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.

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.

Passover Seder Plate, 2012

I don’t even know how to appropriately wish my friends well on these days. I feel weird about this—not 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.

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.

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 screens—how 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?

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.

Seeing names…


I didn’t know these women, but I want to I remember them. 

This week marked twenty-three years of remembering a tragedy: in 1989, on December 6, a young man took a gun and a knife and went on a woman-targeted shooting spree at the École Polytechnique, here in Montreal.  The fourteen women named above were killed, fourteen more people were injured, and our nation was scarred.  The perpetrator was aiming at women because, as he wrote in his suicide note, he hated feminists, and more generally, women who worked in fields traditionally held by men. 

When this shooting took place, I was a girl with aspirations of going to university, and it seemed to me very scary and sad that young women in a university might be killed just because of what they chose to study.  A seed of fear was established: I could be selected as the target of violence because of my gender.  Especially if I chose to do things seen as challenging it.

Events to commemorate this tragedy have kept me aware of it, at least annually, but this year several people, on the part of Facebook that I see, created an image that has the “Montreal Massacre” affecting me more this year than ever before.  What my Facebook friends did is this: they created lists of the names of each woman who died that day. 


There has been a movement in recent years to name victims rather than perpetrators, to move the focus over to maintaining memories of the lives that were lost.  While I’ve liked this trend in concept, it has never previously had a strong effect on me.  But this year, seeing all of these names togetherin what has become a familiar online space—has been so effective. 


Some posts were detailed, containing the women’s young ages, or their fields of study; other notes were simply a list of names.  It appears to me that no two of my friends just cut and pasted the names from the same location.  Each person used slightly different spacing or punctuation, and with those seemingly minor formatting techniques, they thoughtfully curated each alphabetized list.  I imagine these friends, at their computers, pausing, and with a quiet breath out, wishing that each woman’s fate had been much different.


Whether or not these imagined efforts actually went into the posts isn’t really the point; rather it’s that a set of names together, particularly in these memorializing circumstances, has such a strong visual effect.  It’s not just a reading of some letters that add up to names; there’s an overall significance to this imagea visual yet textual representation of humans—one that only names can create.  As another example, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is particularly compelling in a similar way: designed by Maya Lin, large slabs of polished black stone have been inscribed with nearly 60,000 names of veterans.  As you walk along this wall, the sheen of the stone reflects your image onto the names; the names are on you and you can’t shake them off.  


Seeing the names of the victims of those violent acts on December 6th, 1989, brought my class lists to mind.  I teach communication courses to undergraduate engineering students at McGill, and semester after semester, I note how few women study engineering.  In my current classes of twenty-five students, generally, only two or three of those students are women.  So few!

Seeing the names of these women, who never got to carry on with their careers, has me thinking about what smart and tough young women they must have been.  If circumstances had been different, today these women would likely be established in their fields, and mentoring and leading younger women, like my students, to work in a field that isn’t easy by any stretch, but especially not as a woman.

What is it that you see in this list of names?

Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

Why is a black man driving Joel Debellefeuille’s car!?


In Longueil, across the shore to the south of Montreal, a situation something like this unfolded in July of 2009…

A man is driving to get ice cream in a new black BMW. A police officer notices the car (it’s sleek! it’s hard not to!), and runs the license plate through his database. He sees that the name the car is registered to is that of Joel Debellefeuille.  He also sees that the driver is black.  Even though he doesn’t know Joel Debellefeuille, the office wonders, “Why is a black man driving Joel Debellefeuille’s car?!”  So, he turns on his siren, and for the fourth time in ten days, the man driving the new BMW is stopped by a police officer.  Frustrated, the driver refuses to produce his identification and he is charged with failure to do so, plus another minor infraction.

If you’ve been following this story, you’ll already know that the driver is Joel Debellefeuille.  And that he’s black and he owns a really nice car (both the man and the car are pictured above.)

You may also know that the case isn’t as “simple” as that of racial profiling: Mr. Debellefeuille wasn’t stopped just because he was a black man driving an expensive car.  (It’s not quite the same as when Henry Louis Gates Jr., also black, and a Harvard professor, was detained for what appeared to police to be  break-and-entry into a Cambridge, Massachusetts home, which turned out to be Dr. Gates’ own home: that was pure racial profiling.) 

Apparently in Debellefeuille’s case if, when the plate was run, it had been registered to someone with a “black-sounding” name, he wouldn’t have been stopped. But, what makes a name sound black, and what makes one sound Quebecois? Is a Quebecois name always French-sounding? Honestly, I’m not enough part of mainstream Quebecois society to know how common the surname Debellefeuille (or de Bellefeuille) is, or how most residents of Quebec would associate it. I’m guessing it’s not as common as Tremblay, but that it occurs.  And I’m also not sure how names sound “black” in Quebec. (Though the authors of this study have a sense for Boston and Chicago.) There are a number of Quebec residents of Haitian origin in Montreal, so maybe the police officers expected a Haitian-origin name? Or an African-sounding name, if one can generalize that there is such a thing as a name-type common to a whole continent?  Whatever the thought process, the officer(s) wrote at the top of the report that the driver was a black man with a “Quebecois name.”

