Friday, July 31, 2009


It’s my third birthday, and we’re having a party in the courtyard of our apartment building. There is a cake. My parents tell me that it says “Happy Birthday, Karin.”

Karin, I think. That’s my name.

I once told my mother that I remember learning my name on my third birthday. “No,” she said, “That can’t be right. You knew it much earlier than that.”

Of course I did, I thought. That’s why I felt that strong wave of recognition when I heard it, a rush of new understanding. This group of sounds that I’ve been hearing for so long—it refers to me. It isn’t just any word. It is my word, my designated set of sounds and letters.

I suppose my memory wasn’t of learning my name, but of learning what it was to have a name. Out of all the types of words, names most pointedly symbolize the arbitrary nature of language, particularly first names. One of the basic rules of language is that words are meaningful because a community agrees upon a meaning. The choice of the word is arbitrary but customary. Even though the word chair has no inherent connection to the concept or material reality of a chair, and so is arbitrary in that sense, I still can’t just decide to call a chair a rocket ship or an air-chay if I want to be understood.

Names are different. Every person has a name that was given to them at some point, usually at birth, and that everyone else has to use to refer to that person. We can’t even refer to the person until we discover his or her name, so we have to learn new vocabulary every time we meet somebody. Naming children is one of the only opportunities we have for creating our own reference and imposing it upon the rest of the world, rather than accepting the set of words given to us by our language and culture.

Names are also different from other words because they are meant to have a unique referent; names refer to individual people, not types of people (such as doctor or diabetic). Most types of words refer to classes of things. Linguists like to use chair as an example, presumably because there is no inherent quality that makes something a chair other than that people think it is a chair (unlike a cat, which can be identified as a cat based on its DNA). Something is a chair because it shares similar features with other chairs: it has a seat, and usually legs, and perhaps arms, and you can sit on it, and someone built it expressly to be sat upon, and it might be near some other chairs or a table.

Names work the opposite way. I am called Karin, but this does not imply any similarity with other Karins, although we sometimes pretend it does, saying things like, She seems like a Karin.
Even though I may seem like a Karin, that’s not how I got my name. Our parents just choose them, and they are free to pick anything they want. It’s sheer meaningless luck that christens us Karin, or Isabella, or Amber, or Moon Unit. Yet this arbitrary collection of syllables will be unproblematically correlated with our identity, in most cases for the rest of our lives.

Sometimes names are chosen based on a system. In many African countries, names are based on days of the week; my friend Kofi’s name indicates that he was born on a Friday. Even so, when people say Kofi, they are not referring to the category of men born on Fridays. No one says, My friend is a Kofi, or Kofis are such nice people. The name still has a unique reference to whichever Kofi the speaker meant to describe or address.

We use names as though they are unique, although they usually are not. When I say Kofi, I am only referring to one particular person named Kofi, although I am well aware that the name presumably has other referents, at least three that I know of and presumably tens or hundreds of thousands that I don’t.

If you are the frequent illustrator of this blog, Adam Caldwell, then you recognize that there is another artist and art teacher named Adam Caldwell living across the bay from you in San Jose. If you are my coworker, Michelle Gonzales, your files occasionally get scrambled up with those belonging to a student at our school by the same name. And if you are my high school friend Sarah Johnson, then there is someone with the same name as you right within your circle of friends, so that whenever someone says Sarah Johnson, someone else inquires, Which one?

There are many other Karins, but I am the only Karin Spirn in the entire world; at least, all evidence indicates this to be the case. My last name is so unusual that, until recently, I was under the impression that only documented members of my family shared it. This impression stems from a childhood memory. Long before internet research was an option, my grandmother ordered a book that promised to list everyone with our last name in the entire country. I was at her house when the book arrived. She opened it with excitement, only to find that she knew every single person listed in the book. “Oh, there’s Uncle David,” she would say, thumbing through the pages, “and there’s my cousin Florence,” as my aunt and uncle looked over her shoulder and nodded in recognition.

In a prescient effort to make sure that I would be maximally Googlable, my parents added to this rare last name the unconventional spelling of my first name, and, incidentally, an unusually spelled middle name as well.

Growing up, many of my closest friends had unusual last names, so it never seemed odd to me. One of my best friends and I still reminisce about the substitute P.E. teacher who read our names off the role sheet with disdain: “Spirn and Tashker,” he said. “What ever happened to the good old days when everybody was named Smith and Johnson?”

Now when I want to know what my friends with unique names are up to, I can type their names into search engines and generate a list of information pertaining specifically to them. If I want to know what Sarah Johnson—either one of them—is doing, I’m pretty much out of luck.

For those of us with unique (as far as we know) names, the illusion of our name being inherently connected to our identity is complete. I know that the word chair is not inherently connected to the concept or object of a chair, because if I go to France, it will be called a chaise, and if I go to Mexico it will be a silla. But when someone says Karin Spirn, I imagine that this name encompasses my identity and is synonymous with me. I would be highly disconcerted to discover another Karin Spirn, or even a Karen Spirn, out there in the world; she would have stolen my identity.

