Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What's In a Name?

Someone once asked me in an email, referring to the blog, what my real name was. I answered "Prof K." He responded that no, that was my fake name, one taken to provide anonymity. He wanted to know what my real name was. Again, I responded "Prof K." Let me explain why I consider that answer as 100% correct.

We seem to think that we have only one name that we go through life with. Really? Let's take the case of a female born into a Jewish family. After birth that child is given a name by her parents. When the name is given that name will be Rivka Brocha bas Ehpraim Anshel HaLevi. Is that her name? Yes and no. That full name will be used when a mi'sheberach is made. It will be used under the chupah. But does anyone ever introduce themselves to others in a group in this way? No, they likely use one of their other names.

Perhaps her father calls her Rivka Brocha, and she answers to that name when she is talking with her dad. Perhaps her mother calls her Rivkale, and she answers to that name when with her mom. Perhaps her father's mother calls her Brochie and perhaps her mother's mother calls her Rivchu. Perhaps her youngest brother calls her Ribi and her oldest brother calls her Riv. Now imagine if we add in all the names that the aunts and uncles and cousins might call her.

Her best friend calls her Riki. One of her not so best friends calls her Ribs. Her teachers may call her Rivke or they may call her Miss Brown. One of her neighbors calls her sweetpea. Her pediatrician may call her Rebecca. The government calls her Rebecca Betty Brown. You think I'm finished? Nope. Rivka Brocha has red hair. There are some who are going to call her gingy, and she will respond to the name.

Then she grows up, goes to college, gets a job, gets married and has children. She will now be answering to a whole new slew of names. Our little Rivka Brocha Brown is now the wife of Moshe Sofer. Among her new names will be Mrs. Moshe Sofer, Mrs. Rivka Brocha Sofer, Mrs. Rivka Sofer, Rivka Sofer, Mrs. Martin Sofer, Mrs. Rebecca Sofer, Rebecca Sofer etc.. Some will refer to her as Rivka Brown Sofer or perhaps Rebecca Brown Sofer. Her husband may add in some new names as well--honey, sweetheart, Brooks etc.. To her in laws her new name might simply be shneer. Rivka likes to cook and is darned good at it. Some people refer to her as chef Sofer and she answers.

Now she becomes a mother. Enter more new names. She may be mommy or mom or moms or ima or mumsy or mama or any other construction that appeals to her kids. Let's say that she becomes a college professor. She will add Professor Sofer or Dr. Sofer to her list of names. Should she assume additional responsibilities in the college she may now add Dean Sofer to her names. But let's give Rivka incredible talent in computers. Now we can add in the name of geek, uttered affectionately by those who appreciate that talent.

Let's let Rivka be a talented writer on top of everything else she is good at. She has written some textbooks in her field. Her author name for those textbooks is Rebecca Sofer, PhD. But she also has a great sense of humor and has written some humorous books for kids. There her author name is R. Brown-Sofer. And our multi-faceted woman also has a blog, maybe even two or three blogs. The first blog is about her personal musings about the world in general. For that blog her name is MyView. Her second blog is one that deals with the subject matter she teaches. On that blog she is Prof B. Her third blog is about household matters and cooking. For that blog she is called ChefaLicious. Now sometimes our Rivka comments on other blogs or on sites online or perhaps writes letters to the editors of newspapers. Sometimes she uses the name Anonymous, sometimes Irate Reader, sometimes Stop the Madness, sometimes a whole lot of other names.

Have I covered all of Rivka's possible names yet? Not by a long shot. Rivka is only forty and she has many years more to collect a whole slew of names that she will use and answer to. She has yet to add in all the names for mother in law, grandmother and great grandmother. And then there will be what the machatonim will call her.

We all of us have a wide variety of names that we use and that we answer to, mostly depending on whom we are talking to, where we are and what we are doing. Sometimes, when being introduced to someone new, we proffer one name, sometimes another. What name we use and when and where we use it is not a question of hiding our "real" name--all of our names are our real names. Sometimes the name we give is a way of establishing how we wish to be thought of in a particular situation/time period. Other times we proffer a name because we want those we are speaking with to concentrate on our words, not on what a different name might bring along as baggage.

I know that there are readers here who know some of my other names. So? I'm not in the Wit Sec program, and I'm not hiding out from the bad guys when I use Prof K here. I know of some readers who associate that Prof K with other situations as well as with the blog. So to the reader who was insisting on knowing my "real" name, Prof K is the correct answer, for here and now. Meet me in other places, other times, other situations and you may hear other names. Just keep this in mind--they are all mine.


Barbara said...

