A Real Name

“So, what’s your real name?”


“No, I mean like, your real name, the one you were born with.”

“My assigned name?”

“Yeah, your real one.”

“It wasn’t real, and it’s none of your business.”

I’ve always found it interesting, this idea of a name’s “realness”. That a chosen name is not real but the ones arbitrarily imposed on us, before our selfhood had been in any way articulated, before there was really an “us” to name, are. To me it seems like such a silly, weird inversion of everything the concept of a name actually signifies, at least in my mind.

Names carry a great deal of weight and significance. I’d almost go so far as to say they have a nearly metaphysical power. A name is ultimately just a word that, like any word, is really just arbitrary sounds and squiggles that only carry any potency or meaning by way of the associations and significance we, cooperatively, invest in them. But a name is a particularly powerful word in that the significance we’ve poured into it, the association it makes, is with us, with our selves. That overarching, aggregate, emergent coalescence of our cognitive processes, the singifier that signifies not only all we are, but also the being of all we are, the are-ness itself (without which all the other signifiers dissolve back into noise… if not less. If not less than less.)

The name is that which signifies the self.

We have a habit of denigrating and dismissing chosen names. We’ll put little scare quotes around them, speak them in a satirical tone, engage with their use in the context of humouring someone. It seems like there’s this immense, subconscious drive to dismiss the possibility of a name that extends from the self it signifies. This dismissal becomes particularly strong when we refuse to accept the premise on which the name was selected. For instance, if we reject new age principles, or hippy / environmentalist culture in general, we’ll happily mock someone for having chosen the name Sage or Dharma or Windleaf. If we think it’s silly for people to convert to Islam, we’ll mock their conversion names. And yes, if we deny the legitimacy of someone’s transgender identity, one of the most cutting, hurtful and easy ways to make that position clear is to deny a trans person’s chosen name.

While the fervency with which we engage in these denials can vary, and sometimes we’ll be content to accept the legitimacy of one chosen name while mocking another, the underlying propensity we all have for categorizing some names as “real” and others as “fake”, “silly”, “pretentious” is nearly universal. This picking and choosing kind of creeps me out, as it ends up nonetheless implying that although someone is willing to, say, accept MY chosen name on the premise that trans people’s names “count”, that acceptance is conditional and they reserve the right to strip someone of their name if they choose.

As an example, there was the whole thing a couple months ago when Be Scofield attacked Greta Christina as being an imperialist and, to paraphrase, the “worst form of evil”. I’ve since come to seriously, seriously despise Be Scofield, and consider him an intensely intellectually dishonest, manipulative and hypocritical person, but nonetheless it didn’t sit well with me AT ALL when some of the Pharyngulite Horde began putting little scare quotes around Be’s name (not least of all because Be is himself transitioning – and yes, he has an explicit stated preference for male pronouns until he’s “fully transitioned”, whatever the hell that means).

The justifications that inevitably followed my calling people out on this centered mostly around claiming ignorance of Be’s transgender status (which I think was the truth, but doesn’t necessarily let someone off the hook), and saying that what they were really mocking was the “pretentiousness” of Be’s name. And throwing in some talk about how horrible Be is so why should I care?

The overall message, apparently, is that while they would never, ever do something horrible like knowingly invalidate or mock a trans person’s name, or describe it as less “real” than their assigned name, that it’s still totally completely fine to invalidate and mock people’s names for other reasons, such as deigning it to be “pretentious”, or because you just don’t like that person.

I’m sorry, but that’s STILL really messed up. So… what if my name were deemed “pretentious”? Would it suddenly be fair game to be denigrated and placed in scare quotes?

And aren’t ALL names “pretentious”? They just vary in the degree to which their meanings are explicit within the first language of whoever is named.

Like let’s take Natalie Reed for instance. Nice normal looking name, right? It’s not like I called myself something “weird” like Jadzia or Diamanda or Idris or Faye, yeah? Well… I chose the name Natalie for a number of rather specific, “pretentious” reasons, likewise Reed. Natalie was chosen a) for the latin word for “birth”, something I felt I was undergoing in transition, b) it’s a name traditionally given to girls born around Christmas (Natale Domini), and I had begun my HRT on December 20th, and c) I was poking a bit of fun at the word “natal female” which was, in 2002 when I first began researching transition, the accepted term for a woman who wasn’t trans as “cisgender” had not yet been popularized. I may not have been a “natal female” but at least I was a Natalie female!

Reed is even more explicit. It’s quite simply a play on the word “read”. It’s what I chose as the pseudonym under which I’d write non-fiction, essays, criticism, etc. since that kind of writing foregrounds my role as a reader, someone who takes things in and thinks about them. It was meant to contrast against Wright, the ‘nym I’d be using for my poetry and fiction and comics, which would in turn foreground my creative role. Sadly, I haven’t yet published any of that kind of stuff since transition, so Natalie Wright has yet to make her debut.

Regardless, when the meanings are unpacked, and it becomes explicit that in calling myself Natalie Reed I was basically saying “Reborn Reader”, it all of a sudden looks exactly as “pretentious” as our Bes, Sages, Dharmas, Windleafs and Jadzias.

Assigned names, while not having the same degree of self-directed intentionality, nonetheless consistently bear meanings too. Admit it: you almost certainly know exactly what your name means in its language of origin. Parents often know those meanings too, and intended them. Else the names are meant as homages to relatives, friends, heroes. Then we even have those names that do have explicit meaning in English but have simply become commonplace enough that no one quite reads it as “pretentious” any longer: Grace, Harmony, Rose, Dawn, Felicity.

We like to view assigned names as though they were simply rolls of the dice, just a name that emerged fully-formed from the natural essence of your being, and therefore wholly natural, wholly real, and behave as though this natural realness of the name would be tainted and compromised by any degree of intentionality. But that intentionality was always already there: even in the rare case that your parents literally just flipped to a page of the Big Book O’ Baby Names at random, that randomness was itself an act of intentionality.

Perhaps, at least, this intention wasn’t yours, and that’s what makes the name natural? Sure. The signifier of a self is TOTALLY more “real” when the self it represents in no way participated in the meanings and associations of the appellation, nor did the self even have any kind of form through which such meanings and associations could sensibly be located. That makes oodles of sense.

Regardless, though, the most troubling issue here is the presumption that there is EVER a context in which it is appropriate to deny someone their name. This gets so close to home in terms of some of the overarching themes I’ve been trying to convey about identity on this blog.

An individual’s body, gender and identity are theirs. Wholly and completely so. No matter what they’ve done with or to their body, what choices they’ve made about their body, how they identify and express their gender and sexuality, or how they’ve chosen to articulate their identity, at NO point does it become OUR domain to start dictating those things, or what of them were and were not worthy choices. You do not get to determine my gender, I do. You do not get to make decisions about what happens to my body, I do. And you do not get to say what is or isn’t my name. I do.

Likewise everyone else. Even for the silliest of reasons, their name is their name. Honestly? I would still call you an asshole even if you put scare quotes around someone who’d taken the name RainbowStar, Daughter Of The Moonray Roads. It’s RainbowStar’s call to make, not ours.

This intensity with which we privilege the supposedly “unintentional” assigned name as natural and real while mocking names that are elected -and almost in accordance with the degree to which their self-determination is overt or “flaunted”, such as how we’re much less likely to mock a trans person who picks a “normal-sounding” name, one that “fits” with cultural expectations and SEEMS assigned (like Natalie), than a trans person who chooses something that proudly does not to disguise its nature as chosen (like Jadzia)- reflects almost a resentment and distrust of self-determination itself. And that’s creepy as all get out.

The overall message we seem to send in these kinds of things is that yes, we’re supposed to simply accept our lot in life. Accept the identity and role we’ve been assigned. Accept our station. Accept who others tell us we are. Accept what they think we’re meant to be, and what we mean. Accept what they’ve called us, and never, ever stand up against that. Never assert the right to determine and define your own identity, life, role, meaning. Don’t ever claim the capacity to choose for yourself what kind of life you will have, nor ever say that what you’ve been assigned is not what you want for yourself. Don’t question- do as your told, and be who you’re told you are.

