What's in a Name?

Yesterday’s story for NaCreSoMo featured a version of me as the main character, and was told in third person. As I mentioned then, that’s already a weird situation for me, but there was one complication in particular that went beyond the usual: was the character “Jordan” or “Jordy”?

The day before NaCreSoMo began this year I was in an event called 24 Hour Theatre. The theme of the show? “What’s in a Name?”. I hadn’t planned to write this post until I got the idea for yesterday’s piece, but now it feels appropriate.

The idea that names have power goes all the way back to mythology—several mythologies, as far as I know—and can be traced all through stories up to modern fantasy, and then to cyberpunk and sci-fi in general. If you know something’s true name, you have some power over it, from A Wizard of Earthsea to Rumpelstiltskin. Conversely, if you discover your own true name (in many cases you don’t automatically know it), you generally become more in tune with yourself, awakening more of your own power. And even in completely non-fantastical stories, even in real life, using someone’s name can be a form of power or intimacy.

On a more mundane level, however, we have things like “stage names”. In most cases, an artist doesn’t put much effort into hiding their “real” name, but they do grow into their stage names until they fit. To give one example, singer-songwriter Elton John was “actually” named Reggie Dwight, but eventually said that he didn’t really use that name anymore. Only his mom still called him Reggie.1 My favorite artist Vienna Teng has pretty much integrated her two names at this point (“real” name Cynthia Shih)—they’re not two separate identities for her, at least not now.

Unlike “stage names”, “pen names” for authors are usually opaque. These certainly have a history of being used to avoid a real identity, either because the author didn’t want to be associated with their work (common in satire) or because they didn’t want the work associated with them! (e.g. female authors writing under male names.2) There are also other circumstances where people might not want to reveal their legal name or birth name. Kitty Stryker gave a talk at AlterConf SF/Oakland about some of the reasons “true name” policies online can be damaging.

And one of those reasons, a more personal one, is about a specific form of identity that’s becoming more and more consciously called out as a part of mainstream society: gender. I don’t want this post to turn into Gender Identity 1013, but I do have trans friends and follow trans people online, and I’ve seen the power of names, and getting to use a name that matches your self.

Some friends went for the opposite-gender version of their original name. Others picked a completely different name. I’m pretty sure none of them want to be called by their original name; there’s a reason these are called deadnames.

My story of nominal identity is nowhere near this serious. I’m not trans. I’m not producing controversial works. I don’t need to hide my identity, at least not more than any other private citizen on the internet.4 I don’t even have a stage name.

I don’t have lives I want to keep separate.

And yet. For most of my life I went by “Jordy”, something that began with my parents and naturally extended to the rest of the family, to elementary school, to high school. Even to college, a transition where people often reinvent themselves, or at least rebrand themselves. Sure, I wouldn’t bother correcting the dentist, or school administrators, or whatever, but “Jordan” was just another name I had, like if someone had called me “Rose”.5 “Jordan” was a name, but it wasn’t me. “Jordy” was me.

The first time this broke was when I was an intern for the first time. At the beginning I did “correct” a few people, but it didn’t stick, and it wasn’t on my badge or on my nameplate or in the directory. So for that summer, for the first time I was regularly “Jordan”. Of course, I was still living with my family, so I heard “Jordy” plenty.

So it was after college, then, when I actually started using “Jordan”. Specifically, it was my trip to Cambodia, which was the real delineation between “college” and “adult” for me. But it wasn’t just “not correcting people” this time. I made a deliberate decision to go by “Jordan” for the duration of the trip (a little over five months).

Why? Mostly to see if I could, if it was possible to learn to respond to “Jordan” as naturally as I did “Jordy”. And if I would end up being as comfortable with “Jordan” as I was with “Jordy”, which I generally wasn’t at the time. “Jordan” was a name, but it wasn’t me. “Jordy” was me.

Everybody I met in Cambodia knows me as Jordan. Everybody at work now calls me Jordan, although many of them know I used to be “Jordy” because of old e-mails on public mailing lists. I introduce myself as “Jordan” to everyone new I meet now…unless I’m meeting them through college or high school friends. Different people call me different names, and that’s expected and feels right.

And yet. “Jordy” is starting to fade a bit from disuse. It’s no longer my complete identity; it’s got a tinge of past in it, of college days that I’m definitely no longer in. But “Jordan” is missing that. “Jordan” is work and new friends and the musical I was in two years ago, but it’s missing core parts of my identity.

So it looks like I’ve managed to make not two identities (which wasn’t a goal), but just two names, neither of which entirely means “me” anymore. Which made yesterday’s narration an interesting quandary. I ultimately went with “Jordan” because that’s my present, while “Jordy”, again, is tinted with past…but it wasn’t a simple choice, and it’s yet one more reason why writing myself as a character feels weird.

P.S. Perhaps you’re wondering now what to call me? The general answer is “I don’t care,” or perhaps “I don’t mind either way.” Generally, if I met you before graduating from college, or I know you through high school or college friends, I’d probably expect you to use “Jordy”; otherwise, “Jordan”. What is weird is when someone I’ve known for a while tries switching; hearing the other name come out of their mouth feels like stumbling on the sidewalk. Most people who’ve tried this tell me it feels weird to them as well, so it works out okay for me.6

(My flatmate goes back and forth between the two names, because he knows me in both college and post-college contexts. That’s a bit weird too.)

Anyway, stick with what you’re doing; it’s fine.

P.P.S. Actually, I’ll respond to most things in the vicinity of my name. After spending five months in a place where people aren’t used to English names, I was pretty much listening for anything that sounded like it started with a “J”. (“George”, “John”, whatever.) Like I said, it’s not super important to me.

Part of NaCreSoMo 2015.

  1. I can’t find the interview where I saw this, unfortunately, so instead I’ll link to his spontaneous microwave song. Musical improv! ↩︎

  2. This shows up even today, both with full pseudonyms and with women choosing to use their initials. Think K. A. Applegate or J. K. Rowling. ↩︎

  3. UC Berkeley’s class numbers don’t follow the cliche: 1-99 are “lower division” and often don’t count towards a minor or major; 100-199 are “upper division” and do; 200-299 are “graduate” and are indeed usually not taken by undergrads. ↩︎

  4. You’ll notice this site has my full name on it. ↩︎

  5. Nobody calls me “Rose”. Very rarely I’ll get “Mr. Rose”. ↩︎

  6. …less well for people trying to get rid of their previous identity… ↩︎