What’s in a Name—Really?

Sunni's picture

It’s to be expected from the govgoons and burricrats, of course—it is part and parcel of their desire to track, and to be efficacious in tracking, individuals throughout all their activities, across all their days. But I have seen the cry echoed across one too many a private place. “You should have to use your real name!” squawk the parroting, semi-non-thinking plebes. Well, pray tell me this first: what is a real name—and what is real about a name?

A name is like any other word—it is a symbol to facilitate identification and communication. It might be a referent to a particular thing, or to a class of very similar objects or ideas. Names are just labels we place on things. Many of our modern names have interesting etymological roots that, for some, have value and add inherent meaning, but fundamentally, all words come down to someone, somewhere, somewhen deciding that a certain combination of sounds refers to X, and some others agreeing with that convention. Or is someone seriously going to argue with me that lulushtrydhe, fraise, zemene, mansikka, mefusen, aarbei, клубника, jordbær, fresa, truskawka, and strawberry don’t all refer to the same thing?

So, which of those names is more—or less—real than the others?

Does it make any difference whatsoever if we shift the consideration from that fruit to individuals? I submit that it does not. My name is a label I and others use to refer to me. It is not me, and it doesn’t necessarily describe me. (I recall Snolf the First being very confused upon meeting his second “Bob”—he couldn’t figure out what Bob #1 and Bob #2 had in common, in order to have the same label attached to them.) If I were to decide tomorrow that I preferred to be known as something else (I am weary of my name being misconstrued and mispronounced, largely because of the troubles in the Middle East, after all—and we are not going to revive that old “Sunni triangle” joke, okay?), and requested that others start calling me Sarah, or Barnaby, or even Lightning-in-a-Jar, how would that harm anyone?

Ah, but the new name wouldn’t be your legal name!, comes the objection. Well, fuck that. As largely construed and acted upon in today’s USSA, “legal” is nothing more than a sly way to refer to the guns of the coercive state pointed at one’s head. The legal name has become a means of tracking and pigeonholing individuals, so that the state can keep its claws in our lives—or for the corporatocracy to create consumer databases with, to mine and sell. I am not the least bit interested in cooperating with those schemes, much less advancing them. (Although I do have one small objection to otherwise excellent case Per Bylund lays out: I do not wish to provide a platform for spammers, here or in the forum where I am an owner.)

We’ve had a skirmish or two ’round here before on the “real name” issue; I think that exchange is illustrative of one of the reasons why disparaging nyms has become so commonplace. For some indivduals, names have more meaning than simple labels; and when such individuals come up against others who don’t similarly value a label, it can be problematic. In other cases, I think it’s used as a feint: This person can’t be arsed to use his real name, so I don’t have to take his question/criticism/point seriously. To which I say, Grow up already! Or, if I’m feeling a little less constrained by my jar, I might point one to this Thomas Paine quotation, which I almost always take the time to read when I'm at B.W.’s place:

Who the Author of this Production is, is wholly unnecessary to the Public, as the Object for Attention is the DOCTRINE ITSELF, not the MAN.

The ideas should matter above the individual expressing them in most typical situations. And anyone who thinks that these times aren’t trying enough to call for some discretion in speaking against the powercrats (or discussing one’s non-mainstream interests or practices) simply isn’t paying sufficient attention.

There are times, though, when knowing more about the entity behind the label can be helpful, even critical. This commenter here wants to be taken seriously as a representative of a specific company; yet nothing in the comment (nor in the information provided when the person signed on here) provides any evidence that the person is, in fact, part of the company. I do think it’s highly likely to be a legitimate post—but then, spies and moles work very hard at creating such façades. That just underscores my point: a name, in and of itself, does not confer trust—or mistrust. Yet how much of many individuals’ lives is wasted trying to wrangle that understanding from the Thousands Standing Around and their bureaucratic overseers?

To be completely honest with you about this, I am much less interested in the label your parents stuck on you when you were freshly born (or thereabouts) than I am the labels you might choose for yourself. Those would provide a better idea of the entity behind the label. Do we really need to know so much about whom we converse with—especially online, when we can crisscross each other in various fora—or can we have fun with our labels, as I envisioned in my contribution to National Identification Systems: Essays in Opposition?:

And indeed, if the purpose is not to defraud or harm anyone, does it really matter if an individual works as a computer analyst by the name of “Mason Jackson” by day, and is a stripper—“Ticonderoga Dick”—at a bar by night? By using various labels for different aspects of activities, an individual thus affords him- or herself more privacy than the one-size-constricts-all system ...

