Okay, I wouldn’t go as far as regarding the word “me” as a name I call myself, whatever that song says, but seriously – if you ask someone what their name is, you can get a whole range of answers. They might say: my name is Joseph but my friends call me Joe. They might tell you that their family have a pet name for them, which none of their friends even know about. They may have a name their friends from college call them, a name only used by friends from their football team, or the knitting circle, or whatever. If, like me, they’re Jewish, they may have a Hebrew or Yiddish name which is only used within the Jewish community. If they’re Chinese, they may have both a Chinese name and an English name.
Years ago I had a neighbour whose name was John. His friends called him Hat. When he turned up at the pub they wouldn’t say “here’s John”, they’d say “here’s Hat, hello Hat, what are you having, Hat?”
Google say that in the name section of your profile you should put the name you are commonly known by, as though there is, for each and every person, one such name. To which I say: fiddlesticks.
Ah, they say, but you can put the other stuff in the “other names” field, and if someone looks for you under any of those names they’ll still be able to find you. Sure, that will work if they’re looking for you. But what happens if they just bump into you in conversation somewhere? How are they meant to recognise you if you’re not allowed to show all the names you are known by? My ex-neighbour would, under Google’s regulations, be forced to sign up as John Butler, and put “Hat” under “other names”. His friends wouldn’t know it’s him.
And as I look at this example I’ve just used, I’m smiling to myself, because of course the surname Butler was originally used very much in the same way that this guy’s friends use the name Hat – to distinguish which John you’re talking about. That’s how surnames evolved.
In some cultures people just don’t have surnames. Clearly they manage fine without them.
In some cultures people have surnames, but use an extra name to identify themselves by, like “son of” or “daughter of” – I’m aware of this practice both in Arab culture and in Russian culture. (And of course some of the existing English surnames actually started out as exactly that: Johnson, etc.) In Arab culture there is even a custom of taking on a new name when you have a son – you stop being known by your first name, and become “father of” (Abu) or “mother of” (Um).
But I wasn’t going to get into different naming conventions in different cultures – I wanted to focus on the fact that Google’s insistence on the use of one name, made up of a first name and a last name, is not consistent with what goes on in real life. Even leaving aside the issue of people who don’t have a first name+last name combination at all, the idea that each person has one name by which they are known in all contexts is just not realistic.
I think at this point I’d like to give the floor to the wonderful writer Alexander McCall Smith (hmmm… there’s a name I guess Google would have some issues with…) and his gloriously hilarious character Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, the esteemed philologist. In the book The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom we find the German philologist, amongst his many adventures, visiting Ireland, where he is greeted warmly by Dr Patrick Fitzcarron O’Leary, a fellow academic. He is taken aback when O’Leary addresses him by his first name, and is rather unsure about how he should address O’Leary.
We then follow them to the local bar, where the barman greets O’Leary with:
‘Now then, Paddy. What is it this evening for you and your Teutonic friend over there?’
Paddy! thought von Igelfeld. That must be the name to use, and he replied to O’Leary’s offer of a drink: ‘A beer, if you don’t mind, Paddy!’
but then O’Leary bumps into two friends, and one of them greets him with: ‘Fitz, my friend…’
Fitz! thought von Igelfeld. Perhaps this was an alternative name which close friends used… If that were the case, then he should avoid it, as its use would claim an intimacy which did not exist and the Irishman would think him rude. But just as this was resolved, the other man said:
‘Pat, if it isn’t you…?’
Poor von Igelfeld frowns and tries to work it all out, when the friends’ attention is turned to him. O’Leary makes a light comment about von Igelfeld being a rather tall person, and one of the two friends says: ‘You’re right there, O.’
Von Igelfeld put down his glass. O? Was that yet another contraction? Really, there was something very strange – and unsettling – about Ireland.
I wonder if von Igelfeld was involved in setting up Google Profiles…