One of the most beautiful and powerful things I feel a human being can do is to reject that message. To assert that they’re more than the identity they’ve been told to inhabit. To go all Don Quixote, and become a knight errant, refuse to accept being a tired old gentleman of LaMancha locked in his study with his resignation reading books and yearning, instead sally forth to battle giants, protect the innocent, fall madly in love, and be the hero you know yourself to be… no matter how many times you get beaten up, how many teeth you lose, how much you’re ridiculed, how much you’re patronizingly humoured, how much you’re exploited, and how much everyone implores you to return to the “sanity” of the empty life you were expected to live (and yes, this does all happen to Don Quixote, and yes, I do consider him the absolute perfect archetype of the heroism of transition).

Which is his real name:

Alonso Quijano or Don Quixote?

If you answer the former, I’m genuinely sad for you.

What’s the Emerson quote again? “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Us trans peeps take our own names as extensions of our own selves. To signify the part of ourselves that although subjected to a lifetime of a world attempting to destroy it, or at least brutally suppress it, managed to survive and ultimately find its way to being proudly open in the light of day. It’s the part of ourselves that was most genuine, that was able to exist and be spoken despite every conceivable form of coercion that would have us keep it silent. These names represent the parts of ourselves that could not be compromised, and represent our capacity to articulate, determine and assert our own identities even at the risk of losing everything we have. What could possibly be more real than that? That part of myself, now named, was the part that persisted (through much worse than scare quotes), that needed to be named and seen. What could be more real than that?

Yes, I have a real name. It’s Natalie.

Are you sure yours is real?


  1. Cuttlefish says

    As long as my comment is awaiting moderation, Natalie, I’d add a brief story–I met Scicurious in Boston for the Ignobel prize ceremony, or one of them. Some time into our conversation, she noted that I was the very first person not to immediately ask her name.

    Hell, I knew her name–it’s Scicurious.

  2. says

    Fantastic post. Who are we to decide whether the name someone goes by is their true identity or not? Isn’t it up to the other person to give their own identity?

    I go by my birth name right now cause I’ve not come out trans to anyone except my friends – who all call my Kat or Kitty or Katherine. When I start to go by that name at work, I know I’ll have to continually remind people that’s who I am. I know I’ll be misgendered, I know I’ll be talked about, and I know I’ll lose friends and family, but I’m tired of lying about who I am anymore.

    I chose this name because it’s my grandmothers’ middle names, I think it’s a beautiful name. If they don’t accept me for who I am, I won’t angrily cast it off over that slight, because over the past year or so, I’ve completely become Katherine Lorraine. It’s my name, no one else’s.

  3. Pteryxx says

    I wasn’t “born with” a name. My parents hung one on me, like a picture frame, or a bonsai kitten jar. As far as I’m concerned, a chosen name is going to be truer to the person than an assigned one.

  4. bubba707 says

    In various times and places a child was assigned a name only when it became clear they’d survive. At a later date the child would be given a new name based on a characteristic or accomplishment. At a still later time that person could choose yet another name based on their life and acheivements. Names are maliable things and in these cultures was a descriptive thing. In such cultures the Real Name was secret and revealed only to those few the person placed great trust in. My own position is everyone should have the right to choose the name they wish for themselves and make that their legal identity, after all, the law does allow for that. Your old name is relegated to the past and completely invalid, Natalie is your name now and represents who you are today.

  5. McKenzie says

    Since I knew that Deed Polls were even a thing it struck me as odd that people changing their legal name for whatever reason was a rare occurrence. I figure if I ever have children I’ll raise them with whatever name (one that I personally like probably) and tell them that if they want another name they’re free to choose one effective immediately and I’ll help them get their name changed legally too.

    Past two posts have been absolutely spot on though, wonderful and quite relevant to me right now (been having “am I trans” doubts since forever but especially recently, and I am toying between keeping my assigned surname or using a new one)

  6. Sas says

    Irrelevant to the topic, but,

    Jadzia or Diamanda or Idris or Faye

    “Jadzia” makes me wonder, are those examples all inspired by scifi characters? “Faye” could be Faye Valentine …

    • F says

      An interesting connection that is, what with the significance of the name Edward in world which Faye Valentine (another name assumed from necessity) occupies. Along with two guys identified almost exclusively by assumed handles and a dog with a “pretentious” given name.

      Weird how that just kept getting thicker the more I thought about it.

      • Claire says

        Out of interest, I wonder if “Diamanda” was inspired by a character in Clive Barker’s “Abarat” novels? Since that’s the only place I’ve ever heard the name before – although I could be mistaken here.

        • Ethan Hobart says

          There is a singer/performance artist named Diamanda Galas. Her first album came out three years before Barker’s first book…

  7. says

    Natalie was chosen a) for the latin word for “birth”, something I felt I was undergoing in transition, b) it’s a name traditionally given to girls born around Christmas (Natale Domini), and I had begun my HRT on December 20th, and c) I was poking a bit of fun at the word “natal female” which was, in 2002 when I first began researching transition, the accepted term for a woman who wasn’t trans as “cisgender” had not yet been popularized. I may not have been a “natal female” but at least I was a Natalie female!

    That’s really interesting, thanks for explaining it. In general, I think the reasons why a person chooses a different name is much more interesting than what the name they got stuck with. (“Oh, you were named “Egbert Cornelious Buttke” after your grandfather. Fascinating!“) So if I were going to ask, I’d rather know about the new name anyway. But I don’t think I’d ever ask that of someone I didn’t know very well.

    I can sort of relate, though. “Leni” is a nick name that I’ve had since birth, and I get asked the same thing all the time. Mostly because it’s fairly unusual and most people don’t seem to know that it is a feminine name. My mom gave me a more traditional name that can sort of be shortened to Leni (Melanie, ugh) in case I didn’t like it, so I have to tell people that I have this other back-up name. But I don’t consider it my “real” name. And if you call me “Mel”, I will kill you. Or at least consider it briefly while giving you the stink eye.

    Anyway, I don’t consider it my real name because my immediate family has never used it and because Leni just suits me so much better. I doubt I would have chosen either and spent most of my life mildly resenting it, but I’ve learned to embrace it.

      • says

        I recently met a Katherine who goes by Rin, which I thought was adorable. But I’m totally with you on the Kathy. That would drive me nuts!

        • says

          Rin is a moderately common feminine name in Japan. Keep in mind in that syllabary it’s pronounced closer to “Lin”. It can be written with many different kanji to give it various meanings, though it seems increasingly popular (especially among women) to simply write their given name in hiragana (phonetically, which assigns no meaning). I find this fascinating, since hiragana was once known as onnade (women’s writing, or more literally a woman’s hand) back when education and social life was rigidly patriarchal.

      • says

        Hmm. I’ve been so completely hardline about not accepting nicknames of my birth name, that I’ve gone 180° opposite with my preferred names – so far I’ve been called Catherine, Xanthe, Cathy, Kate, Cath, Cat, Kitty, Kit, and Xanth. I’m surprised how relaxed I am about it, to be perfectly honest. 🙂

      • embertine says

        I am glad, because I always refer to you as “Kat” in my head, and now I know I have chosen the correct diminutive. 🙂

      • kim says

        My full name is Kimberly. I go by either Kimberly or Kim. A coworker who goes by Jerry, full name Jerome, would call me Kimmy knowing it would annoy me. I cured him of it by calling him Gerald one time. His response was “it’s Jerome”. My response was “it’s Kim or Kimberly”. Him, after a slight pause, “point taken”. And he never called me Kimmy again.

    • Happiestsadist says

      I feel the same way about Becky. I am not in the slightest a Becky. Hell, I’m only a Rebecca to people who don’t know me. I like it for that, to keep people at arm’s length.

  8. mizzmazz says

    Gah, how many times as a Pagan I would make fun of the Morrigans, or the Cerridwens, and be so proud my given name was Pagan. What an arrogant jerk I was. To be honest, growing up in the ’70’s ’80’s I would have rather had a normal name that wouldn’t be so mispronounced (even though it is pronounced just like it is spelled). I didn’t see that these people were giving themselves a name that fit their identity, let alone one they liked. How many people have been stuck with names they don’t care for, and have to go through the embarrassment of a joke name, or something that doesn’t fit the person you want to be? Just like so many things in life, we are told we don’t get to pick what we are called, and I say “Why the hell not?” For so many years I wanted to be Susan or Linda, but I put up with my obscure Celtic name until it served me. Not everyone is so lucky, so I why should we care what is a ‘real’ name and what isn’t? We make ourselves into what we want, or at least are trying to, and I think that shedding the definitions that other people lay on us is a basic right.

