Report on Canada’s “racial divide”

The field study that Philip Oreopoulos and I co-authored in 2011 was mentioned in The Globe and Mail‘s September 27th report on Canada’s “racial divide”.  Our study, along with great work by other Canadian researchers, is drawn on to describe the kinds of systemic racism that are experienced daily by indigenous people and people of colour in Canada. As the article’s author, Tavia Grant, states “the narrative that Canada is a bastion of multiculturalism and inclusiveness is one that glosses over some harsh truths.”

 

Closing some chapters, opening new ones…

Since my last post I

  1. finished writing my dissertation
  2. successfully defended it
  3. acquired a full-time teaching position
  4. became a motherDiane graduation

So, life has been very exciting, and really quite great, except that I haven’t been posting here. This is partly because I have a less flexible schedule, and partly  because my needs have changed. Writing blog posts about names, as I was thinking about and theorizing my way through a doctoral dissertation, was really useful. This space allowed me to develop my voice as a writer, and my confidence as a social scientist. Rather than producing a largely inaccessible and distant-from-the-author tome, I was complimented by my committee for how much I am present in my dissertation, and how readable a tome it is. For that, I thank those of you who read my posts. I also encourage other graduate students to take the opportunity to work out their thoughts and theories in the comparatively bite-sized chunks that are blog posts. This was a really beneficial practice for me!

As mentioned, my needs as a writer and educator have changed– I want to remain active with name politics as well as developments in writing pedagogy scholarship. In May 2015, I became a Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre, so communication practices, especially writing and oral presentations have become a greater focus for me. My position’s mandate is to improve the quality of writing in scientific and technical spheres at McGill. This post is an example of the advice I offer, in lecture or workshop format, with a focus on practice.

Thanks for reading! I look forward to our future interactions.

“The Database is Drunk!”: When Name Mistakes are Funny

In February, two high profile and amusing name mistakes occurred, and they still have me thinking about how these situations differ from the name challenges experienced by people who have immigrated—a phenomenon which is the focus of my dissertation. We’ll get to those thoughts in a few paragraphs. First, the name mistakes!

Event #1: Misaddressed Letters of Invitation to the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences

Academics who attend the annual national Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, once known as “The Learneds”, received letters inviting us to register for the 2014 conference. But on nearly all of the envelopes, our surnames were misspelled!

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Though I often experience minor misspellings of my last name, this misnomer had a strange anglicizing effect. And coming from a professional organization through which I network, it was especially disconcerting: how my name exists at Congress is important to me.

These mispellings had similarities. Generally, the first two or three letters of each surname was correct, and then our names nosedived away from reality. In my case, my name was altered from Diane Dechief to Diane Decker.

I might not have even noticed this name error, but the most exceptional of these name alterations came to my attention before I had  received my letter from Congress.This mistake was so wonderful and so odd that its recipient, Zoë Constantinides, shared her envelope:

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Yes, Zoë’s Constantinides became , “Zoë Consulate General of Sweden”. OF SWEDEN!

And then other misnomer stories started rolling in. A friend who works in a university department was responsible for putting the Congress invitation letters into individual mailboxes. She said, “almost every name was wrong and hilarious” including one person’s last name being turned into “Schmaltz.”  And there were others:

Bruno Cornellier’s envelope was addressed to Bruno Corona.
Nathan Rambukkana was turned into Nathan Ramdas.
Beatriz Bartolomé Herrera became Beatriz Barton.

Peter Lester shifted to Peter Letocha.
Kat Sark’s name addition made her surname match mine: Kat Sarker.
And Dr. Owen Livermore became Dr. Livingstone.

