What is a legitimate name?

Some more thoughts on the identity issue…

I’ve heard a lot of people mix two terms together interchangeably: “real” name, “legitimate” name. I think the etymology of the word “legitimate” is interesting. It stems from “legitimare”, or “to make legal.” Another word which stems from this is “legislate”, and all these words, to me, have specific meanings, all joined by one very specific and powerful word: “law.”

The other interesting facet of this is the multiple natures of law: you have written law, the spirit of the law, and interpretations of the law. Following the written law, or the “letter of the law”, carries an implication that you must conform to what the words mean. In a sense, it’s a legal version of a religious fundamentalist. The spirit of the law involves someone who might not be completely in line with what the law demands, but is trying to do what they think is “the right thing.” A common example is a man who runs a red light to get his wife to the emergency room. Interpretations of the law, also known as case law, demonstrate an attempt to retain the grip of the law while both respecting changes in societal standards, as well as changes in the meanings of words themselves.

Given that we have these multiple natures which constitute the structures of law, it seems that the meaning of the word “legitimate” also has multiple natures. Most people I have asked about this to suggest that a “legitimate” name is one that seems real, or is similar to names they already know. To me, this suggests an element of familiarity, which begs yet another question: how do we establish what names are familiar? One could extend this and ask what words are names, and what words not? We build up a lexicon of this over time, and it varies based on cultures.

For example, someone who grew up in Germany probably has a different sense of what is a “real” name than someone who grew up in Russia, or someone who grew up in a America. And yet, there are patterns within these names that help us identify them to which culture they are from, which semi-legitimizes them. For example, names ending with a “v” such as “Rostov” or “Kruschev” sound to me like they are Russian or Eastern-European. This is a pattern I learned somehow, and a pattern other people seem to also be familiar with. So where do these patterns come from?

There is a phenomenological branch of this, where we could look at the sounds of words and their relations over time, which probably starts to answer the question. Also consider that I might hear a name pronounced in a different accent, and thus recognize the name, but also recognize it is spoken in a different tongue than I am used to. I may consider this less legitimate, possibly because I view the foreign accent as a lower class than my own? To those who contest this, think of the relief in getting an American tech support agent after talking with 5 Indians ones who barely speak English. I’m not saying it’s justified, I’m simply saying it is there.

I think now of the contrast between known and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar. When you look at something and recognize it, it touches on the known and familiar instincts, which I suspect we might equate to a sense of good, safe, etc. The unknown and uncertain brings risk, which raises the fearful question “how do I know what is real?” The unknown elements remove structures we can grab onto, whereas something recognizable and familiar allows us to have a sort of emotional grounding. It is similar to the fear (for example) of starting a new job and not knowing anyone; as the days go by, you start learning peoples traits, the layout of the office, etc, and things become more familiar.

I sense that similar instincts arise when we’re used to hearing people called by a set of names (Tom, Dick, Joe, Harry, Sarah, etc) and we hear or see a name that isn’t in that lexicon. Do we automatically become suspicious, just as a small town views a newcomer with untrusting eyes until he proves himself? And now I start to realize why it is so hard to codify this into computer systems…

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