  9. Emily says

    No word of lie. Had this conversation, word for word, at a party I went to recently hosted by a crossdresser.

    (Actually, that a CD hosted it may have something to do with it, since he is quite comfortable identifying as male with a male name for %97 of the time, and that the ‘female’ self is clearly framed as fun cosplay.)

    Not so easy for transsexuals.

  10. Emily says

    PS: You’ve got a good chunk of your introductory chapter right here. The Quixote analogy, and a meditation on names, self-baptism, and transition are the perfect structural framework to (1) introduce yourself, (2) situate your main enquiries, and (3) launch your overall argument. In my opinion. Whatever that is worth.

  11. Emily says

    PPS: Derrida essay “On the Name” really helped me overcome my own questions about the power of ‘names’ as cognates for the individual.

  12. jamessweet says

    Playing devil’s advocate here for a moment… What if I decided everybody should start calling me “The General”? Or better yet “My Personal Lord and Savior”. You can call me “Savior” for short, but I prefer the full version.

    Not that those examples are at all analogous to wanting to be called “Natalie” or “Be” or even “Windleaf”, but my point is that I’m not entirely sure we can just make a blanket declaration that whatever a person decides to call themselves is totally awesome and if we even go so far as to think for a moment that their choice is lame, then we are marginalization that person. That’s vulnerable to a reductio ad absurdum where a person demands to be called something that is simply not reasonable.

    That said, I think that it’s right to err heavily on the side of leeway and respect here. I confess I might do a little internal eyeroll if somebody introduces themselves as “Windleaf”, but I will carefully adhere to their wishes, I would be unlikely to comment on my aesthetic reaction to anyone other than my wife, and I certainly would not try to imply that it is not their “real” name.

    (To be clear, if someone’s given birth name was “Windleaf”, my internal eyeroll would be undiminished — it’s not the act of choosing the name that I find a bit lame, it’s the name itself. And this really is a purely aesthetic judgment, which I think I’m entitled to… Some friends of ours named their first kid
    “Colden”, which I think is just an awful name, and clearly pretension does not factor in there… I just think the name is not aesthetically pleasing. As far as Natalie Reed == Reborn Reader, it’s really cool that the name has that extra level of meaning, but if you called yourself “Reborn Reader”, well.. I’d call you that, but I’d think it was lame, not because of anything political or having to do with pretension or whatever, but because I simply didn’t think it worked as a name.)

      • Anders says

        The problem comes when someone wants to call hirself “killthejews”. But I strongly doubt that it happens often enough to cause problems. Hard cases make bad laws – the general principle that a person choose hir name is sound.

      • says

        Nearly half of all the people in the world who genuinely care about me call me “Zinc”. But then, I tend to think of an “identity” as a set of interpersonal relationships tied to a common self-identifier.

    • says

      “where a person demands to be called something that is simply not reasonable”

      what does that mean? I should note that, given internet handles, people already get to chose long, silly, pretentious, whateverthefuck names, and are referred to by those names without any sort of problem. what’s so different about meatspace that it would make using names equivalent to internet handles suddenly unreasonable?

      • Brett says

        I think self-selected names are a case where you can think of very unlikely extremes that would not be reasonable, but it would very rarely come up. If I chose a name that was unpronounceable it would leave people unable to verbally identify me (Like Prince did for a while), I could also choose a very long or difficult to remember name and refuse nicknames. My name could include blasphemy or obscenity, or be a “Who’s on First” style joke designed to aggravate my friends and associates. I could even use a normal name, but change it frequently (like once a week), or change it to be the same as the name of a person I know to confuse multiple friends.

        In most of these cases, you have a situation where a person isn’t really changing their name in good faith, but “good faith” in this case would be hard to judge at the edge cases.

        I actually had this post change my mind a bit, and I think I’m in favor of giving people the benefit of the doubt and calling them whatever they like, but as a software tester it’s in my nature to look for potential problems 😉

        • Moz says

          I have no problem applying the Prince solution to people whose names I think are unreasonable – I just don’t refer to them at all. They’re free to choose a name and ask not to be referred to otherwise, but I’m free to respect their wishes by emphasising the second part of their request.

          I have also been known to respond to “what’s your real name” with “ooooh, man, what’s real. Like, my name is totally not real at all, you know” in exaggerated stoner style. Having issues with my name has usually been an indication of future unpleasantness, so I’ve learned to accept that, dump the idiot and move on. Tricky when it’s a work situation, where I usually start talking about mononyms (legal in Australia, per Stilgerian and Skud) until they lose interest.

          • Brett says

            I like that approach! Since I really do think (if only recently), that a person should be able to able to determine their “real” name without being my business, but on the other hand Ander’s example of “Killthejews” is not a name I should ever have to say out loud, your approach of simply not calling them by name seems like a great work-around! I had been sort of conflicted on the idea of “real” names for a while, and I think everything is finally coming together between this original post and the comments here.

      • amhovgaard says

        I wouldn’t say internet handles are _never_ a problem… I remember once, on a gay site, having a serious political discussion with a guy who called himself “wantyourcocknow” – that felt a bit weird 😉

      • jamessweet says

        “where a person demands to be called something that is simply not reasonable”

        what does that mean?

        Well, it’s not clear, is it? That’s sort of my point — but we can clearly think of examples that cross the line. Anders points out that “killthejews” would be an inappropriate handle both online and in meatspace. I can’t just say, “Hey look, that’s what I choose to call myself. Don’t judge me!”

        what’s so different about meatspace that it would make using names equivalent to internet handles suddenly unreasonable?

        This is a good and provocative question and worth facing. There are at least some legitimate answers for at least some handles, I think, e.g. some handles might be fine on the internet but be unpronouncable/unnecessarily difficult to pronounce in reality.

        And my examples so far have been intended to apply to both. I would probably not take too kindly to someone whose internet handle was “Your Personal Lord and Savior” and insisted that everyone call her either by the full title, or by “My Savior”. Well, it would be funny for a joke, but it would get old fast.

        But that’s not really what you are talking about, is it? You are talking about the fact that I nary blinked an eye that your handle here was “Jadehawk”, but if I met you in real life and you introduced yourself thusly, I wouldn’t say anything and I’d be really polite, but I confess I might internally scoff a bit. I don’t know why that is the case. Perhaps it doesn’t make any sense at all.

        In any case, one thing I agree with whole-heartedly is that, excepting the extreme examples like “killthejews” which I was using to make a point that we are not compelled to respect any and all handles without judgment, whether on the internet or IRL it is nearly always the case that if I have a negative judgment about somebody’s choice of name (or their parents’ choice of name for them), I’d best be keeping that to myself. Within reason, everybody has a right to be addressed the way they want people to address them.

        • karmakin says

          Like with everything else, it’s within reason.

          It’s weird, because I am used to a bunch of different names. I use this name, Karmakin, for pretty much everything online. It’s not just politics or atheism or anything. I also use it for online games and all sorts of other things. So if someone in meatspace called me that, I’d turn my head without a second thought.

          As it turns out, I don’t actually get a chance to use this name with my meatspace friends and family, except for my wife but that’s less about me hiding it and more just the way things are.

          I don’t see a problem with someone who wants to be called something. I have friends who for some reason or another don’t like their name so they want a nickname or something else. It’s fine. Yes, something offensive would be offensive but here’s the thing. It would tell me a LOT about that particular person. In fact, I probably would choose to not be around that person. I have that right.

          But that’s a pretty silly argument altogether, as it’s something that rarely if ever happens. Actually I vaguely remember some cases of it happening, but still, it’s not something to get all up in arms about.

        • strange gods before me ॐ says

          I would probably not take too kindly to someone whose internet handle was “Your Personal Lord and Savior” and insisted that everyone call her either by the full title, or by “My Savior”. Well, it would be funny for a joke, but it would get old fast.

          Hey now.

  13. says

    I was born with the first name Garry, but my adoptive parents changed my first and last names (and I never had a middle one). So despite “Garry” being name on my birth certificate and the first legal name I had, it is not my “real” name.