But some people’s names stayed the same:

Morgan Charles
Gregory Taylor
Poppy Robbins

Then the hypotheses started flooding in:

Was this some kind of weird performance art project? (Erin MacLeod)
Or a case of spellcheck gone wild?  (Saleema Nawaz)
WAS THE DATABASE DRUNK? (Andrea Zeffiro)

So, as Vice-President of the Canadian Society for the Study of Names, I took it upon myself to write a letter to the Congress organizers. I told them about Zoë’s name change, just to break the ice, and then I asked directly if spell check was to blame. I did not, however, float the drunk database theory.

I received a couple of very apologetic responses that were quite similar to the official apology that arrived (by email, not post) a couple of days later: spell check was not to blame, but a more generic “technical issue” was. The mail-out happened at the same mailing house that Congress usually works with. And fear not: Congress definitely still has our real names in their databases.

Event #2: The Oscars, 2014

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Later in February, the Academy Awards took place. And a highlight was this gaff: While introducing performer Idina Menzel, John Travolta, seeming more nervous than drunk, mistakenly called her Adele Dazeem. Idina Menzel was about to perform at the Oscars! And John Travolta had gone to rehearsals in preparation for that introduction!

Travolta’s name mistake was quickly noted and was responded to creatively: a widget made the rounds of social networks, “Travoltifying” names left and right. On Facebook at least, people seemed charmed and amused by having their names Travoltrified. I admit to using the widget myself– for the sake of name science.

So why are these name errors funny, in contrast to the name mistakes experienced by people who have immigrated?

1. Exceptional cases: if people usually get your name right, and then this one time it’s wrong, that’s funny.

In contrast to the situation for people who have immigrated and have their names miswritten and mispronounced constantly, an occasional misnomer is worth a chuckle.

But it’s also funny that the Congress participants whose names are most common STILL didn’t have their names flubbed.

2. How they got it wrong: The misnomers created by both Congress and John Travolta were really very different than the original names.

It bears repeating. Zoë Constantinides became Zoë Consulate General of Sweden!!!

That said, many people I interviewed for my dissertation were shocked by the ways that their names have been changed. In one case, a participant from Colombia who originally used four names (two first and two last) had one of his last names truncated on his Permanent Resident Card, and his newly formed last name appeared to be Dutch.

3. The people who made these two name mistakes felt really sorry and apologized profusely.

John Travolta was apparently “beating himself up all day” for the mistake he made in front of 43 million viewers. And Jean-Marc Mangin, Executive Director of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, personally apologized “for this mistake and any inconvenience it has caused”.

In many of the cases described by the participants, people rarely even realize that they’ve made a mistake with the participants’ names. Apologies are rarely anticipated or received.

4.  We were all in it together.

In these two name situations, we weren’t individually having our name messed up and feeling like no one else could understand. Except, potentially, for Idina Menzel. But then, thousands of people wanted to have their names transformed as Idina Menzel’s was; maybe that provided her some solace. One notable thing about the Congress misnomers is that people with the most common names, who didn’t have their names altered, may have actually felt a little left out of the hilarity.

Name errors and embarrassment about making them come down to this: if we know and care about someone, we get her name right. To mispronounce or misspell someone’s name demonstrates either a lack of care or an ignorance of how their name should be. The name mispronunciations that people who have immigrated so often experience can be diminished with effort and care that is enacted socially, professionally, and bureaucratically. When someone is important, we usually get their names right. Isn’t that so, Congress and Jan Thozomas?

Jan Thozomas

I had a fun interview about my dissertation! Here’s the result:

Journalist Alina Dizik interviewed me earlier this month, as she put together this article for BBC’s “Capital” section. The article’s original location is here: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20140225-would-you-hire-a-parkshit

BBC

26 February 2014

Would you hire a Parkshit?
by Alina Dizik
Name tags (Flickr/Getty)Name tags (Flickr/Getty)

When Malaysian-born Norhidayah Binti Nazarudin moved to the United States after a stint working in Japan, she was ready for a new name that was more familiar to her colleagues.

So Nazarudin, whose family still calls her Hidayah, became Heidi, a popular American name. As a banker turned blogger, she believes Heidi gets her more attention than her birth name and work contacts have confessed they were previously unsure how to pronounce her given name and hesitant to approach her for work-related questions.

