“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? 

The Names Conference (and thereafter)

I’m very happy to report that our Canadian Society for the Study of Names conference was a terrific time!  From the accounts I heard, people were pleased to take part. And the quality and range of papers was impressive.

Our first day, Saturday June 1st, focussed on toponyms (place names), and then on Sunday, the 2nd, we shifted our focus to anthroponyms (people’s names) including nicknames and literary charcters’ names. The conference’s guest speakers, Reuben Rose-Redwood and Lawrence Berg gave terrific talks that connected with our members’ interests. Organized around some of my tweets from the presentations– these are a few highlights of what was happening at the podium.

Fascinating presentation by Helen Kerfoot on UN efforts since 1960 to standardize place names. “China adds 20,000 urban place names annually… UNGEGN efforts ongoing” -Kerfoot 

Since 1987, Helen Kerfoot (an Emeritus Scientist with Natural Resources Canada) has been involved with The United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN).  Dependent on politics, resources, heritage recognition, urban development, and technologies including social media, the Group’s challenges have shifted over time. In her presentation, Kerfoot responds in part to these questions: Do the goals of standardization remain as before?  (Partially.) Will the work of UNGEGN ever be finished? (Maybe not.)

“‘Sympathetic pronunciations’ of place names demonstrate your politics” -Lawrence Berg

Dr. Lawrence Berg (UBC) spoke about place names in New Zealand/Aotearoa. Some people call locations by their Māori names, while others use English terms, and in between these are uses of Māori place names with and without traditional Māori pronunciation. Berg’s phrase, “sympathetic pronunciations” is his description of efforts at using traditional pronunciation of Māori place names. “Sympathetic pronunciations” is beneficial to me as I think and write about peoples’ names, and the effort we do or don’t make to correctly pronounce them. (Because, if someone is important, we pronounce their name as they do, right?) The term also caused me to think about an aspect of living in Montreal– that sometimes place names need to be spoken a few times, especially between anglophones and francophones, to be sure we’re talking about the same location.  According to Berg, when an effort is made to pronounce place names in accordance with founding cultures, it is a demonstration of political alignment that recognizes and supports the rights of founding cultures to live in a place peaceably, equally.

Following Dr. Berg’s presentation, it was great to have Dr. Philip Matthews in the audience, as his work on place names in New Zealand and more broadly, exonyms, is insightful and continuing.

(Exonyms are the place name or group names used outside of the culture where a place/group exists: e.g. English-speakers say “Korea,” but Koreans say Hanguk or Choson.  Likewise, Koreans only call themselves “Korean” when they are outside of Korea, or in Korea but speaking English. Both “Korea” and “Korean” are exonyms. Endonyms, by contrast, are the words people use to refer to ourselves in our own culture/language.)

“People who emigrate from India and shift their names to an upper class are ‘moonlighting’ in that class” -Sheila Embleton

Dr. Sheila Embleton (York University) gave a fascinating overview of names and name use tensions in India, focussing on regional, religious and caste differences. Besides providing a survey of names in use in India, she mentioned their uses in other regions. For example, to describe immigration-related name shifts, Dr. Embleton shared the phrase “moonlighting” which in India is used to describe what some people are doing when they change their names to reflect a higher caste as they emigrate.

Rudenka presents on few uses of “freedom” “independence” and “liberty” in Belarus place names vs. numerous examples in USA  “You can say sugar many times, but what is in your mouth does not become sweeter” -Alena Rudenka translates a Belarusian saying

I really loved Dr. Alena Rudenka’s talk!  Dr. Rudenka is a Fulbright scholar from Belarus who is currently working at Eastern Washington University with Dr. Grant Smith.  As context, she undertook this wonderful etymological tracing of the word freedom in English, Russian and Belrusian to link freedom to friendship and how the original meaning of friendship and society is about our ability to move freely.  Next, she noted the number of times the words freedom, liberty and independence are used to name places in the USA (many, many times for each!) vs. their frequency in Belarus (limited) and pointed to cultural differences between how language is used.  In Belarusian, what is most important is held sacred and not spoken, versus the US, perhaps North America more broadly, where we may attempt to make things happen with words– here, we hope that naming something a certain way makes it so.  Are we, in North America, more free because many of our places are named freedom?  That’s where this phrase of Dr. Rudenka’s rings particularly true: “You can say sugar many times, but what is in your mouth does not become sweeter.”

Rose-Redwood on selling name rights to public places: the name of Winnipeg’s City Hall is not for sale, but its parking lot’s is. Rose-Redwood adds that the naming rights for Winnipeg’s police helicopter are for sale.

parking lotIn my last post I was really looking forward to Dr. Reuben Rose-Redwood’s (UVic) presentation, and he did not disappoint!  Initially, Dr. Rose-Redwood spoke in general terms about municipalities selling rights to city property: this strategy is increasing in some cities, as less funding is being received from federal and provincial bodies.  He then focussed on a research site, the “Sponsor Winnipeg” program, which includes an itemized list of objects, buildings, and services to which your name can attached.

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Included are the parking lot at City Hall, library bags for people borrowing books, and even the police helicopter. Scrolling through the list of potential sponsorship opportunities is somewhat sad– it appears that the city needs a financial boost. But findings from Rose-Redwood’s project suggest that this is not the best way to gain an influx of capital: the city doesn’t actually generate that much revenue from this program (as most naming right sales are a one-time purchase) and the city’s executive members seem to have mixed feelings about the program.

For me, a significant problem with selling toponymic rights is that it blurs honorific naming (based on merit) with naming rights that were purchased.  It may be clear to us right now what has been named as an honour versus what has been sold, but in the future, when the name bearers are long buried, these distinctions will be less obvious. Plus, it’s another example of capitalism’s creep: the loss of commonly held goods to a wealthy few, even if only in name.  (But I already said most of this in my previous post.)