  14. says

    I’d add internet nicks to the list of self-chosen names people get criticized for, now. You know, all the shit about “hiding” behind a handle instead of “standing behind your words” by displaying the name your parents stuck you with for all the internet to see.

    I find the notion of being born with a name deeply odd. no one is born with one! even for kids whose parents picked a name beforehand, they still aren’t born with it, they get it attached to them after birth. And why so much importance is given to a name your parents gave you, I don’t know. I really wish we’d (re-)institute the practice of children vs. adult names. Parents can name their kids while they’re kids, but a grown-up individual who can drive, drink, and vote should really be able to decide for themselves what their name is.

  15. Anders says

    It’s only your name that is my enemy;
    You are yourself, not even a Montague.
    What’s “Montague?” It is not a hand, or a foot,
    Or an arm, or a face, or any other part
    Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
    What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
    Would smell as sweet if it had any other name.
    So Romeo, if he wasn’t called “Romeo,” would
    Retain that dear perfection which he has
    Without that title. Romeo, throw your name away;
    And for that name, which isn’t part of you,
    Take all of me.

    • says

      +1 for most obvious Shakespeare reference. This is literally the first thing that comes to mind for me when you put the two words “real” and “name” together.

  16. says

    This post addresses what makes a name real, but I feel like that’s not really the main issue with names like RainbowStar. I can agree that a chosen name reflects upon the named person, whereas an assigned name generally does not. But sometimes it reflects on the person poorly. If all I knew about a person was that they chose their (offline) name to be RainbowStar, I would tentatively guess that they’re kind of a woo-ey person, and proud to be so.

    But I take this for what it is–very weak evidence of a person’s character. I don’t think I could make any judgment of Be Scofield’s character just based on the knowledge that he chose that name.

    • says

      I’ll further add that the fact that assigned names do not reflect on a person is one reason to prefer assigned names (or names that sound assigned). Some people don’t like the idea of their names influencing other people’s first impressions.

      • says

        <blockquoteI can agree that a chosen name reflects upon the named person, whereas an assigned name generally does not.

        not necessarily true, but yeah, usually it’s the parents who get ridiculed for giving their kids unusual names.

        Some people don’t like the idea of their names influencing other people’s first impressions.

        unfortunately, unless we start referring to people by serial number, names still get people judged: some studies showed there exists weird subconscious reactions to names composed or one set of sounds vs. another; and then there’s racial, class-based, anti-religious, sexist etc. prejudice, all of which was studied with the help of people’s given names, because given names are (perceived as) cultural indicators

      • says

        wow; three blockquote fails in a single post. a personal record :-p

        let’s try again:

        I can agree that a chosen name reflects upon the named person, whereas an assigned name generally does not.

        not necessarily true, but yeah, usually it’s the parents who get ridiculed for giving their kids unusual names.

        Some people don’t like the idea of their names influencing other people’s first impressions.

        unfortunately, unless we start referring to people by serial number, names still get people judged: some studies showed there exists weird subconscious reactions to names composed or one set of sounds vs. another; and then there’s racial, class-based, anti-religious, sexist etc. prejudice, all of which was studied with the help of people’s given names, because given names are (perceived as) cultural indicators

  17. Paul Durrant says

    A very good, and interesting post. It’s made me consider some unconsidered attitudes I find I had towards names. Thanks.

  18. Eric Riley says

    I have a friend who has undergone transition (MTF), and her name is (let’s say) “Luna Lovegood”. When we first met it was (perhaps) “Ronald Weasley”. Normally – almost always – I refer to people by the name I was first introduced to them as. I am not sure why I find it difficult to deal with name changes, I just do – especially if it’s just a change of pronunciation (“Not ‘Annie’, call me ‘Ahnee'”). I also fail at nicknames (and creating fantasy names for D&D characters, and in the SCA too…) Anyways – after her transition, I have never once thought of Luna as Ron. Even in the past tense, it’s like a global search and replace was done and now she’s Luna and always was.

    I’m not sure how typical this is – and I understand too that sometimes after transition people will avoid those they used to know, is it because of the difficulty with names and identity?

    • northstargirl says

      “I’m not sure how typical this is – and I understand too that sometimes after transition people will avoid those they used to know, is it because of the difficulty with names and identity?”

      From my point of view it was why I kept my first name, which was one of those names that could be used by a man or a woman. It’s by no means my ideal name, but I was used to answering to it and it worked. I could also see no getting no end of crap if I’d changed my whole name, since for various reasons I needed to keep several people in my post-transition life who had known me pre-transition; keeping my birth name reduced anxiety for me and for them. It was a very practical decision on my part, but I envy those who have selected completely new names for themselves. (I channel that into the online usernames I use, which allow me a little more room to express myself.)

      • Eric Riley says

        Thank you – I cannot imagine how difficult transition is, and there are many details that I haven’t even thought of in terms of what a person must deal with both before and after transition. My friend was incredibly luck, having the full support of both family and friends – I am sad that is not the case for everyone.

  19. Karellen says

    Isn’t part of it simply that we have a long cultural tradition, going back through hundreds of years of fairytales, magical lore, and legend, of someone’s “True Name” being a powerful handle on who they “really” are?


    In all those stories, your True Name is something assigned to you. Either by your parents, or it’s possibly intrinsic and discovered through some magical means, quest or dreaming. But you do not get to pick it, even (especially) though it’s the important one. You can choose to be called whatever you want, and present as many pseudonyms to as many different groups of people as you like, but your True Name is fixed and unchangeable. If someone learns it, you can’t undo that simply by claiming to change it.

    As a meme, the idea of such a “True Name” may well be less suited to our society now than it was even a few decades ago, but that doesn’t stop it being out there. The meme doesn’t stop influencing people, even if they don’t remember the stories which transmitted it.

    I’ve always been happy to call anyone by whatever name they ask me to. After reading your post, I’m happy to agree that the “True Name” is a stupid and harmful meme. But eradicating it won’t be easy.

    • Eric Riley says

      I think that is not always (culturally) the case – sometimes your name is something that grows and may change as you change. In those cultures, sometimes one’s name gets longer and longer as time goes by, alternatively your name may just change from one thing to another to another, reflecting where you are at that moment.

    • says

      Or perhaps, rather than attempting to abolish it, try to subvert it?

      Perhaps “true names” are not actually names at all, but a human attempt at trying to give a term to a fundamental fabric of reality? Perhaps one’s true name is self-identity?

      Just a random story idea I had there.

      • Anders says

        I had a similar idea for a bronze age. The idea is that the priestess determines each one’s True Name at birth, but sometimes she screws up. And then the person has no real True Name and becomes trapped in the wrong body. Ze will have a difficult life, but if ze manages to find her real True Name a nimbus will envelop hir and ze will emerge in a new, transitioned body.

  20. julian says

    I’m sorta headed in the opposite direction right now. For a long time my screennames and what I wanted to be referred to by were extensions of what I believed and what I held dear.

    Now that I’ve grown disillusioned with much of it and no longer feel I belong I’ve gone back to an iteration of my “birth” name; julian. Not Julian, just julian. It’s still just a string of syllables I’ve been saddled with. But it’s a series of syllables that for now at least make a good starting point.

  21. michaelbrew says

    My girlfriend’s current name was self chosen, but that’s apparently normal in her culture. It seems the Western world has all the hang ups about “real” names. I feel like it might have something to do with the old western superstition that a person’s name gives another person some kind of magic power over you. In today’s society not giving your “real” name would perhaps make a person feel like they weren’t trusted or something. I dunno. Seems like people can call themselves whatever they want.

  22. says

    Tsss, people are just jealous because you got to pick yourself a nice shiny name while they are stuck with the worn-out thing they were given by their parents.

    I sometimes agree with the idea of giving people an adult name once they’ve grown old enough so the name could fit the character.
    As for myself, my given name’s boring.
    An then there’s a number of nicks from different communities.
    And when I got to meet those people IRL, the nicks were just more familiar so we’d stick to them (it was interesting. Calling somebody by their nick carried a feeling of intimacy, using their “real” name made us strangers).
    So, if you ever walked behind me in the street and called Giliell, I’d turn around. That’s me, that’s not some kind of persona.