Changing your name to fit in better at the office or as an expat might seem extreme, but it is becoming increasingly popular. Some people want to offload an embarrassing moniker and others, like Nazarudin, want to Anglicise their name for work.

There’s good reason, say some experts and name-changers. As an increasing number of people relocate abroad for work, names that seem average in one country can seem awkward somewhere else. Many people now seek name changes – whether official or simply nicknames – as a ticket to more callbacks from potential employers and better treatment by colleagues.

At the same time, human resource and hiring managers review hundreds of CVs per week, and research in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK shows that there is some bias when it comes to calling back candidates with non-Anglicized names, says Marie Wilson, a professor at the University of South Australia Business School who’s researched the topic.

“Names are often the first thing that a potential employer encounters, and names may trigger stereotypes about men and women, or about a particular ethnic group,” she said her research found.“Migration and global careers, lead to a greater emphasis on having a name that travels well,” said Wilson. Rather than pursuing a name change legally, Wilson says more people now use nicknames to “localize” themselves.

And using a more ambiguous name isn’t always a way to keep the part of the world you come from vague. Using a different name on business cards or a CV doesn’t require going through red tape. Ari Abitbol never needed to legally shorten her name from Arielle. But she says using a shortened version, Ari, professionally helps when finding work in the reality television industry where most of her colleagues are male, she said.

After graduating from college she experimented with using Ari on her CV and created a new email address using the name. She says more of her queries were answered after she began to use a more male-sounding name, she said. “I wasn’t getting as many bites until I changed my name,” said Abitbol, 27, who is based in New York.

Legal hurdles

Changing your family name, however, can prove more problematic. It can be much more complicated than the first name, says Axle Davids, 46, who was previously Axle Dickman. Davids, who lives in Toronto, decided on the name change after comments about the meaning of his given name detracted from the serious conversation when he introduced himself in a professional setting. He felt self-conscious when sharing his last name and didn’t want to pass down the teasing to his own kids.

It took two years to complete all of the required paperwork but having a more common name was worth it, he said. The surname Davids — which came from part of his mother’s maiden name, Bar-David, as inspiration — raises few eyebrows.

“When I am introduced to new people – particularly in a business context — my last name isn’t the first topic of conversation,” he said.

Malaysian-born Norhidayah Binti Nazarudin changed her name to Heidi after moving to the US and quickly received more queries for work. (Courtesy Heidi Nazarudin)

While Diane Dechief, who interviewed 23 name changers in Canada as part of her PhD dissertation on the impact of personal names says it can be bittersweet to say goodbye to a birth name.

“People were sort of happy, but disappointed, that something like their name could stop them from [accessing]opportunities,” because a name is both easy to change to remedy that, but also a very personal attachment, she said.

When Dechief, now a lecturer at Montreal’s McGill University, studied employers as part of her research, she said a non-Anglican name signaled to some that the candidate had recently immigrated to Canada, even if the person’s experience showed this was not the case. In a 2011 study of 7,000 resumes that highlighted identical experience except for their ethnic-sounding names, applicants with English-sounding names received 35% more callbacks on average, says Dechief, who helped conduct the research.

In later research, most of her subjects said the career opportunities with a “pruned” name seemed worth the hassle.

Family values

Not all name changes are accepted at face-value by employers, warned Roy Cohen, a New York-based career coach. For instance, if someone changed their name to cover up past media attention or a firing, it can backfire. But employers typically accept changing a name to avoid unfair ethnic or gender stereotyping, said Cohen who is author of the Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide.

Additionally, coworkers or work acquaintances can sometimes feel uncomfortable pronouncing a name that has a different connotation in another language, said Cohen who advised a client named Parkshit to shorten his name to Park. “When a new name allows you to feel more confident, then it’s the answer,” he said.

