Names have power, such as…

My partner and I have recently been reading The Lightning Thief with our 9-year-old son. One of the recurring ideas is that “names have power”, which is usually meant as “don’t say someone’s name or they’ll get pissed off”. While it initially seemed absurd that Greek gods and other creatures would somehow be okay with people talking about them as long as no one uses their actual names, it’s more likely that this is just a literary device to allow these newly renamed figures to be included as characters in their own right without triggering too many of the cultural associations that have become attached to their usual names.

But in looking into what “names have power” might mean, I found that this was actually a somewhat common idea. One person cited the Genesis myth of Adam naming every animal as an example of the act of naming symbolizing one’s power over the thing being named. This is just a specific instance of a more general kind of power: there was already an imbalance, because animals typically lack the ability to assign or comprehend names in the same way as humans. While the actual act of naming is an expression of this power, it’s not central to it. It’s a symptom, but not a cause.

Elsewhere, the American Druid Isaac Bonewits listed the “Law of Names” as one of many “Laws of Magic”. As he explained it:

Knowing the complete and true name of an object, being, or process gives one complete control over it. …knowing the complete and true name of something or someone means that you have achieved a complete understanding of its or their nature.

Ironically, this appears to disregard the common understanding of the name “name” as a convenient label for something, instead using the term to refer to an extended and comprehensive description. While fully grasping the functioning of a given entity might enable someone to exert control over it in certain ways, merely knowing its name – as most people use the word – is only a starting point.

But even as nothing more than convenient labels, names do have a variety of “powers”. The reason they have power is that identities have power, and the use of names provides a way to create, access, alter, merge, separate and destroy identities. This applies not only to people, but also to events, concepts, and movements.

For instance, a name can serve to integrate multiple identities that would otherwise be separate, such as someone’s offline identity and whatever additional identities they may have online. By associating these with the one individual behind all of them, they can be resolved to a single identity and a single name, potentially compromising that person’s privacy or safety. Conversely, omitting any identifying information, or using a very common name like “Anonymous”, can prevent the unwanted unification of one’s identities.

Putting a name to something also allows it to be discussed much more efficiently than if it had no name. Notice the ease of simply being able to say a name like “Elevator-gate” rather than having to rehash the specific nature and timeline of a certain controversy every time you talk about it. A name enables people to begin staking out the precise boundaries of something, defining it as a distinct entity.

For example, “atheism” has an obvious and well-understood definition, but in practice, it often implies a variety of stances beyond the disbelief in gods. “Humanism” and “secular humanism” can describe some of these additional beliefs, but these terms still haven’t always been linked to specific positions on ethics or political issues, and they’re even compatible with certain religious faiths. Because of this, their practical implications are often unclear.

People who identify strongly with atheism and secularism as a movement, but also share particular beliefs pertaining to equality, sexism, racism, women’s rights and LGBT issues, have long recognized that they constitute their own movement of sorts, but the lack of a distinct banner to organize under has sometimes left unclear just who they are and what exactly they stand for. Putting a name to this, like “Atheism Plus”, gives people something to affiliate themselves with and collaborate on to establish what it should mean.

Of course, this particular power of names is not a one-way process. The use of names can clarify and distinguish ideas and movements, but the ways people use and misuse them can also make their meaning much less clear. In the case of feminism, someone might use it to mean gender equality, but others may hear it as meaning an effort to subjugate, castrate or exterminate all men. This occurs because people don’t understand feminism as one distinct concept, and they have many mutually exclusive ideas of what feminism is – ideas which have become so, shall we say, “diverse”, that using the term can often result in these disconnects in communication.

Sometimes, people act as though names have more power than they actually do. They might disavow the labels of “racist” or “homophobe” or “hateful”, and then exhibit precisely the beliefs which are understood to be racist or homophobic or hateful, mistakenly believing that they can somehow alter the substance of their behavior merely by renaming it and attaching the disclaimer of “I’m not a racist”. But in using the name “racist” for something very different from how most of us use it, they’ve already disavowed that common meaning, so their defense that they’re “not a racist” ends up meaning very little. It can only be persuasive to others who commit the same error of thinking that something isn’t racist as long as you say it’s not.

People’s attitudes toward personal names also imbue them with certain powers. Because no one is capable of naming themselves at the time of their birth, their parents or guardians must provide a name for them. That name will be attached to them throughout their upbringing, and even once they reach the age of majority, most people still never change their first name. Because of this, that original name will always occupy a privileged position in their history, and the act of naming a child carries the solemnity of having to choose something that will be fitting and proper for them until death.

Changing your own name means rejecting these norms, and many people aren’t comfortable with that. When we do change our names, some people see these newly chosen names as somehow less authentic than the original name. Because they’re no longer something that we’re tied to for life, people might treat them as simply capricious, with no more significance than a change of hair color or a twenty-something’s ill-considered decision to get a tattoo.

At the same time, a chosen name takes on additional meaning in the case of transgender people. Because names are usually gendered, and gender is seen as one of the most fundamental aspects of our identity, changing your name to that of another gender is a declaration of not only who you are, but what you are. The popular notion of one’s original name being a “real name” can cause serious problems here. If your original name is the “real” one, then any name for yourself other than that will be treated as less real. And when you’ve declared yourself as the gender you now identify as, this use of “real” implies that what you are now is less real than what you used to be.

Considering how prevalent the notion of birth names as “real names” is, it’s not surprising that many people will ask trans people what their “real” names are. But they shouldn’t expect that we’ll be all that eager to tell them. Because of how people treat names, our original names have the power to invalidate who we are in the eyes of others. Rather than just ignorantly seeing us as “really a man” in the generic sense of “man”, knowing our previous names may lead them to see us as “really that one specific man”. It assists them in constructing some imagined identity for us that simply doesn’t exist, as an alternative to the person standing right in front of them. Our present may not erase our past, but our past doesn’t erase our present, either.

We’re proud of our chosen names because they represent who we are, but we can be equally secretive about our original names because they represent who we’re not. Just as our chosen names serve our own purposes, our original names can be used against us. And much like how people are willing to fight over the concepts and movements that a name stands for, they also seem to think that who we are is open to dispute. They might argue that I’m not really Rachel, I’m actually Tom. Not everyone seems to understand that while ideologies are up for debate, individuals are not.

These are the powers of names: to declare your self or deny someone their self, to affiliate or disaffiliate yourself with a movement, to make something into a thing in its own right or make it meaningless. Know them, understand them, and use them appropriately, and the powers of names can be yours.