  23. says

    In the general case, it’s extremely rude to query somebody’s name. But I have to agree with the software tester above (coders represent!!) that there are edge cases. What you use as your name *does* say something about you. You can’t expect to be able to say just anything at all and have everyone accept it without judgement. The message of “Natalie Reed” is very different to the message of “Aryan Hitler Rule”, “Moonflower Rainbow Waterfall” or “Jesus Saves Praisegod”.

    It’s the same argument as freedom of speech. You can say what you like, but not without social consequence. Or likewise, fashion. You can show up to a job interview for an office-based professional job in a neon tutu, bunny slippers, and a gas mask, but you’d be foolish to expect to get hired.

    Also, personally, if you change your name to either “John Smith” or “Robert’); DROP TABLE Students;–” then I will hate you.

    • anne mariehovgaard says

      Until a few years ago, the rules for what names people could choose (for themselves or their kids) were very strict. When the rules were changed so that you could pretty much choose anything (except name your kid something bound to cause problems for them, like Adolf Hitler I guess), a radio show host changed his name by adding two phrases to his original name – the first phrase was what a polite person says answering the phone (as he did all the time on his show), the second was the Norw. for “thank you very much” – also used to end a (phone) conversation politely. Not sure what that says about him except “has a sense of humor”…

  24. says

    * Just to add: not all social consequences are right. We should fight the wrong ones – class, sex and culture should not cause people to make adverse judgements (though they do), but violent or fascist ideologies certainly should!

  25. Jeanette says

    This is such a beautiful post! I’ve always gone by my middle name because my first name is my mom’s name and has never felt like mine. People often say “oh, I didn’t know Jeanette isn’t your real name” when they learn my first name. This has always bothered me, and now I feel stupid for previous responses having been “Well, it is my real middle name” as if legality means “realness” somehow…I will proudly be embracing Jeanette as my real name now! It was given to me not by choice, but I’m lucky to have always felt comfortable with it and it was assigned by my brothers growing up who I trust completely and consider part of who I am. I can only imagine how much more strongly it must affect a trans person who has fought so hard to choose their identity.

  26. amhovgaard says

    The names people choose for themselves presumably say something about who they are, how they see themselves – but I have to admit that if the name they have chosen is SunVenus, I will assume certain things about her world view, interests and ideas (and I’m afraid my prejudice-based guess turned out to be absolutely correct). But I’m a lot more bothered by parents who give their children strange names; Trixiebelle is a cute name for a poodle, not a girl.

  27. says

    This is a most dishonest post. You know, I apologized on that thread, but I’m coming to regret it. This name business has obviously been sticking in your craw over the past few months, and now you choose to bring it up without bothering to link to or quote from the thread you refer to and characterize, or to mention the links provided to you at the time (and yes, it is now too late), with the knowledge that many people you’re criticizing won’t see this.

    I have a great deal to say about the ethics (and other aspects) of changing your name/identity and of accepting or challenging another person’s in a wide variety of situations and roles. The question of poking fun of someone’s chosen name for being pretentious per se is too trivial even to bother with. Pretense is no great crime; nor is making fun of it.

    But I don’t believe this warrants a response in that you’ve shown that you did mean, as I suspected you did at the time, to impugn the integrity of the regular Pharyngula commenters. You’ve presented a biased history. It’s wrong, this post.

    • says

      That thread isn’t really the point here. It’s an example of how people pick and choose which names they feel they have the right to mock and denigrate and invalidate. That someone respecting a certain kind of chosen name doesn’t mean they respect the right to a chosen name itself.

      I’m sorry, but I have the right to criticize certain actions, and I have the right to use them as examples when discussing certain concepts. My using it as a way of articulating a point doesn’t mean I’m holding a grudge, and my criticizing certain actions of certain Pharyngula commenters isn’t “impugning their integrity”. I mean, for fuck’s sake. They’re not above criticism. You’re not above criticism. PZ’s not above criticism. And the problem I’m discussing is an extremely common one, not unique to that particular instance. That’s simply a particular incident I have on hand with which to articulate it. You want to link it? Fine. The fact that people weren’t aware of Be’s transgender status, or that they were mocking the “pretentiousness” of his chosen name and using that “pretentiousness” as the justification of invalidating his name (and therefore identity) is totally irrelevant to my point. There’s nothing in that thread that would reveal anything I’ve said here to be a lie, and nothing there that would undermine my point about it being problematic to invalidate a name regardless of the context or reasoning.

      Maybe you think the invalidation of names is a “trivial” issue. That’s probably because you have the privilege of never having had to deal with someone using the invalidation of your name to undermine your core identity.

      And if you now “regret” the apology simply because I decided to use the incident (WITHOUT naming, targeting, or attacking you) as a way of articulating the issues that were involved, it obviously wasn’t much of an honest apology in the first place. Either your apology was genuine, or it was conditional. It can’t be both.

    • says

      I don’t get the hostility behind this comment, when that thread on Pharyngula shows that both PZ and the commentariat eventually made amends for some problematic assumptions and some actual mistakes, the latter were almost certainly innocently of the trans issues involved; there were some transphobic comments made, but a number of those (even the unintentional) were apologised for, for example, by Josh (SpokesGay™) and even frankb who had made a really odious comment early on. As far as I can tell Natalie made one mistake very early on, which was innocent and entirely due to Be Scofield’s idiosyncratic choices, as a trans woman who prefers the pronoun he (for the time being). That’s (IMO) rather small fry compared to the other issues that were touched on later.

      In other words, there was quite a bit of a derail, which is a bit of a pity, but the derail eventually came good. Is it really that important to protect the honour of Pharyngula in this instance, given that any number of different people from FtB might read the same thread charitably and come to different views on how the thread played out?

  28. Sebor says

    Awesome post, I always wanted to ask you how you chose your name, but could not figure out a way to do so politely.
    Names, and especially chosen names have always fascinated me because they are in a way truer than given names.
    My absolute favourite in that regard is Joybubbles, can’t think of a better way of saying “Fuck you, you’re not the boss of me”.

    I dislike my given name for various reasons, being named after my mother’s favourite composer who was in turn named after a saint who quite literally was forced to eat shit for god. But people mispronouncing it (it has 4 syllables, not 3) still make me mad. Most of my friends call me by a nickname anyway, but I never use that one to refer to myself.
    “Sebor” was ‘discovered’ by a couple of friends, and somehow it rings more true than the other ones, I’m not using it often, but I’m considering to

    Escape the union, ignite your inner flame
    Invoke the power of your own name

  29. Erin W says

    I think I managed to muddle the whole subject by choosing not to choose my name, in a sense. I’ve known since I was quite young that my parents had not chosen to know the sex of their children before birth, so they’d pick a masculine and feminine name for each. I was given the one when assigned male, and simply switched to the other when I transitioned. Of course, the names do all have significance. Both before and after transition they were names chosen to reflect my parents’ ancestry and to incorporate the name of one of my grandparents. My surname is what it always was, of English origin and unknown meaning.

    But I can still see the significance in making that choice. I went with the name my parents picked because it was a way of affirming that yes, I’m still their child, the same one I always was. They just got a little confused, silly doctors. I’m lucky enough that I still have a relationship with my family that makes that affirmation true.

    • says


      I’m almost in the exact same boat as you… since I was curious as a child what I would have been called had I been given a girl’s name, I’ve had that name echoing and reverberating in my imagination for what, thirty or more years, as a tantalising what if. I couldn’t lose it or push it away from me now, even if I tried. So for better or worse, I’m stuck with Catherine – and yes, I know it was that spelling my parents would have used, amongst the dozens of variants.

      As for my second name, that’s the personal choice – my brother got a book of Classical mythology when we were both in our early teens, and I instantly liked the name Xanthe, even though I’m not blonde. (And as far as ‘Catherine’ goes, I’m hardly pure either.) So, that name’s been in my imagination for decades as well, just not quite as long as the other.

      • says

        Shortly after coming out to my mum, I asked what she would have named me. She said she’d always loved “Claire”, and that’s totally what she would have named a daughter. After that, I felt a little bummed out, because actually Claire is a really lovely name but by then I’d already been using Natalie for months and it already started to feel like “me”, and I’d already crossed the threshold of instinctively turning my head when I heard it called.

