What’s in a Name?

Table of Contents

I don’t know whether everybody else does this too, but I have developed several rules of thumb to be relied upon whenever I meet someone new. One of these is: Never trust a person who can’t spell or pronounce their own name. 

So you can imagine my conflicting emotions when, in a local second-hand bookshop the other day, I came across a book called Living in the USA, revised by Jef C. Davis. Come on, man! Your first name is like my last name: it’s only got four letters! Why can’t you remember the last one? At least mine gets misspelled only by other people. 

Two Strikes

Actually, he gets two strikes against him. Another of my rules of thumb is: Never trust a person who insists on using their initials. Though I do give a pass to Americans with a first name that begins with J, because being called AJ, TJ, JJ, or whatever, seems to get thrust upon them whether they like it or not. 

But what is this American obsession with the middle initial? (I’ve had publications, for whom I’ve written, insist on including mine.) Is there a Jef A. Davis and a Jef B. Davis too, from whom poor old Jef C. wishes to be distinguished? 

Because the impression you’ve created for me, Jef C., old chum, is that I’m stuck with the C team. I really wanted Jef A. — actually, Jef A. can probably spell, so would surely be Jeff A. — but I’ve been lumbered with Jef C. instead. 

Alphabet Soup

I could never understand Jennifer Lopez apparently being happy to be called J–Lo either, by the way. (I know you wanted to know that.) That sounds so bad, it’s off the charts. (Sorry, Jennifer, but I’m only thinking of you. I am available if your PR needs a boost.) 

At least Alex Rodriguez was A–Rod, and Stephen A. Smith also uses the first letter of the alphabet. But, then again, Alex Rodriguez was a drug cheat and Stephen A. Smith seems incapable of doing anything other than shout, so I’ll stick to my view about those who insist on the use of their initials. 

Now you might be thinking that Jef C. really won’t care what I think. But his book purports to be the classic guide to surviving and thriving in the United States that is written for the newcomer. So he should care. Or, rather, he should have cared if I had come across this book in 2005, when it was published, and which was also when I had just arrived in the US. 

But I didn’t, so I suppose he’s off the hook. In that spirit, I bought the book. I have been reading it avidly in an effort to discover what secrets I need to know, but evidently still haven’t discovered, that would explain why I still find the US such a confusing place. Unfortunately, I have found the book to be a curious mixture of insight and serious error. 


Page 11, for example, is headed: Egalitarianism. Seriously? If you come from a country where rank is clearly recognized and deferred to, you may miss the lack of protocol. This is a joke, right? I haven’t been everywhere in the world, but I am pretty well-traveled. And I can say, without hesitation, that I have never been anywhere that comes close to insisting on protocol to the degree that I experience on a daily basis in the United States. 

Even the Germans, who like to announce every title that someone has on the occasion when they first meet — Good morning, Herr Professor Doktor! — become more egalitarian than that thereafter. Everyone at academic events just gets called Herr or Frau, according to gender. 

Of course, that has its own pitfalls. In the UK, I had a female colleague who attended an event in Germany. She was quite indignant that she got called Frau Ellis. But it wasn’t the informality that bothered her. It was the fact that the title Frau implies something about her relationship with a man. She was married, but that wasn’t the point. She wanted to be known on her own terms. She would have been quite happy to be addressed just by her first name, but that was apparently something the Germans wouldn’t countenance. 


Whereas — contrary to the stereotypes that Americans seem to have of Brits, which seem all to be stuck in the 1950s — calling everyone by their first names is precisely what happens in the UK. And I do mean everyone. Even when I was an Associate Dean, all the students still called me Tim. 

This can be really shocking to American law professors. One former Stetson colleague spent one fall as Resident Director of Stetson’s program in London. He told me that he was flabbergasted that all the British-based staff called him by his first name immediately and without asking. Rather upset, he told me: It took me a lot of hard work to become a professor

We know that. We just don’t see the need to constantly remind ourselves. (We rather assume that you don’t need reminding.) Or is it that you think the pronunciation of your title has a certain ring to it? In which case, remember the incident with the newly-ennobled man who was taking his seat in the House of Lords for the first time. He was enjoying getting dressed in his new ermine robes. Even the word, ermine, sounds so good, don’t you think? he said to a friend. The reply? What about vermin?