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What’s in a name?

At what point do you start calling someone by their first name? How do you feel if someone calls you by your first name and they don’t know you very well? Have you ever insisted that someone call you by your last name? What is in a name? What does all this mean? What is going on behind the names?

There is definitely a difference when you go from being addressed by your first name to being addressed by your last name. After my parents died, I started calling our next-door neighbor by her first name. Before that she was always known as Mrs. Miles. There was something about all that I had been through before and after my parents died that made me realize that I was an adult now and I started calling her Margaret. No one told me to do this. I just knew it was time. She didn’t stop me. Even though she was 50 years older than me I was now equal to her.

Really that is what the difference is. When you call someone by their first name, you are establishing a hierarchy. If you both refer to each other by your first name, you are equals. But if one is referred to by the last name and the other is by the first name, there is a hierarchy. One is higher than the other.

Notice that teachers are addressed as Mrs. (last name) while the children are addressed by their first names. Doctors are the same way. Even if he has given you permission to call him by his first name (“Call me Don”), you will likely still give him a title – Dr. Don. He is above you in skill, so how you address him reflects that.

If someone is referred to by their last name they are considered to be higher than the other person. There is a lady that I know who works at the pharmacy I go to. Her mother-in-law is one of my coworkers. I know this pharmacy tech by her first name and she knows my first name as well. But I was a bit taken aback when she referred to me by my last name. I was suddenly an authority figure and not an equal. I felt that she had said that there was a space between us, and that she was making herself lesser than me. Perhaps her boss would think it would be over-familiar to address customers by their first names, though.

There is a gentleman who comes to the library who is 30 years older than me and I referred to him by his last name. It is Mr. Vanderlip. At one point he said “No, call me Hank.” and that felt really wrong. I expressed to him that I really like calling him Mr. Vanderlip because it is such a cool name. But really the issue is that I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to call him by his last name because he is my elder.

Now, being an elder has something to do with the person’s age but it also has something to do with respect. Someone can be older than you but not an elder. So there is something in there about experience and authority and wisdom. An elder would be referred to by her or his last name, unless s/he gives you permission otherwise.

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