Naming is broken. Twice.
Not only is massive migration plopping people with names adhering to one convention down in the middle of societies that use different conventions, but also in many places feminists and others are questioning their own societies naming conventions.
The problem is the written word and the linear sort of thinking it demands. I am Robin Shannon, not Shannon Robin. Names which should be useful labels have been co-opted as universal identifiers, requiring the stringing together of different sorts of names – given names, family names, confirmation names – all into a single definitive ‘true’ name which becomes the authoritative identifier of you.
If modernity is the state of living amongst strangers, then it must have brought with it a novel problem. The identification of strangers. If I am talking to a friend about Jane, and they don’t know which Jane I am talking about, they can ask ‘Charlie’s Jane or Café Jane?’. These aren’t definitive identifiers, they are pragmatic labels. They are the flexible tags of GMail rather than the static folders of older email clients. But pragmatic labels don’t work in dealings with strangers, and certainly not with the archetypal stranger – representatives of state and commercial institutions.
So we came up with this notion of combining multiple labels with a bit of gaffer tape and kind of pretending that this fixes the identification problem. And it did. Sometimes.
In a school, for example, with only a few hundred individuals to administer full names work just fine, but as administered populations grow, extra labels have to be added for good-enoughTM identification to be achieved: address, birth date, mother’s maiden name.
And then we entered postmodernity. For essentially all important purposes other than dealings with the office of births, deaths, and marriages and the electoral role, our would be administrators have given up using labels as identifiers and have used actual identifiers instead: centrelink customer access numbers, email addresses, OpenID URIs, facebook accounts.
So now we have returned to an age where names no longer have to be co-opted by the powers-that-be as identifiers and can revert to their original and primary use as labels. It’s just that nobody seems to have quite noticed yet.
We can have a series of names which categorise us in an arbitrary fashion. There is no need for one category to be our ‘first’ name, another our ‘middle’ name and another our ‘last’. Names can be, once again, an unordered list.
I see four (or there abouts) names being able to take on most of the work of names, at least as currently used in the English-speaking global North. These are (in no particular order!) personal name; household name; parents’ clans.
Personal names are used just like current ‘first’ names. Household names are used to label a person as belonging to a particular economic/social household (prototypically, but by no means necessarily, a nuclear family). Clan names are used to label a person as belonging to the respective clans of their parents. Most typically this would be a belonging to the mother’s matriline and to the fathers patriline.
In this scheme, the current work of surnames of categorising both nuclear and extended families is broken up and distributed between household and clan names. Household names could be devised with the birth of each household (as given names are now), while clan names would pass down the family line (as generally the father’s surname does now).
And so, (if I am able to convince someone else to adopt this scheme with me) if or when I do form a nuclear family, we will adopt this naming convention for our family. As for the other several billion people living in neoliberal states with roughly equivalent concepts of individual, household and clan, I commend this to each and every one of you.
May unordered naming flourish as verdantly as Esperanto.