“Names Have Power”: Five Essays on Names and Identity

“Names have power,” writes Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein in a recent popular essay, “The Violence of Naming.” We identify ourselves by names: family names, nicknames, the surnames of our partners, pseudonyms, and more. These five essays explore the ties we have (or don’t have) to our names, and the roles that they play in our evolving identities.

“The Violence of Naming,” Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein

Writer and linguistic anthropologist Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein reflects on the power of names to shape our identity — and to highlight both privilege and discrimination.

Sticks and stones can break my bones. What comes next? I’ve heard it two ways: words can never hurt me and words can really hurt me.

For linguistic anthropologists, no question — it’s the latter. Language can, itself, be violence.


“Call You By Your Name,” Roxanne Krystalli, Stories of Conflict and Love

Writer Roxanne Krystalli muses on the journey from Roxani to Roxanne — and back to Roxani again.

When I enrolled in graduate school, things began to change. The registrar insisted that my email address and placard match the spelling of my name on my passport. For the first time since grade school, my name in the classroom was Roxani again. I couldn’t quite correct my professors; Roxani was my name, after all, so I began to lead a bit of a double life. I introduced myself as Roxanne — the only name I had ever called myself in English, and a name most everyone could pronounce. Roxani was reserved for Greece — for childhood, parents, and a different self.


“Ain’t Nothing But a Family Thing,” Matt Miklic

Designer Matt Miklic reflects on childhood, family, and identity.

Robert “Joe” Martin, my grandfather, went to Europe to fight for the U.S. in World War II. During the war, Stari Kot was burned to the ground by Italian soldiers and all its residents were sent to a concentration camp. Marija Miklič, Frances’ grandmother and my great-great-grandmother, died during the march to the camp. After the war, Joe and Frances married and had seven children, including my mom Mary, named for Marija. The American Miklics thrived and grew by the dozens, though along the way, the name continued to decline since most of John’s children were women, and they took their husbands’ names in marriage. Today the last remaining Miklic is my great-uncle Johnny’s wife, our beloved nonagenarian Aunt Lou.

And now me. Not legally yet, but that will come eventually. Thomas is a fine name, and I’ll always remember my late uncle and grandmother Thomas fondly. But your family determines your name at birth, it doesn’t decide it for life. I have always felt more like a Miklic, so a Miklic I shall be.


“How I Changed My Name,” Ellen Kittle, Stickler

When asked if she’d change her name after she got married, Ellen Kittle once replied, “But my name is mine.” Later, as her partner Cam faced a battle with cancer, she pondered the question again — and decided that taking his name was something she wanted to do.

I know many people my age who shed or amend their last names–if not officially, at least on Facebook–in sync with whichever estranged parent they are speaking to, which parent committed infidelity or an equally painful crime. Some pick up the names of step parents who have become parents in everything but biology; others take their husband’s name without any audible murmur of uncertainty. My name has never felt like something I can shed easily, putting on a new one; not like going off to college and deciding to tell all your new friends your name is Liz rather than Beth.  Were it not for this cosmic wallop to the head, I would still be on the fence. I do know now that for me it’s the right thing; for Cam and I to share the same name.


“The Mystery of Carl Miller,” Sarah Miller, Longreads

Author Sarah Miller writes about the unknown history and identity of her father’s father — and how her last name is just the word that comes after her first name.

“So where did she get the last name Miller?” I said.

“I don’t know,” my father said. “I guess she made it up.”

I thought this was seriously the most thrilling thing I had ever heard in my life. Not only did we not know who my father’s father was, our last name meant absolutely nothing. I thought about the number of times I had heard, “This means your ancestors milled flour or corn” and I had always been like “Yeah maybe” but mostly “What does that have to do with me?” Now I knew. Nothing. My last name had nothing to do with me.

Want more? Read some of our favorite personal essays.

April 24, 2017Essay, Identity, Personal Essay, Reading,