“[T]hat which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”
So Juliet says to Romeo, exhorting him to deny the name of Montague. “O be some other name!”
But while Romeo is willing enough to throw aside his name for the length of that romantic scene with Juliet, he doesn’t stop being a Montague. Trust Shakespeare to give us a great line for dismissing the importance of names in a play in which the names and heritage of the main characters underlie the core tragedy. If the Montagues and Capulets did not have so much invested in their names and their hatred, their children would have survived.
Which is to say, names are complicated matters.
I have a basic rule when it comes to names, one that also applies to titles and pronouns: Call people what they want to be called. It’s an easy rule to follow, for the most part. Sometimes you have to ask or be corrected if you err, but once you know, you just do it.
I picked this up as a kid, when it was not uncommon for people to make fun of another child by calling them a name they hated. Sometimes it was their actual name; other times it was a cruel joke.
I’ve known a lot of people named Deborah in my life. Some dislike being called anything but Deborah, while others prefer Deb or Debi or Debbie. Same with names like Elizabeth and Katherine.
And one of my favorite memories of my Clarion West class was that in a group of 17 people, we had three Roberts. This was not a problem for us, since they all went by different variations on the name (Robert, Rob, and Bob), but it did cause problems for the teachers who came in each week, because they had to learn who was which.
I also have a lot of friends who always shorten other people’s names, not to be rude, just because it’s the way they talk.
Personally, I don’t mind what people do with my name. I usually introduce myself as Nancy, but I use my middle name in my byline to make it stand out a little more. I’m OK if people call me Nancy Jane, or Nan, or Nance, or N.J. The only thing that ever hurts my feelings is when someone calls me by another person’s name–I get called Linda a lot, perhaps because it was also a common name of my generation.
I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when some people adopted hippie names, feminists pushed for the use of “Ms.”, and some African Americans decided they no longer wanted to be called by names tied to slavery. Those were changes dictated by an underlying culture that needed to shift.
It’s fashionable to laugh at the hippie ideas, but those changes were important in their rejection of certain assumptions of U.S. culture. And some people change their names because, unlike Romeo, they want to reject their family, often with good reason.
These days the name issue, as well as the pronoun and honorific issue, often comes up with respect to trans people. The name change is very key for many trans people, and the backlash against them based on their name is also very real.
When you knew someone before they transitioned, you do have to make a small shift to remember the new name, but that’s not a difficult task. Refusing to do so is rude and unnecessary.
The refusal is also a political act by people who consider it their job to police who others are and what they should be called. These are the same kind of people who insist on calling a married woman by her husband’s name even if she doesn’t use it or who laugh at African American names because they don’t fit into their white ideas.
This is not to say that people who transition their gender aren’t making a political statement as well as a personal one. They are. Name changes often have some element of the political about them.
But even if you disagree with the politics behind some name changes–and if you do you might want to study the issue more deeply–refusing to call someone by their chosen name is rude. Period. Names matter.