What’s in a Name?

Generally speaking I try to avoid writing in my blog about subjects that are too personal or esoteric. I try to keep the topics I write about on this blog broad enough that an individual who doesn’t necessarily know me personally or my lifestyle can sit down and read and be as equally annoyed as a person who has known me for years. Of course there are exceptions to this but the topic I wish to discuss right now is arguably the most personal of anything I’ve written here in a long time.

A few years ago I made the decision that I was going to start introducing myself as Mac — short for MacDaniel, my family name — rather than by my first name. I thought about it since I was a kid, the way a Billy thinks that someday he will be a William. A lot of the men in my family have gone by Mac: my grandfather and uncles for example. It wasn’t until my father died in November of 2002 that it became important to me to be Mac.

Names are a fascinating aspect of our culture, and one that I really started to analyze – at least on an anecdotal level – not necessarily when I started introducing myself to new friends as Mac, but when I starting asking old friends to start calling me Mac instead of my first name.

I never would have thought that people would be so personally and emotionally invested in whatever name I choose to adopt, but it continues to be a huge source of contention even years later, and I’ve begun to see the issue as one of self-determination. It’s interesting that adversity tends to galvanize us in our convictions. Being called Mac started out simply as a preference, but every time that someone says that Mac is a “nickname” or “not my real name”, it becomes more and more an issue of asserting my identity.

It never occurred to me until I went through the trouble of trying to change my name that I have an unusually high number of friends who have changed their names. Among my twenty closest friends, four have changed their names. Those four are all also vegan straight edge kids. I’m not necessarily trying to draw a correlation between those two ideologies and a desire to change one’s name, but rather wondering if a person who is already in a mindset of questioning cultural traditions – for example intoxication and eating animals or any number of others – might be more likely to stumble upon a curiosity about adhering to an arbitrary naming process.

My motivations for wanting to change my name are pretty straightforward. Firstly, from an aesthetic standpoint I have always preferred my family name to my first name. Secondly, I’d like to have my dad’s name. The only thing I have left of my dad is his name. On my worst days I feel like it’s the only thing of his that I inherited and being Mac is one of the few things that I feel keeps us connected. I am terrified that I’m nothing like my dad, and having his name might be the only real reminder that I’m really his son.

But the more that people in my social circle tried to fight against me changing this tiny aspect of my identity, the more I began to see naming as an ideological issue. It seems symptomatic of a larger problem. We are told who we are before we’re old enough to comprehend the meaning of the words. We are expected to go through our whole lives with a name that was chosen by people who didn’t know who we would be when they gave it to us.

Names don’t hold as much significance in western civilization in 2010, the meaning we assign to them is arbitrary and personal instead of institutional and universal. We’re lucky not to live in a culture with a caste system where a name can mean a social status for a lifetime. But everyone has affinities and distastes for different names. I know plenty of people who can’t stand to hear their whole name said out loud because it reminds them of being disciplined as a child.

Changing one’s name is pretty normal for transgendered people: male-bodied individuals who identity as female, or vice versa, or people who do not identify with a gender binary at all.

Changing their family names was an important gesture for early members of the Sikh faith as it was a sign of their rejection of the caste system inherent in the Hindu religion in India where Sikhism began. Sikhs all took the last names Singh or Kaur so that their caste could not be determined. Egalitarianism is an important tenet of Sikhism and so they could not condone the discrimination inherent in the caste system.

For Malcolm X and other members of the Nation of Islam, the X represented the African surname that every slave lost when they were brought to America. Malcolm rightfully rejected his legal surname “Little” because it came not from his own people, but from the slavemaster that had owned his ancestors.

I don’t hold any attachment to my first name; truthfully I’ve never liked it. And on top of that my father openly admitted that he himself had no attachment to my first and middle names. He told me my whole life that he just picked the first J and A names he could think of because he wanted my initials to be JAM.

I have always identified first and foremost as a MacDaniel, and going by Mac is not just a reminder that I’m my father’s son, but that I’m my uncles’ nephew, my grandfather’s grandson, my brother’s brother – and because of my vasectomy and my siblings’ only having female children thus far – possibly the last MacDaniel in my line.

I am the person that I decide to be, not the person that anyone else has chosen for me to be. I’m Mac, just like my dad, just like his dad.

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