On First and Last Names

On Natalie Wexler’s blog, there is a post called “First-Name Basis.” (Her blog does not have permalinks, so you will have to scroll more than halfway down the page.) In her post, she points out that during the 2008 primary elections, for perhaps the first time in American history, both Democratic candidates were frequently addressed by their first name. I was reminded of this point while reading Benedict Anderson‘s Imagined Communities, where a footnote in chapter 2 discusses the nomenclature of rulers:

“Schoolchildren remember monarchs by their first names (what was William the Conquerer’s surname?), presidents by their last (what was Ebert‘s Christian name?). In a world of citizens, all of whom are theoretically eligible for the presidency, the limited pool of ‘Christian’ names makes them inadequate as specifying designators. In monarchies, however, where rule is reserved for a single surname, it is necessarily ‘Christian’ names, with numbers, or sobriquets, that supply the requisite distinctions.”

Anderson makes a lot of sense here, and in light of his observation it is interesting to consider why Barack and Hilary were referred to by their first names during the primaries (and to some extent beyond). An obvious explanation is that Hilary’s last name could also have referred to her husband, but I think there was something else at work as well.(1) I think the tutoyer-ing(2) of public figures is a symptom of the Hollywoodization of politics. On Us Weekly’s website at the moment, there is a poll asking whether “Angelina,” who wants more kids, should adopt or get pregnant again. Doesn’t it seem like there’s some connection between the familiarity of tabloid culture and that of the politically involved this election season?

On a somewhat unrelated note, it seems to me that first names are basically words, while last names are basically not. Over time, first names change with the rest of language: Germanic ‘Roderic’ yields Spanish ‘Rodrigo,’ following the same rules of sound change as words like ‘padre’ and ‘testigo.’ (The obvious exception to this is names taken from written texts, which may resist change over time; the lexical analogue would be learned forms, like English “decanal” as opposed to “dean.”) Last names, on the other hand, do not have mass currency, and authority over them lies in the hands of individuals. George Washington’s ancestors’ name was Wessington, from a town in England whose name may have meant “watery town.” Over time that word for water has dropped out of the language and the word “town” has assumed its modern form, but “Washington” developed on a different course. Furthermore, if someone’s last name is, for example, Zeidman, and they pronounce it “ZEED-man,” you can’t very well correct them and tell them it’s “ZAYD-man.” The name belongs to them, in the way that words belong collectively to all members of a speaker community. The same is true to an extent for first names—in names like “Caroline” and “Hallie,” it is up to the name’s possessor to choose between the two pronunciations—but in general if a first name is not to appear foreign to English, it must be pronounced as expected.(3) First names are like last names in that they are attached to individuals, but like words in that they are mostly said and heard by people throughout the speaker community.

Questions for commenters: Do you agree or disagree about the Hollywoodization of politics? What evidence can you see for or against?

(1) By contrast, in the current election Senator Elizabeth Dole is running for reelection in North Carolina, but I do not think she is often referred to as “Elizabeth,” even though her husband Bob has also been a prominent political figure.

(2) tutear-ing, for you Spanish speakers.

(3) And those two cases can be easily explained: “Caroline” that rhymes with “wine” was originally the American pronunciation, and “Carolyn” that rhymes with “win” was originally British. “Hallie” is pronounced with an ash like in “cat,” and “Hailey,” “Hayley,” “Haley,” etc. are pronounced like they sound, but at times there is confusion between the spellings.

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3 Responses to “On First and Last Names”

  1. Toxoplasma Gandhi Says:

    Cool post.
    I haven’t noticed anyone referring to the current candidates by their first name, but I did find it very strange that when Hilary Clinton was running for the Democratic nomination, the press would refer to her with surprising frequency as “Hilary.” At the time, I thought it was strange that every other candidate should be addressed in more formal terms, and wondered if it was because Hilary was seen as a less legitimate candidate, or maybe because the media felt like it had some degree of familiarity with her. After all, she’d been referred to as Hilary since she was the first lady (a position that, like the effete English royal family has always been about glamor, image, and celebrity status); why should the media have rechristened her for the sake of her new political aspirations? Maybe for the sake of journalistic professionalism, but I think you’re right about the “Hollywoodization” of politics. Hilary had already been a tabloid figure, and she remained up through the end of her brief campaign.
    -Brandon

  2. Vicente, I am unaware of alternate pronunciations for Caroline and Hallie. what are they?

  3. I suppose when I have thought about it, I have usually attributed it simply to a sort of artificial intimacy with the candidates. This broader phenomenon of intimization would of course include hollywoodization (indeed, why would you presume to advise someone on where to obtain new young unless you were already on a first-name basis with them?), but it is conceivable to arrive at the intimacy without passing through first through hollywoodization. (Or is that felt intimacy with public figures inseparable from hollywoodization?)

    One thing that is interesting to note is that (at least in my experience) one rarely heard John McCain referred to as “John”, at least after the Republican primary. Granted, “John” is much less distinctive than “Barack”, and granted, most of my experience was with people who would not _want_ to feel any sort of intimacy with John McCain, but can we draw any conclusion about the difference in the degree of intimacy with or hollywoodization of candidates between the supporters of the two parties?

    An empirical question: Did references to “Barack” as opposed to “Obama” become proportionally any less common once it was a two-candidate race?

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