Of course all of our names are legitimate. Part of growing up is learning which names to use for people and in which situations. One of my doctors also happens to be my first cousin. When I'm in the office with him we call each other by the names we call each other when sitting down to a family dinner. But when I call to make an appointment I ask for Dr.____, not that family name. And he tells his nurses to write a prescription for Mrs._____, not Barbara. Different situations, different requirements.

miriamp said...

That's part of why my kids only have Hebrew names, and not English "equivalents" -- just their Hebrew names transliterated into English, for their birth certificates.

When introduced to someone random, I'm never sure which first name to use. Especially if I call myself Miriam and then sign something official with my legal name, which is not Miriam. Too confusing for me!

Anonymous said...

With all due respect ProfK, the question was really asking why you chose to blog anonymously and you ducked the question. Sure there are people who know you by a nick name or know you as the trophy wife or as mom or as many other things, but they also know your legal name. There are lots of good reasons to blog anonymously, but to say "it is my real name" does not address the question. Your readers don't know how seriously to take you without a real name and some info. You also have chosen a name (prof) that apparently is designed to confer some legitimacy, but we don't know what you are a professor of or where? Its fine for you to want to maintain anonymity, but don't say its my real name. Would your bank let you cash a check made out to "ProfK"? If not, its not your real name, its one of your aliases.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I still don't understand why putting my name on a post or blog makes my argument or point any less legitimate. Either what I am saying has validity or it does not, regardless of what name my parents gave me. In fact, given my lack of anonymity in my community, many people jokingly call me HF.

Lion of Zion said...


"but we don't know what you are a professor of or where?"

anyone who reads this blog semi-regularly know exactly what and where she teaches. this, with other personal details dropped here and there, wouldn't make it that difficult for anyone who *really* wanted to know who she is to figure it out.


"I still don't understand why putting my name on a post or blog makes my argument or point any less legitimate."

a) in certain contexts, the comment of people with certain credentials, experience, etc. do deserve more consideration

b) an anonymous blog post calling on people to take bold, controversial or iconoclastic action has little credibility. if the author can't sign his/her own name, why does he/she expect others to get dirty?

tesyaa said...

miriamp - have you considered legally changing your first name to Miriam if that is what you are more comfortable with? I often wonder why people don't do this, especially since at the time of marriage, there is no court order required. (Naturally, I realize you are already married :) )

ProfK said...

Thank you Lion--while I may not give my other names here, there are enough personal details that, as you say, someone could figure out who I am outside of this blog if they wanted to.

Re the bank and a check Anon, it is so common that people have more than one name in use that bank signature cards routinely have a space marked "aka" for you to fill in other names that checks might be made out to.

HF and Lion,
Yes, sometimes a name attached to a piece of writing can lend more weight to that writing than a piece signed anonymously or with something like "concerned scientist." If Joe X writes a piece on the ten most important steps you can take to combat Alzheimers, I'm going to want to know Joe's credentials for writing that piece. If Joe drives a taxicab I'm just not going to take his words on this subject as being authoritative. This is a case where I want a "real" name and I want to be able to check the credentials of the person writing.

But if an opinion piece is on why we need to lower school tuition or why we need to get along better or any piece of that opinion type, there are no credentials necessary other than breathing. Having initials after ones name doesn't mean that that person's opinion is more valid than any other member of Klal's opinion is.

Why use a different name? To avoid having people speculate about the speaker and concentrate on the words being written instead. For example, take someone who is quite wealthy and is known to be so within his/her home community. If that person writes a piece about how to cut down on spending on luxuries there is going to be dissonance if people recognize who that person is. You would probably hear comments such as "Easy enough for him/her to say because they don't have to follow what they are saying" or "Right, like he/she has ever had to worry about cutting down on spending." WHAT is being said is lost because of WHO is saying it. Had that piece been written using a different name it is quite possible and more than likely that people would have looked at the content and made their decision about adopting or not adopting some of the suggestions based strictly on that content. If you really like someone then they can do or say no wrong, even when they do, and if you don't like someone they cannot do or say anything right, even when they do. A pen name keeps personalities from intruding where they don't have to be.

Chani said...

I sort of look at it this way. The closer you are to me, either as a relative or a friend, the more likely you are to know all or most of my names and to choose the one that fits when we are together.

If I know you only in a limited way in a particular situation, maybe like a co-worker, then you are only going to know the name or names that apply at work.

When we go to blogs to read or comment that's mostly a limited situation. We're all together to talk about a particular subject. I don't think that most people come to a blog to make best friends that they would share everything with. So whatever name a person uses as a blog name is just fine. I enjoy reading this blog but I don't spend my spare time wondering about just who ProfK is or all about her life away from the blog.