Tuesday, November 23, 2004

In a name

Between killing off wives, Henry VIII decreed that all his subjects should take surnames. Francis of France made a similar decree. Surnames became a necessity for 16th century rulers in order to keep track of their increasingly-mobile subjects; and since then, of course, we've become ever more numerous and mobile, and our governments still figure it's best to keep track of who is who. Even first and last names together are sometimes ambiguous now -- I know of at least two other people with whom I share first and last names, though I don't think I share a middle initial with either of them. Still, in most circumstances giving a full name is sufficient to establish oneself unambiguously.

In elementary and middle school, I usually went by Dave (or Dave B. in the case when my first name alone was ambiguous -- as it usually was). Around the end of middle school or the beginning of high school, I began to be called by my last name. My martial arts instructor called me Mr. Bindel, partly because he was particular about etiquette, and partly because there were several of us named Dave. When my brother Scott joined the class, he added big and little to Mr. Bindel; I've forgotten how he handled the few times when he saw us with our father. By the end of high school, I was Dave or Bindel or (in martial arts class) Mr. Bindel; and more rarely I was David. But I would answer to any of those names.

A curious thing happened while I was an undergraduate. I started meeting or interacting with people through e-mail and electronic newsgroups -- mostly those for my computer science coursework -- before I'd had much (if any) face-to-face interaction. I sign my name David, and so that's how I came to be addressed by those people, even when we actually met. By the end of college, I was David or Bindel, except for a few friends and acquaintances, mostly people I'd known from high school or the first two years as an undergraduate, who called me Dave.

And now? I answer to my first name, my last name, my nickname, or any reasonable superposition of the three, but I seem to be called Dave a lot less than I once was. It's interesting, though, to note who calls me by which name. I wonder, sometimes, whether the people who say different names would have different averaged perceptions of me -- though putting meaningful numbers to perceptions is beyond me, and taking statistics of such numbers is perhaps better left to pollsters, cognitive psychologists, astrologists, or people who fall into some combination of those categories. It's all the same person, but the different names do go with different activities. It was Mr. Bindel who stood on one good ankle and wondered why he was letting someone attack him with a knife; it was Bindel who caused much hilarity by explaining the idea of a differentiable manifold to his flatmate (So I asked Bindel what a manifold was yesterday... / And I'll bet he told you!); and the guy who walked a mile (more?) with a red office chair on his head was definitely just Dave.

If I have other nicknames, it's probably just as well that I don't know them.

  • Currently drinking: Hot water, lime, and honey