Nazarudin said family and friends who’ve formed an emotional attachment to your previous name, often don’t realize the career hurdles involved in keeping it. Sometimes the new name can make a close family member feel disrespected. So plan ahead so a career move doesn’t cause trouble at home.

“My father took it a bit personally,” said Nazarudin, who told him to keep calling her Hidayah. “But I told him it was a business decision.”

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“What if Robert Lepage changed his name to Stephen Harper?” And what if Kent Monkman and Margie Gillis did, too?

The question quoted in this blog’s title was posed by Janez Janša during a talk at ImageMcGill University earlier this month, as he presented NAME – Readymade. In 2007, Janez Janša and two other Slovenian artists (Janez Janša and Janez Janša) changed their names to that of Slovenia’s then-current right-wing Prime Minister, Janez Janša.

Since then, the artist Janez Janšas have presented exhibits, published a set of essays, and made a film about their name changes, as well as continuing their art practices as solo artists. The politician Janez Janša has since been charged with plagiarizing Tony Blair(!), and via a non-confidence vote (in March 2013) was ousted from his second (non-consecutive) term as Slovenia’s Prime Minister. Besides this, in June 2013 he was charged with corruption. Note: None of the latter Janez Janša’s undoing seems directly related to the former Janez Janšas’ name changes.

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The Janez Janšas’ acts of changing their names to that of a Prime Minister whose political views they oppose can be understood in many ways. To me, as a researcher of names—and name changes in particular—two aspects of the Janez Janšas’ act of changing their names resonate particularly: name change as art practice, and name change as politics.

 

Name Change as Art

The Janez Janšas’ act of simultaneously changing their names, especially when presented as the “NAME – Readymade” exhibit, book, and film begs an examination of what exactly is a personal name. For those unfamiliar, the Janez Janšas’ use of  “Readymade” refers to Marcel Duchamp’s practice of repositioning everyday items as art pieces. The most famous of these is his 1917 piece “Fountain” which features a urinal.  Through his readymade practice Duchamp asked, when is an item art and when is it just an everyday object?

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The Janez Janšas extend this question to reposition a personal name: can a name change be considered art? It seems that yes, it can; at least in the case that a known name is simultaneously adopted by three artists, in a particular political climate. The Janez Janšas’ presentation of their group name change as art is quite convincing. Can we see more of this? In what other ways can names be the basic material of an art practice?

 

Name Change as Politics

As I write my dissertation about name changes made by people who have migrated to Canada over the past forty years, I am often thinking about the personal and public politics that influence name changes and name reversions. Quite simply, all name changes are political. Whether changes to names are made as strategies for belonging, or as efforts toward maintaining or promoting a personal or cultural origin, they represent political choices. And many individuals’ choices are more Imageobviously based on broader national or global politics, particularly when deflecting prosecution, or defending perceptions of a culture: think of the Osamas who had to decide what to do about their names after 9/11. (The 2005 film by Mahmoud Kaabour and Tim Schwab, Being Osama, documents this dilemma).

To me, the political aspect of the Janez Janšas’ decision to change their names is playful heckling. The politician Janez Janša, not unlike Canada’s own Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, tightened public funding for the arts and limited the freedom of the press, amongst other challenges to democracy. That three well-known artists responded to these actions by simultaneously changing their names to match that of Janez Janša is a great political tactic. Suddenly, the spotlight that usually follows this politician is diluted and weakened by other well-known people sharing his name.

And as with Duchamp’s urinal, a name repositioned has its meaning interrogated. The resonance of a national leader’s name is diminished as it becomes just as insignificant or as ridiculous as any other object or word. The artist Janez Janšas have chosen a slowly unfolding, playful, legal route to demonstrate their dissent. To the public who is aware of this name change, it’s a wonderful joke to be let in on: at least a smirk ensues.  