        • keusnua says

          You could always add it as a middle name, and as a bonus be even more pretentious: Natalie Claire Reed -> “Reborn Clear Reader”. Natalie Claire Wright sounds even better, for you are a clear writer, and clearly right!

      • says

        I choose to believe in the alternative derivation of Catherine from “Hecate”. (And if that’s some kind of fake paganny thing then I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW THAT LALALALALA!)

        In my other life I would have been called George.

    • says

      (And I should have added that I’m probably a little bit older, since they didn’t have such easy methods as they do now to pre-natally determine a baby’s sex.)

    • Sarah says

      So I’ve been lurking here for a bit, enjoying the conversations very much, and the topic of names seems like a nice time to decloak and say ‘hi’. Erin, similar to you and apparently a few others here, I went with the name that was my Mom’s alternate choice. I’d asked her about it pretty early on, so all my life, it’s always been in the back of my mind, who I might have been. It may seem a little odd, but I always had kind of ambivalent feelings about ‘Sarah’ – for whatever reason, the sound of it just didn’t appeal much to me – but I felt like the provenance conferred a certain sort of authenticity, and when I finally decided to claim it for my own, it was given again with my mom’s blessing and that means a whole lot to me. Now I’ve come to like it. It’s a popular name for people my age, and sometimes it feels sort of ‘common’, but that actually suits me – I didn’t want a name that would stand out – I wanted to blend – and it seems to work pretty well that way. While I admire and appreciate the way many have elected to express their identity through chosen names – for me, I feel fortunate to have an experience of sort of, “growing into” my given name.

      • says

        I’ve always liked the pronunciation of the name Sarah, but felt the spelling was off. Depending on how you treat it, one of the two is the case:

        (1) The h is silent, and the two a’s are actually different vowels. That’s rather odd. However, this case must be considered because of the alternate spelling Sara.

        (2) The h is not silent but exists to modify the second ‘a’. Thus, the default pronunciation of ‘a’ is equivalent to ‘eh’ instead of ‘ah’. That doesn’t seem right to me either, but it is the cultural convention at least according to a reading of the alphabet.

        The underlying problem is that there are only five letters for vowels in English, but more than five distinct vowel enunciations. We refuse to use any of the diacritical marks that many other European languages have.

        I’d certainly consider giving a child that name, but it would be spelled Sera.

    • says

      @Erin: Julie is the name my parents would have given me had I been born (already) a girl. I experimented with a few new names, but kept coming back to that one.

      (Side questions: What is it that makes a name “for boys” or “for girls” ? Is it culturally dependent?

      Are there cultures which would consider certain Western “boy’s names” to be feminine, or certain Western “girl’s names” to be masculine?

      For that matter, is there a culture anywhere in the world that doesn’t have any concept of “girls’ names” and “boys’ names” ?)

      • says

        Well I can say right now that in prominently celtic cultural contexts, like Nova Scotia where I grew up, Ashleigh is a boy’s name…

        There’s actually a general cultural trend of “boy names” gradually shifting to become “girl names”, but no comparable trend for shifts in the reverse direction. It’s very suggestive of the degree to which femmephobia (and trans-misogyny) are entrenched.

      • Anders says

        In many Indo-European cultures (including the one I come from), there’s a wealth of women’s names that end in -a, the feminine ending that has been reconstructed for proto-Indo-European.

      • rq says

        Not sure about the concept of no specific boys’/girls’ names at all (I think maybe some South Pacific cultures, if I remember anything from cult.anthropology at all, but don’t quote me on that), but I know in my language, girls’ names always end in -a or -e and boys’ names always ALWAYS end in -s (fine, a few exceptions can end in -o, but they’re all names brought into the language like Otto and Ivo). Alternatively, some typically boys’/girls’ names tend to sound odd in my language, like the name ‘Ezra’ for boys or ‘Janis’ for girls, simply because of the ending. (And for a long time, I did think that all Janises were boys because a VERY popular boys’ name here is ‘Jānis’ (= John).) Also any foreign names get ‘localized’ by adding the appropriate Ses and As and Es, to make them actually ‘grammatically’ correct in the language; this is one thing that makes me cringe, since my last name was officially different from the one I grew up with, simply because of this fact. And they have to do it by law; I cannot get a passport with an English spelling of my name, it’ll always be spelled (according to an official name-localization register) the ‘local’ way. Even though, technically, that’s not my name. Because the phonetic spelling (not always correct) is hell to muddle through sometimes – I end up saying names out loud to know what the original behind the ‘localized’ version is. So yes, some languages have a very strict idea about boys’/girls’ names, but might be it’s on an ‘official’ (i.e., language purity etc.) level rather than at the language level itself.
        And yes, in this case, the boys’/girls’ name identifiers are culturally dependent.

      • says

        Are there cultures which would consider certain Western “boy’s names” to be feminine, or certain Western “girl’s names” to be masculine?

        dunno about that, but Sasha is exclusively a boy’s name in germany, while here it seems to be seen as a girl’s name

        and btw, in Europe names are generally legislated to be either male or female, and germany right now seems to still have a ban on ambiguous or unisex names. it’s stupid; deeply deeply stupid.

        • says

          and btw, in Europe names are generally legislated to be either male or female, and germany right now seems to still have a ban on ambiguous or unisex names. it’s stupid; deeply deeply stupid.

          *jawdrop* That is seriously fucked up. NMTS.

        • anne mariehovgaard says

          Sasha is a diminutive form of a Russian boy’s name – Aleksej? Alexander?

          Both Kari and Gerd are girls in Norwegian; the first is a boy in Finnish, the second a boy in German. Ola is a boy’s name in Norway; I’ve seen the name used for girls in other countries (US and some Latin-American country).

          “Neutral” names are OK in Norway, but there used to be only a few (Kim and Janne are the only more-or-less common ones I can think of) so you have to either make one up yourself or borrow from a different language/culture.

      • Arctic Ape says

        Finnish has many male names that end with -a or -i and may sound feminine to Anglophone audience. There doesn’t seem to be any easy rules how to identify Finnish male and female names, they’re just conventional. Some names are unisex, but those are rarely used.

        I had a schoolmate who in retrospect was apparently a girl, probably trans. Back then I assumed she was a boy because she appeared androgynous, I didn’t recognize her unusual name as feminine, and I didn’t much talk with her anyway. So I took male as default *facepalm*.

  30. sjrosewater says

    Just commenting to tell you that this is my favorite post of yours so far. The parts concerning the importance of self-determination and identity rang very true with me. Thank you.

  31. frankb says

    I was one of those who didn’t realize at first that Be was transitioning. But I didn’t give a thought about the name “Be”. Only now do I realize that “Be” may be a transitioning name. I see no reason to mock that name, that’s silly. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on names, Natalie. Thanks.

    • says

      Since I possibly mentioned you upthread in my comment, may I presume you’re the same frankb who posted over at Pharyngula? Anyway, thanks for your apology both there and here.

    • jamessweet says

      I confess I had a moment of “What the hell kind of a name is ‘Be’?”, but I never said anything about it and didn’t really give it any thought after the first five seconds. I don’t usually follow comments at Pharyngula, so I didn’t realize others had been mocking it.

      That’s sort of where I’m at when it comes to “pretentious” names: I reserve the right to make a private and personal aesthetic judgment about a person’s name (whether chosen by the them or by their parents, by the way; I don’t see either as being more “real”), but I’m not going to say anything about it any more than I am going to mock someone’s choice of clothing, etc., and I don’t really (or at least I don’t think I really) form any broader judgments beyond just, “Well that’s a silly name…”

      I’m not sure I see anything wrong with that — like I say, I can have an aesthetic opinion about a person’s choice of clothing or hairstyle or what have you, so why not about their name? — but as Jadehawk got me to think about way up above there, I do probably have a little bit of a double-standard for Internet handles vs. real-life names. I’m still not entirely sure that is hypocritical… After all, I have a “double-standard” about the kinds of clothing someone might choose to go to a rave vs. come to an office meeting (not that I care all that much, TBH) and I think that’s reasonable. I dunno, definitely something for me to ponder.

  32. jamessweet says

    So, there is still one context in which I have used the phrase “real name”, and while I think it is valid and non-discriminatory in that context, I think I am going to stop, because 1) it could be taken like I am implying something I am not, 2) the phrase is ambiguous, and 3) “real” doesn’t really literally describe what I mean anyway.

