read the story, when you went to talk to someone about what the author had written, if you'd each read different versions, the reality of the piece - the references - would be mixed up, and if you hadn't expected it, it might take a long time before the disconnect could be identified and sorted through, if it ever were.

The people I've met and about whom I've learned seem to treat names as facts, as somehow connected to the bodies, not as pointers. Improper spellings - in the newspaper, in graduation or wedding programs - can set off tears and anger; an incorrectly written name is seen as a denial of the person, disrespectful, negating.

Celebrity gives one person more claim over a name. A secretary named Julia Roberts is going to constantly hear people comment on the connection between her and the star; she's also likely to hear people say, “I bet you get sick of hearing about it.”

A name is a sort of technique, a unique ID in our mental database. Last names only emerged with the development of trade, the need to have a clear reference to the individual - you called yourself by your father's name (Gutmundsdottir), or your job (Smith), or where you lived (Ford).

Before tonight, I assumed that naming our children is some emergent human urge, and primitive humans called each other Og and Mung out of some deep desire to put labels on things, but there are reasons for naming. Names would be little needed for basic hunter-gathering, which is slow and shared. You would copy the behavior of those around you, share the moment, eat, sleep. (And yet hunter-gatherer cultures discovered in the last century all had names for each member). Names are also mostly useless in assembly-line practices, where people are supposed to fill their roles interchangeably with other people trained in the same fashion. Soldiers, as well, are first called Private, Sergeant, Captain; names are not used with every command or request, only with some. The role is more important to the organization than the name.

With the pressures of hunting large animals, or building shelter, a name would offer real efficiency. For anything which required scheduling, in which time and actions needed to become discrete, rather than continuous, names could be seen as essential, especially for those managing or leading. As society became more complex, by the 12th or 13th century in Europe, we added surnames to our single names, although most Kings and Queens still don't have surnames.

When society became exponentially more complex we added, in the United States, Social Security Numbers, which now identify us everywhere, and are expected to provide a unique, permanent way to refer to ourselves in this country. Genocide, banking, and government administration are facilitated by numbering humans; anything which might involve millions needs some technology, some technique for identifying the individual, farther along than only names.

Today, the most accurate pointer to my physical self is my Social Security number; it can't be shared by anyone else without breaking the law. My name remains a useful mnemonic device for my friends, easier than remembering 9 numbers, but in databases around the planet I am recorded by a number with the pattern XXX-XX-XXXX. If each number had a unique sound, my social security number could be a spoken name, and would be entirely my own. Perhaps that's a way forward; we can match the numbers to sounds, and our names could be truly unique:

If my SS# was something like 303-91-2884, and we gave the United States the country syllable “bu,” my name would be Bu-Sowula Roku Lagogoso, and only I would have this name in the world. Which would rock, because “Paul Ford” has gotten sort of boring, and I want to be called Mr. Bu-Sowula. Actually, since the number of sounds is much greater than the number of letters, with a good algorithm, you could give me a totally unique world-name in only 6 or 7 syllables.

We receive Social Security numbers by law, but other alternative names are self-proclaimed. Naming your band, finding a good URL for your Web site, airbrushing “The Monster” on the side of your truck, spending $400,000 to create a brand identity for your company - each of these acts is a conscious desire to manipulate the way the pointers work in others, to influence the namespace in the minds of others.

Trademark law bustles as a result of the desire to possess and control names; the government has made it possible to own a sound and sequence of letters, and you can sue the hot pants off people who try to steal this non-entity from you. Most businesses want their identities promoted endlessly, and spend millions of dollars to drill their trademarked sequences into our tired brains, but there is also a need to restrict names from being used “improperly” - so Xerox spent great amount of time and effort to remind us that xeroxing was actually photocopying. Becoming a verb, in terms of brand equity, is considered a disaster; you never want your name to end up in the dictionary without a trademark attached, because then anyone - including your competitors - can own it. Many people invest their lives into protecting the value of your brand in the world linguistic territory, looking for the choicest properties inside the consumer's mind.

In the culture of business, a brand name is perceived as valuable, a key asset, and is viciously defended, often by men named Michael Smith, Dave Jacobs, and Charles Waring, men whose names have a sort of generic white blandness that inspires confidence and looks good on stationery. The well-off have stable, common names; sometimes they lazily add a number and call it a day, differentiating Wm Gates III from Wm Gates II. These people, with their boring names, then hire people like me to come up with fantastic, exciting, unusual names for their products and services, names that they can promote with fervor and huge amounts of cash. You can name your child William Gates III, but you cannot name your company Microsoft, but that's how our cultural namespaces: the human namespace allows for redundancy, and sees it as no big deal, but the corporate namespace forbids it.

