My Name. Your Name. Do They Matter?

10 Aug

Recently, Cathie and I were watching Night Train to Munich, a 1940 stiff-upper-lip, wise-cracking English thriller starring Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, and Paul Henreid. Cathie remarked when Henreid appeared in the film that she did not remember his name from the opening credits. Neither had I.

Yet, there he was: the immortal Victor Laszlo, Humphrey Bogart’s competition for Ingrid Bergman’s attention in Casablanca. The one and only suave Paul Henreid. Only he was not Paul Henreid in the credits. He was Paul von Hernreid. Two years later, in his greatest role ever, he had dropped the von and an r from his name. And in that time the Austrian actor (SPOILER ALERT!!) went from playing an evil Nazi to personifying an anti-Nazi. Interesting bit of movie trivia, no?

But, amazingly, over Netflix later the same day we streamed Panic in the Streets, the 1950 Richard Widmark disaster movie about preventing a viral epidemic, a precursor to Dustin Hoffman’s Outbreak, but without his character’s marital mishaps. Maybe because we had been primed by Night Train to Munich we both saw that one of the film’s co-stars was Walter Jack Palance, an up and coming movie villain, and, yes, the same Jack Palance (sans Walter) who demonstrated one-handed pushups at the Oscars some years ago.

Even after they had made it to the big screen both Henreid and Palance felt comfortable enough to pare down their names. (Paul von Hernreid had already come a long way from his given name of Paul Hernreid Ritter von Wasel-Waldingau.) In those days it was just their names, today consultants would fret about sullying the actor’s brand. But it didn’t matter then, and it really doesn’t matter now. Names are as permanent as clouds.

In theory, though, a person’s name should be permanent. It’s the ultimate representation of who we are. But, in reality, it’s one of the most fungible aspects of our identity. Think about it. A child is born. The parents give it a name. You’d think that would be it. Baby = Name.

But that’s not the case. Often the infant gets a nickname that carries through life, or a diminutive is used instead of their full first name. Maybe Randolph becomes Red. Or Catherine shortens to Cathie.

Then more names can be tacked on. Kids always give other kids nicknames when they’re growing up. Sometimes they stick. Sometimes they don’t. For a while I was called “Colonel” because a coat I received as a Christmas gift had epaulets. When I got rid of the coat, I lost the nickname.

Society even has formal processes to alter your name. Raised a Catholic, at my confirmation ceremony as with millions of other kids, I picked a name that was inserted between my middle name and my family name. I actually used it once officially. My full four names are emblazoned on my 1974 diploma from the University of California Santa Barbara, not far from Governor Ronald (“Ronnie” or “Dutch”) Reagan’s faux signature.

Among my friends I can’t count how many use professional appellations and then have different names that family and old buddies call them. I’ve also stopped keeping track of friends who have asked everyone they grew up with to change what they were called to something else; usually it’s the dropping of the old diminutive to the full and proper name mom and dad originally bequeathed: Rick to Frederick. Betty to Elizabeth. Randy to Randall. That sort of thing.

Not long ago I added my middle name to bylines and other identifying material. For decades I was just “Mark Hall” professionally and personally. But, as I pointed out a few years ago, it’s not always been easy using such a short, boring name. So I’ve changed it. Again.

After all, it’s just my name. I’ll probably have another one in a few years.


5 Responses to “My Name. Your Name. Do They Matter?”

  1. Ken G. August 11, 2010 at 9:25 am #

    Interesting that actors shorten their names while others (Rick, Betty, and Mark Hall) lengthen theirs. I wonder what the pattern is.

    • Mark Everett Hall August 11, 2010 at 10:45 am #

      Ken–Actors want short, pithy names people will remember. People want long names that they think will be distinctive. A theory.

  2. Mark Everett Hall August 11, 2010 at 10:13 am #

    Love your essay, Shefaly. Almost 3 years to the day ahead of mine. 😉


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