    In my case, I refer sometimes to the fact that I comment and blog using my “real name”. What I mean by that is my everyday name — in that sense, Natalie also blogs under her “real name” (although, as I say, I think I am going to stop using that phrase). By that, I just mean that I use the same name on the Internet as I do with friends, at work, on loan applications, etc.

    I don’t at all mean to devalue those who choose not to use their everyday name (in fact, more often than not, when I use that phrase I am saying something along the lines of, “I choose to use my real name online, but I totally understand why others don’t want to, and sometimes I question my choice”) but I suppose the use of the word “real” could be taken that way.

    And it’s ambiguous anyway, since “real name” could, depending on context, refer to birth name, everyday name, or legal name — why not just say which one you mean, right?

    So thanks, although I don’t think I was doing anything really wrong when I used “real name” as a stand-in for “everyday name”, by using the latter phrase I can simultaneously be a little more clear, as well as avoid the possibility of offending someone or devaluing those who chose to use online pseudonyms. Thanks for getting me to think about this!

    • says

      And here we come up against preconceptions and underlying biases again: I don’t blog under my “real name” / everyday-name. Reed is a pseudonym. I simply blog under a pseudonym that sounds like a “real name”, in much the same way my chosen name of Natalie sounds like an assigned “real” name.

      • says

        >I simply blog under a pseudonym that sounds like a “real name”

        And on the flip side, I’ve been told I’m not allowed to comment on some blogs as “Stentor” because the blog has a “use your real name” policy and “Stentor” is obviously a pseudonym — even though “Stentor” is the name on my birth certificate and all other ID.

        Assigned names can also become chosen. My name is a pain sometimes (takes an average of 3 repetitions before someone gets it), and there are things I don’t like about it (like how strongly masculine it sounds), but there are also a lot of things I like a lot about it, and I wouldn’t give it up. I’ve re-framed its meaning to make it appropriate and meaningful to me.

        • jamessweet says

          Yeah, I’ve had people assume that “Sweet” is not my “real” name, and yet it is my “real” last name in every possible sense in which someone could mean it: Birth name, everyday name, legal name.

          The most annoying was when Facebook sent my name to a secondary approval process.

          The most bizarre was when I was editing Wikipedia, and I some guy was editing every article about marijuana to talk up the health benefits of using a vaporizer, and he accused me of being part of some tobacco-promoting conspiracy that was using romanticization of joints to get people hooked on cigarettes — because me handle was “jaysweet”. Even after I explained to him that my given name was James Sweet, and that I have gone by the nickname Jay ever since I was born, he still only half-apologized, saying that even if it wasn’t intentional, by using that handle I was still feeding the tobacco/joint conspiracy. No, really.

          Perhaps that guy spent a little too much time with his vaporizer…

          • anne mariehovgaard says

            Why wouldn’t Sweet be your “real” surname? Compared to English surnames like Gotobed and Goodlove it sounds rather boringly normal 😉

        • says

          Requiring someone to use their legal name on the internet is highly pretentious, in my view. Who is anyone to make that declaration, really? Only the government ought to be able to compel the use of legal names, and only the government need track them. Even then it makes more sense to use a neutral identifier, such as a number.

          I think anyone who would set such a policy is showing off their extreme apparent normative attitudes and strong bias for conformity. Being forced to use your legal name can be extremely dangerous. It may carry not only gender implications but also unwanted and unwarranted connections to past events or actions that have no relevance in the present. There are destructive people out there who will use any little questionable part of one’s history to discredit and marginalize. This is something any website owner and service provider should realize and work to combat.

          • jamessweet says

            I understand why social networking sites want to ensure that there is a one-to-one correspondence between a single online identity and a single real person, and to know that if need be they can establish that correspondence. So in that sense, I am very slightly sympathetic….

            But the policies that Facebook and Google+ use to actually accomplish this are just silly and absurd. You will always get away with using a “real”-sounding “fake” name, and yet they are getting false positives on “fake”-sounding “real” names (like mine)? Absurd… and then there was the whole Bug Girl fiasco with G+ — not sure how that got resolved, but in that case since there was a very well-established online persona with the name Bug Girl, who the hell cares about “real” names? All of the defensible goals are already met (accountability, spam prevention, etc.) so it really is just a weird form a of normativity, as you say, that dictates against it.

          • says

            Requiring someone to use their legal name on the internet is highly pretentious, in my view. Who is anyone to make that declaration, really? Only the government ought to be able to compel the use of legal names, and only the government need track them. Even then it makes more sense to use a neutral identifier, such as a number.

            I’d like to point out that some people work on the internet, and thus the internet sites/companies they work with/for need a legal name for tax purposes.

            but otherwise, yeah, it’s not like the internet can tell what a “real” name is and what isn’t.

          • says

            I understand why social networking sites want to ensure that there is a one-to-one correspondence between a single online identity and a single real person, and to know that if need be they can establish that correspondence.

            I understand why they might want that to be the case, but I feel not at all obliged to comply; I try to keep my meatspace out of my cyberspace, and sometimes that requires parallel accounts. Their needs for making accurate predictions about my behavior to sell to other people rank far below my life- and privacy-management on my list of concerns.

        • says

          And on the flip side, I’ve been told I’m not allowed to comment on some blogs as “Stentor” because the blog has a “use your real name” policy and “Stentor” is obviously a pseudonym — even though “Stentor” is the name on my birth certificate and all other ID.

          oh yeah, g+ fell for that same stupidity. not a peep out of them about “Jade Hawk”. But “Violet Blue”? Clearly a pseudonym.


          • anne mariehovgaard says

            A Norwegian TV presenter is called Vår (Vaar) Staude – “Spring Perennial”. Both first name and surname belong in the unusual-but-relatively-unremarkable category, but the combination is a bit odd 🙂

      • jamessweet says

        Ah geez, sorry. In my defense, I actually hadn’t assumed that initially, but there was another comment you made further up in this thread that made me think that it was in fact your everday name. Thinking back on it now, I guess you only implied that Natalie was your everyday name, but not necessarily Reed. (Or maybe I’m still misinterpreting/reading too much into what you said)

        Really, I didn’t mean anything by it, I honestly thought you had said it was your everyday name, and now I realize I was overinterpreting.

  33. frankb says

    Before reading this post I tended to think of names as being permanent and unchanging. Now I realize that many people are flexible and do a lot of choosing in regards to names. The first name I knew I had was Frankie. When I was old enough to understand that my official name was Franklin and that Frankie was a term of endearment, then I chose Frank for the rest of my life. My middle name was odd and a source of teasing so I had no inclination to use that.

    Nicknames are ought chosen by others but a person can chose what he or she likes and adopt it. Choosing a name from scratch and using it is more unusual but more people like Natalie are doing it. More power to you.

  34. says

    I’ll admit that your “given” name was one of the things I am a curious monkey about, just because I’m a curious monkey. I like your explanation of why you chose the name you use now. But the transphobic insistence that some people have that you “owe” them your “real name” is baffling to me. I can only assume that it springs from an authoritarian impulse to stuff you back into the patriarchal box they want to keep you in. How dare you define your own existence on your own terms!

    Until I started reading you the only transexual I was familiar with was ESPN blogger and co-founder of Baseball Prospectus Christina Karhl (one of the best baseball writers around.) One summer she simply went from Chris to Christina in her byline at BP and to tell the truth I just assumed that she had always been a Christina but had used the shortened version to get taken more seriously as a sportswriter. With that example in my head I just kind of assumed you had been born a Nathan or Nathaniel or somesuch.

    Anywho… reminded me of this exchange which I finally watched the other night. From the Episode “Closing Time”.

    The Doctor: Yes, he likes that, Alfie. Though personally he prefers to be called Stormaggedon, Dark Lord of All.
    Craig Owens: Sorry, what?
    The Doctor: [indicating the baby] That’s what he calls himself.
    Craig Owens: How d’you know that?
    The Doctor: I speak baby.
    Craig Owens: Of course you do.

    • says

      Do you remember the sports writer Mike Penner / Christine Daniels? She transitioned quite suddenly, writing a very vulnerable and personal piece on the matter, explaining that she’d always been trans and such, and began using Christine as the byline, but shortly afterwards, just as unexpectedly returned to using Mike Penner (and in her personal life, had detransitioned / purged). Nobody took that as the GIGANTIC warning sign it should have been, and she took her own life a few months later.