Sure, changing one’s name also comes at some cost to one’s identity and through time spent dealing in bureaucracy. But as a political art practice, it engages in an inventive, novel way: one that seems more apt than ever with our online social networks’ focus on names as part of online presences and personal brands.

So, what would happen if Robert Lepage changed his name to Stephen Harper?
And what if Kent Monkman and Margie Gillis did it, too? 

Why do we want to write our names all over everything?

Anticipating the upcoming Canadian Society for the Study of Names conference, I’ve been thinking about the names of public places. This is in part because one of the guest speakers is Reuben Rose-Redwood, a toponymic activist.

What does it mean to be a toponymic activist? Rose-Redwood’s bio and abstract are here, but in brief, he’s against selling the names of public buildings to philanthropists and corporations. I’m super curious to hear Rose-Redwood’s talk, and I’ll likely write a follow-up blog, but these are my current mullings/questions:

Over the past decade in Canada, a number of (re)christenings of buildings have taken place. This is a clear indication of our federal government’s trend toward privatization, but what does it mean for public places? These buildings are parts of our campuses, or our sport/concert complexes, but we’re now asked to think of and refer to these seemingly public spaces with a private label: the name of an individual or a company has become our referent.

Examples of these kinds of name-sales in Montreal include McGill’s Schulich School of Music, Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, and of course, the Bell Center. Looking West, Calgary’s Saddledome has had four prefixes since it was built (Olympic, Canadian Airlines, Pengrowth, Scotiabank), but it does remain distinctively Calgarian as “the Saddledome.”

During this same decade, the amount graffiti in Montreal –and perhaps in most places?– has increased. Montreal can boast some very impressive street art, but tags are more my focus here. Wikipedia’s extensive glossary of graffiti defines “tag” in this way:

tag (scribble): A stylized signature, normally done in one color. The simplest and most prevalent type of graffiti, a tag is often done in a color that contrasts sharply with its background. Tag can also be used as a verb meaning “to sign”. Writers often tag on or beside their pieces, following the practice of traditional artists who sign their artwork. … The verb tagging has even become a popular verb today in other types of occasions that are non-graffiti-related. Tagging first appeared in Philadelphia, with spraypainted messages of “Bobby Beck In ’59” on freeways surrounding the city. Since then, individual graffiti scenes have displayed very different forms of tagging that are unique to specific regions. For example, a Los Angeles tag will look much different than a Philadelphia tag, etc.

mine

Tagging is a way to put your name on a public space for the price of a can of spray paint and the risk of a fine.  Can tags be thought of as a response to the sale of naming rights? Perhaps not, but perhaps. Thinking of tags in this way, I kind of admire the response: I can appreciate more fully the fluid arcs of spray paint.

But then, what is it about us humans that our impulse is to write our names on everything?  Why this desire to mark a territory, to claim a space with our name? (This question was actually posed to me, disgustedly, by my friend Sabrina.)

I’m not yet sure, but it certainly seems to be happening at every level.

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Latanya Sweeney’s name produces a different view than yours.

If two people stand looking at exactly same thing, might they feel the same way about it? Possibly, but probably not. And in the physical and even the digital world, it is actually pretty uncommon for two people to see the exact same thing, especially if our economic, physical, and cultural situations—or even our names—differ. Which, of course, they generally do.

In practical terms, it’s hard to perceive how differently another person sees the world. Travel gives us a glimpse of disparities. But even in the same city, when I visit a friend’s place that is a bit more central, and built on a higher level, I have a much lovelier view: one that includes Mount-Royal, and some really charming rooftops. When I’m invited to the family dinner of a particularly successful and established friend, I am impressed by the weight of the cutlery, the art on the walls, and the wine pairings I’m offered. These are not experiences that are part of my daily life, though I generally like most of what I see and feel as I go through my days. Probably because I’m happy with my current situation, I don’t think a lot about other people’s views, or about improving my own. But then there are these (following) moments when I realize how my much perspective differs from the views of other people, even my close friends.

