Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Naming rites

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Naming rites

Saturday, March 3, 2012

I recently had the opportunity to be part of a program in which James Carroll was the guest speaker. It was my honor and pleasure to introduce him. Because he is a friend, I call him Jim. Because he is a respected public figure, people around me who do not know him personally referred to him uneasily as ... James or ...JamesCarroll. At one point in my intro I decided to refer to him as Mr. Carroll, just to try to make it easier for people to be able to call him that if it seems comfortable for them.

Calling someone Mr. seems so startling that it’s hard to figure out if it’s reactionary or revolutionary. It feels a little odd because we’re so used to first-naming everyone we meet as soon as we meet them. And we use not simply first names, but casual familiar names, just to show how casual and familiar we all are. We have Presidential candidates named Rick and Ron and Newt. (Mitt is actually Willard’s middle name--not Mitten as many people reportedly believe. And the “Willard” part is apparently for a close family friend, J. Willard Marriott, once again underscoring his “man of the people” cred.) Lucky the George, John and Barack, Michelle and Hilary whose names don’t don’t get nicked.

In the late 18th century the French Revolution brought us the leveling “citizen.” The 1960s took informality further. The Dear Sir or Madam letter to someone you didn’t know suddenly sounded bizarre. Children were calling adults by first names. Goodbye Mr. and Mrs., hello Everyone. Hello (insert first name here) for just about everybody but the Duchess of Grantham.

Of course when a title is involved you can retreat to calling someone duchess or doctor or senator. There are still, after all, times when we need a more formal model of name-calling. That’s evident when you get a letter that falls somewhere short of personal and the salutation is, “Dear Ellen Steinbaum.” Or when, as in the situation around James Carroll, you want to address someone in a way that indicates respect and a little distance.

Maybe that’s part of the problem. Especially in a time when we can call almost anyone “friend” even if it’s just in a limited Facebook sort of way, there’s an illusion of closeness that deep down, we know just doesn’t always work.

The other day my rabbi Elaine (yes, first name, but an earned and comfortable one) was talking about the story of Moses first speaking to God in the burning bush moment and basically asking, “What shall I call you?” The power of the name, the foundation of all relationships. When we use someone’s first name, it seems to our 21st century ears friendly, democratic, open. What’s closed off, though, is the possibility of calibrating to suit the specific situation. There are still people you feel respectful of. And I imagine there must have been pleasure in being granted the right to “call me Tom.” We grab that right for ourselves now and never think of using Mr. or Ms. with someone we are being introduced to. Awkward moments are created, but for the most part, it’s fine. It’s the way we live.

But now that everyone is Everyone, we don’t always know what to call anyone.

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