Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Sometimes it seems that in mainstream American culture, words have lost some of the power attributed to them by many in the past and in other parts of the world. One of the best examples of this power is in the use of one’s name.

Many cultures and subcultures believe that knowing a person’s name gives you some degree of power over them. In Paganism and Wicca, practitioners will frequently select (or be given) a secret (or “Magikal”) name in addition to their public name. According to conventional belief, this name should never be told to anybody, and reserved only for ritual work, the idea being that this name is the one you use when communicating with the gods. This all stems from the belief that “anything we know the secret name of, we can destroy” (Source…). This idea is not unusual in the world, but still seems quite foriegn to many Westerners.

In American culture, your (only) name is public domain, expected to be used anywhere and everywhere when people need to make reference to you. We give out our name when meeting complete strangers, write it on the various cards and documents we carry at all times, wear little tags on our shirts which proudly display it, and even post it online or in a phonebook, available for anybody who might stumble across it. Our names are common knowledge.

However, I think that the attitude that knowing a name gives you power is still present, to some extent, in Western thought. We really like to know the name for everything and everybody around us, and when we can’t figure it out, we begin to feel uneasy. Imagine meeting a person at a party and introducing yourself, only for them to respond that they won’t tell your their name. If no reason were given, you’d likely feel curious at first, maybe trying to get it out of them later in the conversation. If that didn’t work, you might ask somebody else. Finally, you might be a little bit scared and distance yourself from the nameless person.

People without names are both feared and esteemed in our culture, with examples from entertainment like “V” from “V for Vendetta” or Batman, both of whom use their secrecy and namelessness as a weapon. To this day, anonymity is viewed as dangerous. Just imagine refusing to tell the police officer your name next time you get pulled over. No matter what you did, it’s doubtful that they’d let you go until they found it out, either through your surrender, or their fingerprint database.

Now, more than ever, having somebody’s name gives you power over them. Armed with just a name, you could find all sorts of information scattered over both the internet and the printed world, and with the advent of sites like Facebook and MySpace, you can even find out who matters most to them. Knowledge is power, and a name leads to knowledge about a person.

So, according to some, every nametag, business card, facebook profile, or phonebook entry you bring into existence comes with the ability to control you. However, there are still some people left who are worried about the secrecy of their name. Need proof? Just ask the next telemarketer who calls you for their first and last name. Their silence will speak volumes.


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