Points of view—Some of my friends are shorter than me.  Recently, I went to a party with a friend who is several inches shorter than me. As we entered, she lamented taking off her lovely, tall shoes because then she’d be shorter than everyone else: it would be harder to interact.  As she explained this, I was reminded of a wonderful party that Berlin-based artist Hans Hemmert threw in 1997 where everyone wore “shoe-extenders” so all attendees became six-and-a-half feet tall.

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Hans Hemmert’s “Level” party

I love this concept! I mean, how rarely do we share something so basic as the height from which we perceive? It’s much easier to share an absence of view.

Blind spot—All of my friends know about my holidays, but I don’t know about theirs.
I grew up in Canada, celebrating Christian-based holidays like Easter and Christmas: holidays that officially breakup our work weeks and semesters. Friends who grew up in other countries, and friends who grew up here and who aren’t Christian often wish me happy holidays on these days, in a manner that is both nonchalant and kind. Yet, I barely notice that they do this, because these are such regular exchanges. Unless invited to a friend’s holiday dinner, I’m hardly aware of other religions’ key days, and it is only during conversations with these friends that I realize how little I know of Ramadan or Passover or the Chinese New Year.

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Passover Seder Plate, 2012

I don’t even know how to appropriately wish my friends well on these days. I feel weird about thisnot because I want us to all celebrate the same holidays in the same ways, and not only because I’m not as thoughtful a friend as they are to me.  Rather, it’s disturbing that I’m blinded by my own mainstream culture being flashed back at me in calendars, advertisements, films and music. I can barely see beyond that which I’ve always been aware. I know that it’s easy to have blind spots when this long-dominant culture of ours is the one that designated holiday schedules. But still, I’d like a broader view.

Constraints—Infrastructure limits what we can see, often in segregating ways.
Popular readings of architect Robert Moses’ great infrastructure build around New York between the 1920s and the 1970s describe the low bridges that limited public transit buses from going to the beautiful new parks and swimming pools as being built intentionally to exclude poorer (often Black) NY residents who didn’t own cars.

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Robert Moses with Battery Bridge model

If this was indeed a deliberate decision, surely it was one that mirrored dominant politics at the time, and not just some idiosyncratic views held by Moses alone. Regardless of how they came to be, these low bridges kept many people from accessing the beautiful new parks that Moses had built (via this one route, at least). These bricks-and-mortar style infrastructures, visible by all to the naked eye, must have appeared rather common and standard to those who swooshed under in their picnic basket-filled cars. To those who were forbidden access by their presence, the low bridges probably appeared altogether more foreboding.

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Russell Hart’s photo of Jones Beach State Park

Recent research at Harvard identifies another kind of infrastructure that may constrain access, that alters our views, and that certainly reflects the (racist, stereotyping) dominant values of our times; this infrastructure seems more sinister because we wouldn’t be aware of the particular ways that our views are being shaped without this research. Though the  infrastructure I’m describing is only digital, as we spend increasing amounts of time gazing deeply into screenshow many times over the last week did you “Google” a person or a topic?it’s a view that matters more and more. In this project, Professor Latanya Sweeney found that searching “Black-identifying” names like hers resulted in Google.com and Reuters.com generating ads “suggestive of an arrest in 81 to 86 per cent of name searches on one website and 92 to 95 per cent on the other.” This means that when Professor Latanya Sweeney (who has no criminal record) googles herself, or when anyone googles her, one of the top results is “Latanya Sweeney: Arrested?” According to the study, when we google the names of Black-identifing names, we’re very likely to see the words “criminal record” or “arrest.” That view sucks! And it only serves to edify negative stereotypes, which potentially limit people with “Black” names from accessing equal means of sustenance and amenities. Meanwhile, googling a white-identifying name produces “neutral” content. (The ads that come up when I google my own name offer viewers private information for a fee.)

