Names and naming

Ursula K. LeGuin’s magic system in her Earthsea novels is predicated on names and naming. If you know the so-called “true name” of a thing, you can use your power on it, you know something about it that lets your power work on it. (The name without the power is useless, as demonstrated by Ged after his struggle with death, and Tehanu before she comes into her power.)

At one juncture, in the context of bodies of water, LeGuin points out that names are relative; we all have many, and part of what names do is draw borders around us. But whose borders? We are named individually and as classes of people and things; also, we are named because of the use we are to a mage, or a dragon. (Does an individual rabbit have a name? To a mage, they are all kebbo: a mass plural, or at best an adjective, masquerading as a singular noun. Does dragonspeech even have plurals?) Our names rub up against the names of groups we belong in, and the perspective of the mages who give and teach and remember names.

Naming is power. Using names is power. Remember that.

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life—only a few of them, before you ask, profane. Aside from my own given name’s usage, what I’m called is fundamentally not under my control. Even with my own name I don’t always win; if you look in the ASIST conference-schedule index, you’ll see that I’m listed as “Dorothea (Dorothy) Salo” because of a panel-moderator error, even though my name is not and has never been Dorothy. (Nor is it “Dorthea,” or “Doretha,” or any of the other various manglings. “Dorothea.” Please. If you don’t have eight letters in it, you’re spelling it wrong.)

Oh, I try to guide. I very deliberately pick phrases like “conversion peasant” and “repository rat,” because my stance toward the world is generally one of captatio benevolentiae. But there’s only so much I can do. Not very much at all, really.

Often I am surprised by what I’m called, nominally or adjectivally. I still remember the shock of “wait, what?” when a high-school acquaintance called me “sophisticated.” It was just miles, miles away from anything I would ever have thought of myself. Or when an OEBPS working-group colleague told me in all seriousness that I was a software engineer specializing in workflows. Oh, hell no. I just make stuff work, when I can. Software engineers are people with fancy degrees and advanced skills in math and logic and programming who get paid a lot of money because they’re valuable.

Last night a professional colleague called me a “social epistemographer.” Well, that’s a new one—I had to look it up just to think about it! It doesn’t feel like a name I can comfortably inhabit. Like software engineers, social epistemographers have a context, and that context isn’t the one I live in. I may do social epistemography. I may even do software engineering now and then (though I have significant reservations about that one). That doesn’t entitle me to the name. Naming is power, but it isn’t infinite power.

The names I get aren’t always benign. The mean stuff tends to be just as askew from the truth as the nice stuff. I’ve seen my anger and confusion about graduate school and academia called bitterness. Resentful, okay, yes, but bitter? I’ve been called crazy, and not in nice ways. I have been crazy, but I’m mostly not. “Intimidating” is one I hear with more frequency than I’d like. CavLec is substantially to blame there, as I’m quite a bit meaner here than in more social contexts; the rest of it is physical presence, which there’s little I can do about at this late date.

Another colleague pointed out to me this morning that one reason for the first-initials-last-name practice that drives me (as a librarian who would like a little more authority control in her life) around the bend: female scientists can avoid having their work automatically dismissed by male scientists when they go by initials rather than name.

Ouch. Cage match, librarian self and feminist self, tickets on sale outside. This is a real problem—just ask female orchestral instrumentalists—and for an individual female scientist, using initials helps solve the problem. It’s a “go along to get along” strategy, though, and any such strategy has an unfortunate externality: it divides and defeats the universe of female scientists, because it lets the men go blithely on ignoring and undervaluing those they can quickly identify as female by their names.

When I replied to my colleague that using full names may destabilize the implicit sexism of the current system, she answered, in toto, “Some women just want to do science, not be martyrs.”

I get that. I do. I just wanna be a geek, some days; I don’t want to be a martyr either. I don’t have the privilege of martyrless geekdom, and my name shows why. Not because anything particularly pernicious is attached to my name insofar as it identifies me—but a lot of pernicious stuff is attached to it, stuff that I can’t do anything about, insofar as it identifies that I belong to the class of women. Context, again. My name, in some contexts, is harmful to me; it gives powerful others a way and a social license to hurt, exclude, and demean me.

It’s frustrating. I loathe that particular externality. Not only does it mean I both am and look more isolated than need be, it’s at the root of some of the rhetorical tricks I hate like poison, the “I don’t see sexism!” trick, also known as “I’m doing fine; what’s your problem?” Not to mention the “If you’d just stop kicking up a fuss, we’d all be fine, including you” trick.

I’m fond of my name, for all its polysyllabicity and the spelling difficulty it causes others. I guess when it comes down to it, I’m willing to live with a little martyrdom to keep my name. I shouldn’t have to choose, though—and neither should anybody else.