Friday, November 20, 2009

First Names

I've recently gotten into an online argument (it's like the Special Olympics, I know), and in the course of this argument, I realized I was switching back and forth between first and last names.

For the last ten years, I have either been a graduate student or an enlisted soldier (or both). Which basically means that when I wasn't calling someone "sir" I was calling them "Captain something" or "Professor something."

I think one of the biggest, but subtlest changes, after finishing my dissertation (and almost finishing my contract), has been moving to using first names for professors and officers. Its an odd shift, calling someone "Mike" or "Bill" instead of Professor Smith or Captain Green. (Especially when the name is "Bob" which is my father's name, and constantly freaks me out). Assuming I ever actually get an academic job, referring to other professors by first name I'm sure will be as big of a shift.

But this whole thing has gotten me thinking about first and last names. On the one hand, as a friend of mine put it "he asked me to call him Bob. I don't know, it's like 'no, I respect you too much to not call you Colonel." What's interesting is at the same time, I have used first names to denote respect, and last names as a subtle insult.

I think this is very similar to the technique a sergeant has for making a "sir" into an insult.

1 comment:

Momagain said...

Back in the '80's I was working with a couple of traditionally black universities in North Carolina (on library systems). The library staff, all with at least a MS, spoke to each other using last names only. I asked about this and was told that only whites addressed each other by first names and when the whites had historically addressed a black person using a first name, it was usually master to slave or boss to servant, etc. so the blacks had adopted the use of last names only as a form of respect among themselves - in a work or professional environment. Of course, among friends and family first names were used. Thought an anthropologist would find that interesting.