On a related noted, one of many great things about being in Victoria was learning about the recent name reclamation of a local landmark. The mountain formally called Douglas was reclaimed as “PKOLS” by the local Coast Salish people. Read more about it here. (Thanks to Sherwin Arnott for the heads up about this one.)

All in all, these throught-provoking presentations have me feeling optimistic about the future of names studies in Canada. But some conference-organizing concerns did arise. First, three names scholars from Nigeria were unable to take part in the conference because the Canadian High Commission refused their visas in the week prior to the conference.  As well, our society functions in a bilingual capacity, but it seems to me that much of the onus to work in a second language falls on the francophones.  (A good reason for me to work on my French!)

Over and out from this tweeter of names,

Diane Dechief  Diane Dechief ‏@nomencultured

p.s. In a future post, I’ll write about my own conference presentation. And the great debate/discussion a few of us Sunday presenters got into.  It was pretty heady stuff!

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.

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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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Canadian Society for the Study of Names: Conference Program

In just two weeks the Canadian Society for the Study of Names / Société canadienne d’onomastique will meet at Congress in Victoria, BC for our annual meeting.  We’re pleased to have intriguing and diverse presentations from our members, as well as two invited speakers.

Coming to know the politics of naming (places)
Dr. Lawrence D. Berg

This paper presents a spatial autobiographical account of the author’s own development of a critical understanding of place naming processes.  I use this spatial autobiography as a way to outline the rise of critical place-name studies in the discipline of Geography.  In addition, my presentation will draw on a number of empirical case studies of the politics of naming places in Aotearoa/New Zealand in order to illustrate key aspects of critical place name studies.

Biography: Lawrence D. Berg is full Professor of Critical Geography and Co-Director of the UBC Centre for Social, Spatial and Economic Justice, located at the Okanagan Campus of UBC in Kelowna, British Columbia.  Lawrence’s research focuses on issues of place and the politics of identity, and he has more than 80 publications on topics ranging from the cultural politics of healthcare for urban Aboriginal people to white supremacy in academia.  Lawrence is part of a group of scholars that first started research and writing about critical perspectives on the politics of naming places in the early to mid-1990s.  Along with Jani Vuolteenaho (University of Helsiki), he is editor of Critical Toponymies: The Contested Politics of Place Naming (Ashgate, 2009).

Private Names for Public Places? Naming Rights and Toponymic Activism
Dr. Reuben Rose-Redwood

 In the current age of neoliberal governance and entrepreneurial urbanism, the naming of places is increasingly being framed by policymakers in cities around the world strictly as a matter of economic calculation with the naming rights for public places being sold to corporate sponsors and wealthy elites. Very few scholars, however, have critically examined the historical emergence and geographical diffusion of municipal naming rights policies and practices. This presentation offers a preliminary assessment of the geographies of naming rights in Canadian cities as well as grassroots efforts to resist the commodification of public place names. Based upon an ongoing research project, the aim of this study is to examine the political strategies, economic outcomes, and cultural reception of naming rights policies in different cities across North America. With a particular focus on the implementation of the Sponsor Winnipeg program and activism against the City of Victoria’s proposed naming rights policy, this talk calls for a renewed commitment to “toponymic activism” that moves beyond arm-chair toponymy by demanding that our elected officials resist the short-sighted policy of privatizing the symbolic identities of public places.

 Biography: Reuben Rose-Redwood is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Victoria. His research explores the cultural politics of place naming, commemorative landscapes, and the historical geography of cities. He is currently an Editorial Board member for the journal, Cartographica, and has published works on various topics in leading scholarly journals including the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Social & Cultural Geography, The Professional Geographer, the Geographical Review, ACME, Cartographica, and Urban History. His research has also been featured in the New York Times, Atlantic magazine, and Canadian Geographic as well as on the Discovery Channel, History Channel, and BBC World Service Newshour.

Full Conference Program

Conference Program

Every day, these opportunities…

Something kind of strange about writing a dissertation on names is that nearly every social interaction reveals an opportunity to discuss or observe some aspect of name use.

Frequently, I’m grateful: when people ask what my dissertation is about it’s not so hard to offer an explanation that is meaningful to them, one that they can relate to and build on as we continue our conversation.

Often, it’s really fruitful: friends share personal stories about their names that allow me to confirm or to reconsider my understandings to date. Or I observe a social interaction to the same end.

Occasionally people have shared research leads such as finding a participant for my study, or letting me know that the Provincial Gazette publishes formal name changes.

And once, just once(!), I was privy to this:

While flying from Montreal to Vancouver Island, I stopped over in Vancouver. We island-bound passengers sat in cramped quarters, maybe meant to prepare us for the tininess of the plane that would deliver us over the Straight of Georgia. Sitting too close to two women, I could hear their every word.

Passenger 1:  You know, I haven’t seen you for years. I’m so glad we had this chance to catch up.

Passenger 2:  Me, too! Definitely. I mean, I don’t think I’d even seen you since you changed your name.

Passenger 1:  Really? It’s been that long?!

Passenger 2:  Yeah, I’d heard about it, but I hadn’t seen you.

Passenger 1:  Yeah, I guess that makes sense.  But doesn’t it suit me so much better?

Passenger 2:  Yeah, for sure.  It’s just… so much more you.

Passenger 1:  I know!  Feral, well, it  just really suits me.

Passenger 2:  Agreed! You just seem so much happier now, as Feral.  I really can’t believe that your parents ever gave you that other name.

Passenger 1:  I know.  Growing up like that… it was really the worst.

Passenger 2:  It’s unbelievable that your parents ever thought you were a Diane.

[Maybe it’s spelled Ferrell.  And maybe, Dianne?]

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.