Others in America feel free to give their children any names they like, to forget the past. Young Black women often make up names for their children based on sound, to give the child a totally unique presence. White people make fun of these names, but they are often beautiful once you get past your own little racist jokes at hearing names like “Lamalika” and “Tamashana.” Tell me those aren't more interesting and poetic than “Jane” or “Alice.”

On the Internet, everything needs a name, which makes things tricky, as there are billions and probably, soon, trillions of objects on the Web, when you count all the pages, sites, people with email addresses, interchangeable code, systems for encoding information, and so on, and each one of them needs a unique, permanent identity, because otherwise the whole system will break, just like when our imaginary author alternated the names of his hero and his villain in his story.

The tendency of names to overlap in computer systems is well-recognized. For instance, XML is a standard for encoding documents, and it uses "tags" to add structure to text. Because there are many different kinds of structures, and all of them might share the concept of a “paragraph” or “title tag,” the XML people have created “namespaces” - an extension of a familiar computer science concept - in order to allow the structures to overlap and work together, while still maintaining their identities. The namespaces are surnames, while the structural elements are first names. “Novel:paragraph” and “LegalDocument:paragraph” are entirely different elements, from two different worlds, just like Ms. Kim Murphy and Mr. Kim Adabajian are from different worlds, even if they're both named Kim.

Still in the world of the Internet, there is also enormous fuss over the TLDs, or Top-Level Domains, like .com, .org, .edu, and .net. This namespace is in the public trust and administered by a semi-democratic process, because the pressure over who gets to use which names is enormous, or was, when people cared about the Internet and thought they'd get rich. It took years to open up new TLDs, and the ability to do so still hasn't made its way to regular people.

An enormous amount of Internet traffic goes to name servers, the machines that, like enormous phone books, tell one machine how to find another by looking up a numerical address to match a name.

To read this page, your service provider queried a name server, somewhere, to find that Ftrain.com is really 66.78.48.8. Actually, both are simply references, but the numerical address is needed for the your to find a pathway to the Ftrain.com machine. Ftrain.com is a proper name, and the IP address 66.78.48.8 is a sort of Social Security number. (Except you can “cheat” and have many names on one IP.)

As more and more individuals come online, as more and more companies bump up against one another in the ether of online space, as we use our names and social security numbers for more and more, the problems of privacy and security explode. The companies become linguistic feudal warlords, protecting their textual turf; individuals, on the other hand, must actively defend their privacy.

Our names take on lives of their own, and bump up against other names, so we add numbers and become MikeSmith1944@AOL.com, and encode personal qualities by complex “geek codes,” compressing our identities into strings of symbols which can be interpreted by looking up their meanings in a table. The individual human record is a piece of code on the machine, a series of addresses which can be operated on by running programs, and shared with other machines. There is a great deal of tension by various people over the possibilities of such system - marketers want to use it to understand and predict your needs, and convince you to buy things; privacy advocates see this as a dangerous step towards actually controlling people, because they feel that, like your name on the lips of your best friend, your name in a computer is closer to you, your physical, living self, than it might seem, and the manipulation of that name by organizations, like corporations and governments, can have a great effect on you - an effect which you are not, they say, able to control or manage.

I once had a girlfriend I called “Possum.” I liked the sound of the word, and I like the animals, at least in the wild, if not when they root through trash and stare in your windows. She was fond of the nickname, she said, as long as “you didn't call any of your other girlfriends by it.” I hadn't. It was hers alone. Names become quite important in sexual relationships. I need my name to be used to feel trust and affection, to know that it's real, directed at me, not some nebulous and general-issue pronouncement. I need a lover to call me by the two syllables, the first invented by my mother, the second inherited from my father, which point to me, and attach compliments and fondness to those words.

“Who do you love?”

“I love you - you! I love Brandon Snobeck McWhirt.”

“And I love you, Magnolia Celestina Dunklin-Geeting.”

(Curtain.)

To add a name to the words “I love you” is to give the expression more meaning and significance, to commit more deeply, to make it more personal. Alternatively, there are few worse foul-ups than to call your lover by your ex-lover's name, to mix up the pointers, especially in moments of sexual excitement. Like the misspelled name in the graduation program, erring on a name denies the individuality, the uniqueness, of the name's bearer.

To call out for Janet when you are making love to Margaret shows that you haven't really learned the difference between the two. No apology can remedy the act, because both people know it wasn't an error. It wasn't like bumping over a lamp or forgetting a birthday. It was a disavowal of uniqueness.

Seeing someone as a full individual, giving them their own namespace, is very difficult early on. I rely on past information in assessing anyone new, figuring out how they work, and some pointer-switching and comparison with past loves or friends is inevitable. But I have learned painfully that such comparisons and sorts must, must not be spoken. The switch must be kept in the proper position, and the referents must be walled from one another.

A name, like money, doesn't exist in the same way my hands and mouth do, but to treat names as simple identifiers instead of the textual embodiment of a whole person would put every human relationship I enjoy in peril.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.

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