What would it be like, I wonder, to have the anonymity, or perhaps I should say the omninymity, of Sarah Johnson? I like to imagine that I would be less narcissistic, less convinced of my own uniqueness or specialness. That I would have a greater sense of my fundamental similarity with other people, people who shared not only emotions and experiences with me but even shared, in some linguistic sense, my identity.

It’s hard to say, though—I can’t really envision what it’s like to be anyone other than Karin Spirn.

Thanks to the inimitable Adam Hunter Caldwell for the illustration.


Jessica said...

Oooh! I got name checked! Of course, I want to be "Marie," but I'll accept "Tashker," too :-).

On another note, although I don't remember learning that my name referred uniquely to me, I had a similarly mind-blowing realization at the age of 8 when I suddenly that my brain was my own, and that people would always be fundamentally separated from other people via their unique and unsharable experiences. It was kind of a lonely moment, actually-- the thought that I (and everybody else) is fundamentally unknowable.

So: What would it be like if we didn't identify ourselves to others by our names (meaningless symbols), but by some kind of thought-packet containing all of our experiences, fears, thoughts, and desires? What if we could de-symbolize ourselves to others? And can we get closer to this exalted state by all having blogs?

Francisco Nieto Salazar said...

I was named "after" my father. francisco.

he claims it was my mom's idea.

I also remember having a coversation about Frank Zappa's children with you, looooong ago, when I learned that he "christened" them Moon Unit and Motorhead...if I'm not mistaken. You marveled at this even back then.

Karin Spirn said...

Jessica--I think all of us writing blogs is a good interim stopgap until they perfect the software that allows us to access other people's minds.

Speaking of blogs, I think you need your own.

Karin Spirn said...

Hey Francisco, that's funny you remember talking about Frank Zappa's kids--that topic has been on my mind for years. You forgot Dweezil, though.

Jessica said...

Dweezil is totally my favorite.

Anonymous said...

Talk about prescience: yesterday for the first time I did a Yahoo People Search for my first and last name and got four hits--two of them me, and two of them people with my name in Indiana and Georgia. And, yeah, I was a bit miffed that those other people were using my name, what with the unusual spelling of my first name and all.

And then today I read your blog entry about exactly that topic.

I don't think we need to wait for new mind-reading software, I think we just need to figure out how to use the stuff pre-installed in our heads!


Melinda said...

Karin, I'm so sad. i just spent like 10 minutes writing a reply that got erased. I'll try for a truncated version here.

Although my name sounds completely ordinary, I'm always surprised at how unusual it actually is. Just finding another Melinda is odd, but I think I'm the only Melinda Joe out there. Ironically, I hated my name when I was a kid b/c of how ordinary it sounded, but I hated my middle name for the opposite reason. And when I think about it, neither of my names really suit me. My first name sounds like an old lady and my middle name sounds like a large black woman.

I've gotten over it but what continues to kill me is that my family still calls me by my childhood nickname, which I despise. I'd thought that I'd disposed of it in the 6th grade but every time I visit S'port, I cringe when people who know my parents refer to me this way. Despite my efforts to come to a compromise on the issue, my family remains firm. They insist that it's their right. I think it's kind of a power struggle, really. Like they're holding on to their right to know me as they remember, as a child rather than an adult.

Last point, about your name not changing when you go abroad. It actually can, in a way. Here, if you're Chinese or Korean, they'll keep your Chinese characters but the pronunciation of your name will be Japanese, so if you're named Joe like me, they'd call you "Shuu." You just learn to respond to it, to this name that's yours but isn't.

Karin Spirn said...

I'm so sorry that your comment got deleted! This blog has been plagued by bugginess--I can't quite figure out why.

I'm really curious what your childhood nickname is--I will have to fly to Japan and get you drunk, except by the time you're drunk I'll be stone cold unconscious.

I have had power struggles with my family about my name; my mom once got mad at me for spelling it with an E when I was little. Do you remember that time Anna's mom went to a psychic who told her to change Anna's Chinese name--and so she kept calling her 20 year old daughter by a new name? Crazy.

Sophie Hardach said...

I love the scene with the book of names!
I can completely relate - I always thought there were eight Hardachs in the world and I knew them all. Then the Internet happened and half a dozen Hardachs contacted me from Argentina. I was thrilled (family in Argentina! Holidays on a ranch!) and a bit worried (Germans in Argentina...hope our shared ancestors weren't war criminals).

Anyway, as it turned out they were all of Syrian descent and just happened to spell their name the same way. So what do you say, does that still count as having the same surname?

Melinda, what's your middle name??

Karin Spirn said...

You know, my family is Jewish (in fact, my mysterious South American relatives were escaping the war criminals you were worried about being related to!), and my parents used to have this anti-German bias that they have since gotten over (thankfully). But when I was in high school, I wanted to study German and they wouldn't let me.

So I thought it was kind of funny when I found out from my wonderful German graduate student instructor that my name, Karin Susanne Spirn, is so typically German that she had assumed I was German when she saw my name on the roster.

And yes, I want to know Melinda's middle name, too!!! But it is of no use. That woman can keep a secret better than anyone I know. She's uncrackable.

Karin Spirn said...

Oh wait, what I really want to know is the childhood nickname. Out with it, Melinda!