      But no… my boyname was NOT Nathan or Nathaniel or Nate or anything like that. It didn’t even begin with an N.

          • Anders says

            Yay! What do I win?

            If I may choose, may I get one of those magical rings that keeps from changing my gender?

          • says

            Maybe as a prize for a puzzle contest I could just pick a ring at random from my roomie’s discarded jewelry drawer and claim it’s a magic gender-maintenance ring.

          • jamessweet says

            While you’re at it, you might as well claim that the ring preserves sexual orientation.

          • jamessweet says

            Yeah, I guess you’re right. Gay kids growing up in strictly authoritarian anti-gay households still somehow manage to stay gay anyway, despite experience cognitive dissonance so powerful that it too often leads to suicide… but straight kids are likely to switch orientation at the drop of a hat if they even learn about the existence of same-sex couples. Not even a magical ring can save them…

            (On a serious note, I think that it’s worthwhile remembering that, based on what we know of sexual orientation, if you took a straight person and raised them in a strictly authoritarian anti-straight environment, told them they’d burn in hell if they didn’t settle down with someone of the same sex, etc., such a kid would almost certainly grow up to be secretly straight and miserable…)

      • says

        I do remember that. Joe Posnanski wrote a great piece about that sad story, describing how he had lost two friends that day. I tried to dig it up but Joe’s archives are a mess right now as he migrates to new digs. I can’t imagine the pressure someone involved with our major sports environment would go through considering how unenlightened a place it can be.

  35. Hadeshorn says

    As someone named Faye, it amuses me that “Faye” is on the list of weird names. I mean, I’ve gotten some creative spellings of it before (Phei???), but I wasn’t aware it was akin to “Windleaf.” I do enjoy my name, though, haha.

    Interesting post! I definitely agree with your points.

  36. Anders says

    My personal favorite among given names has to be Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. Now that’s a set of names. I especially like Bombastus.

    • says

      I am especially partial to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Now that’s a name. This even seems to be relevant to the topic, since his baptismal name was Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart and he usually called himself Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (or a similar variant).

  37. ohioobserver says

    Alonso Quijano — who is Alonso Quijano? Very few people will recognize that name. But everyone — even those who have not read the book — will recognize the Good Knight’s chosen name. Even if, to many, he is the archetype of folly rather than courage. To be courage is often to be foolish — to do what everyone says is dangerous, wrong-headed, doomed to failure — and it may very well be so. But it cries out to be done, because often the foolish thing is the RIGHT thing.

    I was so touched by this post, it’s hard to talk about. I am currently going through a transition myself (professional, rather than one of identity), and I am being questioned by those around me: What will you do after? What is your real life going to be? And what they mean is “how will you meet our expectations?” I need to gain the courage to answer “I don’t need to.”

    And then I’ll find a windmill, somewhere.

  38. sonyafiset says

    With all of this discussion of internet handles in the comments, I actually sorta want to add my net handle as a middle name once I finally get my legal papers sorted out.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve lived and experienced enough under it for it to feel just as natural as my chosen meatspace name.

  39. Cynthia says

    I want to say that I can’t believe anyone would be that clueless or rude, asking about a “real’ name, but I’m not even surprised. I chose to hyphenate my name after marriage and that caused huge issues for some people. Even now, I run into people (regularly) who can’t seem to pronounce it right. And it’s only 2 syllables.

    How you refrain from punching people on a regular basis for this kind of disrespect is a true feat of character.

    ” And you do not get to say what is or isn’t my name. I do. ”

    Yes! That’s it! You don’t live in my skin, you don’t get to make my choices. Why is that so hard for people to understand!?!

  40. says

    My father, to me (translated from Hebrew): Your chosen name isn’t valid because it’s made up, at best only existing as a name for minor characters in some cheap horror films. (the tone of which implying such films were the source of my ‘inspiration’)

    Me in response: 1. Every name is made up, so you’ve just invalidated every name in existence.
    2. It’s sad to see how absolutely little you know about me. Your loss.
    3. Good thing I’m not asking for your permission.

    • northstargirl says

      “…the tone of which implying such films were the source of my ‘inspiration’”

      Gah…how often have these kinds of meaningful personal decisions have been met with this kind of response from those who are supposed to be close to us? I remember my dad asking me “is this supposed to be some kind of phase?” when I told him I had become a vegetarian. That sure didn’t make coming out any easier a couple years later. Yet I’m sure my family wonders to this day why I keep them at arm’s length….

  41. Enezenn says

    I like self chosen names are, as a whole, a good thing. Of course there are examples of names that ‘won’t do’, like ‘Dark Overlord’ or ‘killanyone’. But going by a chosen name on the internet myself, and for some people in real life as well, I see it’s pros more than it’s cons. My chosen name is Ennys, which is a Cornish word meaning ‘island’, and it is true that I am fond of water and the sea. I also like the sound of the name, that’s why I chose it in the first place. And although the Cornish name is female, the same-sounding ‘Ennis’ is an Arab boy’s name…The name is genderqueer although I didn’t know that at the time I assumed it, some 8 years ago. I do immensely prefer it over my birth name, which is a very old-fashioned Dutch girl’s name, with a in-built diminuitive (doesn’t work for someone who is over six feet tall, and thinks of herself as adult and responsible), but happened to be the name of my grandmother.
    I think we should stop giving children the names of their grandparents….often they are old fashioned, sometimes even ridicule (as in my case), and they don’t necessarily fit the newborn person, living in another age…

    Choosing one’s own name is a form of self-expression, and a powerful one. It should be encouraged.

    • anne mariehovgaard says

      Dark Overlord would be a great name – if you’re a tiny 45 kg girl 🙂 Ms. Dark Overlord Hansen…

  42. says

    i reckon its pretty hard for parents to get your name right

    they hardly know you!

    tons of people have the wrong name – its easy to tell, they are the people whose names you cannot remember. i like to ask them “but what’s your REAL name, you know, the one you think fits you best”.

    in fairy lore, every one has a secret name, the one they don;t tell people because it gives the other person power. those would be our secret ‘real’ names, the ones that the goddess bestows upon us when we first come to earth. our parents won’t have a clue what they are.

    i think everyone should get a chance to chose their name again at 18, once they’ve got to know themselves. that could then be our ‘real’ name…

  43. Maxwell says

    I don’t like the implication here that going by the name your parents gave you is somehow inferior to choosing your own name. So what if I didn’t choose the name “Maxwell”? Does that make it any less descriptive?

    A name’s just a label. It’s the person it describes that matters.

    I also think it’s a little strange to give up one’s family name. It seems to me like that’s abandoning the previous generations whose efforts allowed us to prosper.

      • Maxwell says

        I don’t think that it’s necessary to abandon both just because the mothers are right now neglected.

        In any case, it’s an interesting conundrum. You could hyphenate the surnames of the mother and father, but after a few generations you’d end up with some horrible amalgamation like “John Johnson-Miller-Johnson-Brown-Johnson-Wang-Clinton-Nguyen”. Another idea would be to somehow combine or concatenate the surnames. Like Brownton or Nguhnson. But those end up kind of silly.

        But in Spain, they have a system where each person has one surname, one from their mother and one from their father. We could make it gender neutral by having the child’s first surname be their father’s first surname, and their second surname be their mothers second surname. Or, it could be that the child’s first surname is their mother’s second surname, and their second surname is their father’s first surname. Or something like that.

        Personally, I think that is the best solution. It recognizes both parents, without causing silliness or accumulation of length over time.

      • says

        Excellent point.

        Surnames, “family names”, do serve a purpose, though. They came about as secondary descriptions of a person, via their job, their location, or sometimes a personal characteristic. At some point, the surname just… kinda stuck, and got passed down to the kids, through the father’s side (wife and children were, at this point, still primarily considered property), as a way to identify the children as “theirs”. And that’s pretty much how it’s been, even though women and children are no longer considered property, and the world has advanced so much.

        Which now leaves me wondering, why isn’t the mother’s surname considered as important as the father’s? When it comes to the whole having babies thing, SHE does all the work, SHE should be getting the credit!


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