I encourage all free-thinking individuals to let go of this “real name” fetish and allow whimsy, frustration, or stealth meme-dropping to stand in wherever and whenever appropriate. The recyclocrats or used-oil nannies might be surprised to learn how much stuff Dolly Madison and Robert Morris toss out. Or maybe it’s Ticonderoga Dick’s turn ...

My only thought about names...

...is that a legal identity is useful, not at proving who you are, but eliminating who you are not. When I was 16 and getting my first driver's license, I remember listening to a man arguing with some DMV lackey that the driving record they had under his name wasn't his. Specifically, I remember him almost shouting at her "I've never even BEEN IN ILLINOIS!" at her. That image has stuck with me ever since.

Now, granted, this poor guy at the DMV was caught in a tangle caused by the messiness of government tracking in the first place, but you could just as easily substitute some private debt collector in place of the DMV. Without some established identity and a means of proving it to others, how would you go about proving you aren't the John Smith who owes $10,000 to Bank of America and therefore get the debt collector to stop harassing you?

But in principle, I agree with you - society hangs far too much importance on the concept of legal identity.

Lunaya Pravda


Your example is precisely the kind of scenario that using the SSN was supposed to eliminate. I know we’re all shocked it didn’t actually work out that way ... But, back on track, if a similar thing happened with a private entity, said entity would be held accountable—at the very least with declining business once word of the company’s sloppiness got around.

I know I simplified a few things, and ignored many others; I didn’t intend the above to be an exhaustive examination of the subject. The chapter I wrote for the book does go into these issues to some degree ... I’ll see if I can get it online in the near future.

Thoughts on Names

I like my name...While it's not completely unique, when someone calls out my name in a room, it's a pretty safe bet that they mean me, and not someone else named Preston. I use the handle Presto not as some sort of lame attempt to hide my identity, but it has always been how I sign notes to friends. It's been a lifelong nickname. I always try to behave online just like I would if I was in a room with the people I am communicating with: treat people how I would like to be treated, with respect. I'm not perfect, but I try.

Having said all that, I think that there is nothing wrong with using an online handle or pseudonym. Use of pseudonyms is a venerable tradition dating back centuries. What is important is the content of what is written, not the name attached to it.

An interesting thing about the pseudonym controversy is its inverse...Some people put too much weight on an idea because someone famous said it. Consider those Randroids who take every word that ever came out of her mouth as gospel, and will allow no criticism or questioning of her words. There, too, the idea must be considered independently of the person saying it. Rand's words should be given no more or less consideration than if Joe Blow said them. An idea is either true, or not. It matters not who said it.

I was thinking of that too.

An interesting thing about the pseudonym controversy is its inverse...Some people put too much weight on an idea because someone famous said it. .... An idea is either true, or not. It matters not who said it.

Yeah; it’s a variation on the argument from authority: persuasion by reputation, maybe? I’ve lost count of the times I’ve witnessed someone give extra weight to an idea just because of the source. I think another element of that is that we are, to differing degrees, herd monkeys still.

Herd Monkeys

LOL never heard the term Herd Monkeys... great name for a band. (It's one of the benefits I get from coming here, new terms/ideas)

In some of the more nefarious circles I ran in, we mostly used nicknames and most never even knew the other peoples last name. Anyone who was so uncool as to demand personal details was shunned. In the future that is likely, more people will see the benefit of this kind of compartmentalization. Personal recommendations, history, and reputation mean more than a name.

The libertarian movement is full of folks that worship facades... slick salesmen in their power suits, intellectual hucksters, and "names". I was one of the gullible, for a while, not anymore.

I hope you are right

Sounds like a pretty good crowd in some ways, W.D. And I hope you’re right about where trends might lead.

Now, where’s the music? What style would the Herd Monkeys play, anyway?

You beat me to it. I was

You beat me to it. I was thinking about this very thing because for a few weeks ago some dope at Scholars & Rogues mentioned something vehemently about people using their real names. Of course, we have seen that the "progressive" folks over there depend more on who is saying it, rather than what is being said.

Still, if I were to use my real name online at this point it would mean less than if I used my nom de clavier; kind of like if Twain published under Sam Clemens and people said, "Who?"


The curse here is government and the idea that people can and "should" be tracked all the time...

The actual name is probably not important, but accurate identification of people - some how - is vital for reputation to become part of the free market answer to government unless everything is to be done face to face and in "cash." A seller without an identifiable name can't build their business very well.

As far as the internet, and other electronic communication, I suspect encryption is the best answer where identification is important.

Right now I'm using half a dozen "names" on line, mostly because not every site will let me use the same one. I just have to be careful to record who I am in different places. :)