Naming Rights

Alas, we have little control over the language we are born into. Whatever language we happen to learn, we have little to say about the vocabulary. It’s already there, and if we want to be understood, we have to use it as others do.

This is despite the famous declaration in Through the Looking-Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master, that’s all.”

Mr. Dumpty is indeed the master of words, as he has explained to Alice:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

And that’s the problem. We have to use words the way others understand them, or we won’t be understood. Even if we aren’t concerned with the pronunciations, or pronouncements, of the guardians of language usage, we have to conform to the consensus of our colleagues and companions.

But there’s one small space of language where we, like Humpty Dumpty, are the master. That’s with our own names.

True, we don’t begin life with our choice of names. During childhood we have to make do with the names our parents gave us. But as we emancipate ourselves from parental guidance, we empower ourselves to be the final authority. Those who protect their names against mispronunciation and misspelling can be just as sincere and determined as those who strive to protect the general vocabulary against barbarisms. The weapon in both cases is annoyance, if not outrage.

For example, from

I was taught in school that the most important thing to anyone is their own name. I think it is only good manners for anybody to try to pronounce your name correctly (even if they are unable to—because of language differences, etc.—to at least make the effort). I would tell them and tell them that it is annoying.

Sometimes enforcing proper use of one’s name involves drastic measures. Another example from answerbag:

My boss used to say my name wrong, and I would get so annoyed. So, when I needed to talk to her, I intentionally mispronounced her name. She got the point and corrected herself. If a friend or a neighbor mispronounced my name, I wouldn’t really care. But in the work place, I would expect my boss to state it correctly.

And just as with standards for the general vocabulary, failure to respect the norm of a name can lead to ostracism. One more from answerbag:

I have a new boyfriend of 3 weeks who consistently calls me MartHa instead of Marta and it drives me crazy, a sign of disrespect. I have told him gently about 4 times, and the next 4 times were not gentle and I broke off the relationship.

We’ve made love etc. … how damn hard is it to get a name right. I am deeply insulted and it is so over. Some may say I am being too picky, but after telling him so many times, I have had it. Your name is so basic to who you are … if they can’t show enough respect to get it right, I am GONE!

That’s the true voice of authority.

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