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08 December 2003

Personal names tabooed

Unable to discriminate clearly between words and things, the savage [sic] commonly fancies that the link between a name and the person or thing denominated by it is not a mere arbitrary and ideal association, but a real and substantial bond which unites the two in such a way that magic may be wrought on a man just as easily through his name as through his hair, his nails, or any other material part of his person...

Many savages at the present day regard their names as vital parts of themselves, and therefore take great pains to conceal their real names, lest these should give to evil-disposed persons a handle by which to injure their owners...

Amongst the tribes of Central Australia every man, woman and child has, besides a personal name which is in common use, a secret or sacred name which is bestowed by the older men upon him or her soon after birth, and which is known to none but the fully initiated members of the group. The secret name is never mentioned except upon the most solemn occasions; to utter it in the hearing of women or of men of another group would be a most serious breach of tribal custom, as serious as the most flagrant case of sacrilege among ourselves. When mentioned at all, the name is spoken only in a whisper, and not until the most elaborate precautions have been taken...

From James Frazer's The Golden Bough (originally published in 1922)

The reporting of identity theft frequently refers to an unspecified non-financial or emotional harm, and victims often talk of feelings of personal violation. I can't help but think that this relates in some way to a persistent taboo on names.

Posted at 11:59 PM in Naming | Permalink

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Comments

I was just typing an email to someone I didn't know and this post made me reflect on the fact that I usually start that kind of email with the sentence:

"Hello Y, I got your name from X in connection with Z"

if you see what I mean. I you forgive a little pretention... I make sure to detail the name-giving ritual and the power I hope that invokes.

So - social network apps like Friendster, Tribe and LinkedIn start to really confuse this - while encoding the ritual (they all have their 'make and introduction' functionality) - they make it easy to discover names, links and power.

Sorry - little muddled, but hopefully you know what i mean.


Posted by: Matt at 9 Dec 2003 11:27:23