And it is how this digital view is shaped that is most disturbing: Google assures that there is no racial bias in the algorithms they use to position ads. Rather, the algorithms “learn over time” which ads are selected most frequently and then they display those. The algorithms are simply reflecting the dominant values of our time, but demonstrating them to each of us differently, depending on our own particularities, and from what is know from our individual and collective clicks: these algorithms cannot result in a more panoramic view. So, thank you to Latanya Sweeney for rubbing the fog off of my view, for now at least. Otherwise, because of my race, and my name, I may not have seen the racist outcomes these algorithms are producing.

So, what’s your view? What are your blind spots?

And really, what can be done with our names, both in the digital and the physical world, that has an effect equivalent to Hans Hemmert’s shoe-extenders?

Hush, Little Hashtag: the use of technology as personal names

OUPblog's 2012 words of the year

2013 has begun with a substantial amount of reflection on 2012: I recently joined Twitter, and seeing so many end-of-the-year lists being tweeted has been both novel by quantity, and boring in repetition.

Further, at the beginning of January I attended an academic conference that had its attendees consider the language that was used in America over the past year:  The American Name Society selected 2012’s Names of the Year, and the American Dialect Society selected 2012’s Words of the Year; both voted on winners in several categories. (The Names of the Year are noted in my previous post and Ben Zimmer has written a great account of choosing the Words of the Year.)

These opportunities to vote for names and words of 2012 had my head abuzz with a kind of backward scan over my memories of all the media I’d ingested, and it made me a little woozy.  But something that became obvious is the significant, and potentially increasing, imprint of technology on our day-to-day language. The image-link above is to OUPblog’s aggregation of words of the year for 2012 and from it, you can see that the words GIF and hashtag– key nouns in online communication– were popular(ized) this year.

Above, in yellow, YOLO (“You Only Live Once,” abbreviated), is another top word of 2012, which also came to our awareness via technology. This mantra-as-acronym, a close relative to the descriptive-acronym LOL, is ascendant largely because of its utility via text and Twitter. (Additionally, YOLO was popularized in a song from that poet, Drake. And as a complete aside, he’d now like some return from sales of YOLO merchandise.)

Many ways that technology impacts our use of language were correctly foreseen by Marshall McLuhan in his broadly interpretable “The Medium is the Message.” McLuhan suggests that the particular characteristics of the mediums through which we communicate work to shape what and how we communicate. Because “words” like LOL and YOLO are easy to use via technology, they become broadly used in some subcultures, and then the rest of us come to know them, too. While “hashtag” and “GIF” are more broadly accepted, they too are only in the working-lexicon of the few. The conference I was at yielded some tweets, but certainly no critical mass of attendees were on Twitter– actually using hashtags– yet this group selected hashtag as the word of the year.

Though fewer still at the conference had heard of YOLO (or potentially, even, of Drake), with its cute roll-y Os, and youthful irreverence, YOLO also won. This demonstrates that technology doesn’t impact just the language of the people who actually use it; it has a ripple effect. And another ripple: there was outrage amongst a younger set on Twitter when this, um, more-established demographic sent #YOLO trending yet again, via these end-of-the-year musings.

But then, there is this other, potentially more significant, effect that I’m trying to make sense of: the use of technology as personal names.  Yes, the word of the year is also a name! Late in 2012, it was reported that parents named their infant daughter “Hashtag,” to the chagrin of most who heard the name. “Facebook,” and the more affirmative and specific, “Like,” are further examples of names given to now-toddlers that reference the social networking technologies which define this era.

