What's in a name?

A happy thought for International Transgender Day of Visibility

Often when people conceptualise transgender people, there is a misery inherent to our identity. There is the everyday discrimination, gender dysphoria, the arduous road of transition, and the sort of identity crisis that occurs when we let go of one name and choose another. And while being transgender certainly can be all of that, it’s a pity that the joyous aspects are often forgotten, or disappear behind all the negative clouds that more desperately require society’s attention. For this International Transgender Day of Visibility, I want to talk about those happy things. I want to talk about names, introspection, and the mutability of people.

Sometimes I mention to people that I have chosen my own name. In response, people often look at me as though I had just uttered an impossibility. What? Why would you? How would you do that? Can you even do that? I find this a little funny because it’s the most normal thing for me, but a never-even-thought-about-that for the vast majority of people. Such an unlikely thing, in fact, that some people consequently ask me for my real name. A self-selected name cannot be a real name, right?

But I want to make a case for changing one’s name, even if you’re not trans.


Imagine Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. In your mind’s eye, you will likely picture him as he was introduced to you: “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

But that Scrooge—the Scrooge which everyone knows—is the man from the beginning of the novel. By the end of the novel, Scrooge has changed into a compassionate man who wishes joy to humanity and donates his money to the poor. And even though everyone knows the story, almost no one thinks “good” when they hear the name Scrooge.

I don’t really know why people can’t let go of the image of Scrooge. Maybe his awfulness was so strong that one can’t just forget about it. Maybe we haven’t spent enough time with the new Scrooge yet. Maybe his name simply sounds essentially hideous, and whatever he did to deserve his reputation doesn’t even matter.

Or maybe his name has become akin to a meme for stingy people, similar to today’s “Chad” for handsome, popular, probably not-so-smart men, or “Karen” for vile, selfish, bourgeois women (although that meme quickly devolved into a sexist term meaning “any woman I don’t like”, but whatever).

All names are memes

Ultimately, all names are memes. They evoke diverse feelings from their related clichés. The clichés can relate to country, region, language, age, gender, class, or any other arbitrary thing, and any combination thereof.

The fact that names are memes likely isn’t a great thing—all the above assumptions can be harmful in their own ways—but it’s also probably unavoidable. If most people with the name Thijs are Dutch men, then it follows that people are going to take note of this. And sometimes, someone becomes famous enough that they become the prime instance of their name: it’s difficult to imagine a Napoléon who isn’t the 19th-century leader of France.

More interestingly, though, we ourselves memeify our names through existence. If you’re the only person with a certain name inside of a community, then all members of that community will subconsciously base their associations with that name on you. You effectively become the prime instance of that name within your community.

Memes don’t change; people do

A trait of memes—certainly popular ones—is that they are incredibly well-polished. Like a Platonic Form, a meme embodies the essence of something very specific at the intersection of all of its instances. Because of this, memes very rarely change in their meanings. So what to do when an instance of the meme changes?

Although the journeys of trans people all wildly vary, I’ve yet to meet a trans person whose journey did not include an almost unbearable amount of introspection. A deep investigation of the self, not just as who you are, but who you want to be. And inevitably, you end up asking yourself this question: “If you could be anybody at all, who would you want to be?”

Invariably the answer is something along the lines of “myself, but different”. For trans people, this involves a change in gender presentation, and society mandates that people who present a certain gender should have a name that reflects that. So we choose our own name. With any luck, we choose a cool name.

But what if we extended that line of thinking? Going through a period of introspection and coming out of it a different person is not something that is entirely unique to trans people. We ultimately only get to occupy a single body in this life, so we might as well make that person resemble the kind of person we would really fancy being. So why not change your name? Get rid of the old meme, and start a new one.

Now, understandably, we cannot change into anybody at all. There are limits to our mutability, although those limits are often broader than our imagination. Furthermore, we may never become the perfect person we envision when we close our eyes. And that’s okay, but we can get a little closer. And for me, the awareness of the mutability of names excites the awareness of the mutability—and consequently the potential for improvement—of people.

Happy International Transgender Day of Visibility.

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