In his defense, one constable stated that name incongruities are a basis for pulling drivers over (from the CBC website.): 

“If I run the plate and it comes back ‘Mr. Jack’ and it’s a woman driving, you know for sure she’s not the owner. That means I’ll stop her…. If I have an ‘Ebrahim’ and it’s a white man, a Quebecer who’s driving, yes. Or if it’s an Arab who’s driving and it comes back ‘Dubuc,’ ya I’m going to stop him and check.”

This scenario, which began more than three years ago, was in the news this week because in a Longueil municipal re-trial (ordered by the Quebec Supreme Court), Judge Tremblay(!) acquitted Debellefeuille and apparently chastised the officers involved.  In his decision, Judge Tremblay states, “The fact of falsely or ignorantly believing that the family name ‘Debellefeuille’ can’t be the surname of someone with black skin can only show a flagrant lack of knowledge about Quebec society.” And Fo Niemi, at the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, contextualizes the ruling in this way: “We’ve never seen a municipal court judge going this far in reviewing the state of Canadian jurisprudence and Canadian case law on racial discrimination, racial profiling.” (Quotes from the CBC website.) In these ways, and for Debellefeuille, the ruling is a victory.

Of course, I’m completely pleased with Judge Tremblay’s decision, but I don’t think the police officer’s mistake is that of a fool; rather, this is a common oversight in a culture that reads too much into names, often discriminating based on them, just as we do when we racialize people.

If a surname is the basis of a judgment, then that name is being relied on too heavily as an indicator of information about its bearer.  Part of the beauty of a name is that it is not a regular word: we can’t look up its definition in a dictionary once, and then expect it to mean the same thing every time.

Whatshisname: Why people’s names matter in news reports


This week, following the deaths of 76 people in Norway during two attacks made by the same individual, many news and opinion pieces are being written to contextualize and to offer ways of understanding what has happened. My post is a comment on one such op-ed, and I focus on common journalistic and news consumption practices related to personal names.

As I read this op-ed from the Globe & Mail, I was struck by the substitution of “the Norwegian terrorist’s” name, with the term “whatshisname.” It was intentional and it was interesting, not just for the reason the author intended.

Put briefly, the author’s message is that it’s time to stop giving this lunatic any more attention by using his name, though that argument got a bit muddled when the article went on to list the names of many other perpetrators of comparable violence.

What was interesting to me– as someone who studies personal names and particularly how we make sense of each other’s names– is that it made me want to see the subject’s name again. I’d looked at whatshisname’s name closely on Saturday when I first read the Globe & Mail’s coverage about the attacks in Norway, because I was I was trying to make sense of who this person was…

His name is Anders Behring Breivik, and before photos of him were available, news reports described him as an “ethnic Norwegian” as a way of explaining that he is Norwegian through and through, or Norwegian as we might imagine a native Norwegian to be (i.e., stereotypically blond-haired and blue-eyed). He was described this way to ensure he wasn’t thought to be someone whose family had migrated to Norway or a racialized citizen of Norway.  

This type of clarification might not have been necessary in Norway’s own press, where people are familiar with a variety of names of Norwegian citizens, so they could likely see his name’s significance immediately. In the Canadian media, (the Globe and Mail and the CBC being the messengers I am most familiar with), we often read descriptors of people’s citizenships and ethnicities so we can make sense of these details even if they have no bearing on the news story. They are used to explain the name: to give us confidence in our interpretation of a name, or to correct false assumptions. If name changes have been made they are generally reported, as well.

So, what to make of the reporting practice of noting individual’s ethnicities? I think it requires further investigation. For example, how has it changed over time, especially through the past twenty years as Canada’s population demographic has become much more ethnically diverse due to increased immigration? What exactly are our news media policies about reporting ethnicity and citizenship? Most significantly, are ethnicities and nationalities consistently reported?  

The descriptors that are included along with names do allow us to make make more precise classifications, and the name itself has less work to do in our quotidian classifications as we make sense of the world. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing. However, descriptors of ethnicity, citizenship, and even religion may also allow us to make shortcuts in understanding people’s circumstances and motivations, and to fall back to stereotypes that have worked for us before. That could–and often does–have negative consequences. But maybe we’d be making assumption based on names just as quickly if the descriptors weren’t present.

That this op-ed didn’t use a name might not work for the purposes its author intended, but it does give the reader pause to consider how rarely it happens that we aren’t given a name to read in terms of ethnicity, and potentially religion or nationality, to help us make sense of a news report. 

As the story of the tragedy in Norway has evolved, we’ve understood that names, ethnicities, and classifications based on them, do in fact play a role in what transpired. But clearly Breivik’s motivations lie with him as an individual, and have little to do with the descriptors that could go along with his name.