Plenty of head-shaking and jokes have accompanied the news of these name choices. And I’m wondering why: what is so discomfiting about the use of technology as names? Is this a level of technology-creep that we just can’t accept? Perhaps. Here are some of the ways that technology continues to creep into language:

  1. Social networking (texting, tweeting, Facebook) technologies shape how we use language (more concisely, abbreviated, playing with upper/lower case);
  2. Use of these technologies has us making particular word choices: acronyms (LOL, YOLO), nouns that name technology and its components (GIF, hashtags), verbs that describe our actions with technology (tweet);
  3. Based on the example of these end-of-the-year selections and lists, including how many there are and how visible each is, we can include the effect of these technologies in spreading both information and language-use rapidly and between regions;
  4. And beyond the ways that social networking technologies affect everyday language, they are now implicated in that special class of words that interests me most: names.  Why bestow on a child the names of these technologies, just as we might name her/him after a family member, or a personal hero?

Technology-as-names seems to go too far.  I mean, how many children were named after earlier, pre-digital, infrastructures like bridges and buildings? Weren’t those structures, instead, named to honour people?

And then, why did social networking technologies catch on as names where earlier digital technologies did not? Perhaps this is because of how they are performative technologies, identity-establishers. Rather than building their identities via social networking platforms, through naming these kids become the platforms.

Maybe the issue is the movement away from naming people with names for/of people? There is an irreverent leap being made in these choices toward technology-as-names.  This playful blurring of object and human disturbs.  But how bad can it be? Through these names could humans perhaps become a little less human and a bit more thing? Unlikely. And really, how reverent are these wild new spellings of names, or the naming of babies after pop stars?

But, if it remains more accepted to stick with people’s names, apparently the name “Drake” comes highly recommended: easy to spell, easy to pronounce, kind of aspirational.  Not unlike YOLO.

The American Name Society selects 2012’s Names of the Year!

PSY’s Gangnam Style

It was a series of democratic votes that led to the selection of the following names from many nominations, made both in advance and from the floor.   I enjoyed being part of the crowd, though quietly tweeted the winning names, as opposed to rushing to nominate names.  I felt a little to the side, both as a Canadian and with it being my first of such events.

Here is the American Name Society’s Press release:

Sandy voted Name of the Year The American Name Society voted “Sandy” Name of the Year for 2012 at its annual meeting in Boston, MA on January 4.

“Sandy,” the name of the hurricane or “Superstorm” which devastated New Jersey and New York in late October, was cited for its historical importance and the use of the phrase “Superstorm Sandy” to create a memorable name which will bring to mind this event for years to come.

Donna Lillian, incoming President of the American Name Society, said “Sandy is also memorable because of its association with the sand that filled many shoreline homes as a result of the storm.” Because of the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, Sandy is also linked with the two biggest tragic news events of the year for the northeastern United States.

The society also chose winners for Names of the Year in four separate categories:

Fiscal Cliff” was voted Trade Name of the Year. Ben Bernanke’s use of this term has made it famous worldwide. Iman Nick, first Vice President of ANS, said “This name is now universally understood throughout Europe as well as in the United States.”

Gangnam” was voted Placename of the Year. This name of a trendy affluent district of Seoul, South Korea has become known through the United States and worldwide as a result of the YouTube video of a Korean rapper’s song “Gangnam Style”, which now has over a billion views. Hundreds of parodies of the song have been made, and scores of politicians and celebrities have appeared doing the dance featured in the video. The Korean placename means “south of the Han River.”

Malala” was chosen as the Personal Name of the Year. The first name of Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for refusing to abandon her campaign for girls’ education, is now known worldwide as a symbol for women’s rights.

Downton Abbey” won as Fictional Name of the Year. The name of the estate featured in the British television series broadcast on PBS in the United States has become recognizable as a symbol for elegance and aristocracy, being one of the most popular programs ever shown on the noncommercial public network.

The American Name Society, founded in 1951, is a professional organization devoted to the study of names and their role in society. In 2011 “Arab Spring” was the ANS Name of the Year. In 2010 “Eyafjallajökull” was chosen. In 2009 it was “Salish Sea”, and in 2008 “Barack Hussein Obama” was the winner.

For more information on ANS or the Name of the Year vote, contact Cleveland Evans at Cleveland.evans@bellevue.edu, or 402-210-7458.