Of Names and Numbers

The digital age has irrevocably changed the way we communicate, but has it also changed the way we view our friends and relationships?

What’s in a name? In the olden days, when telephones were things that stayed at home connected by wire to a socket in the wall, we all knew by heart the numbers of our closest friends. It was comforting, almost poetic: first name surname number number number, like the rhythmical beat of a train on the tracks. The sound of the phone number of my mother’s house from my childhood, long confined to history and newly replaced with another, longer, less sing-songily elegant number, still invokes in me a feeling of comfort and warmth.
These days, the phone and user have switched places and the phone is definitely in control: I have no idea how to get hold of my parents without my mobile showing me the way. I feel anxious if I leave the house without it, not because I suffer from some kind of modern day Hyper Communication Syndrome, but because if I got lost I would never ever ever be able to find my way back again. Whom would I call? How would I call them? Even if I found a pay phone, what number would I dial?

And worse, I don’t even know anyone’s surname any more so I couldn’t look anyone up. Scrolling through my phone book is like a hilarious litany of drunken nights out, but not very useful for actually getting hold of anyone.

My friend Jen, who I met while organising a friend’s hen party and who was charged with making a cake for said party, is listed as Jen Hen Cake. I’ve now known her for nearly five years. No idea what her name really is.

Caroline Jo is Caroline who was met through Jo. Sophie Tattoo has lots of tattoos. Jenny Flapper Dress was met…well in truth I have no idea who Jenny Flapper Dress is. Maybe I’ll text her and find out.

My husband, my actual husband to whom I am married and share a surname, is listed in my phone as Toby Drums. I met him while he was playing the drums in another friend’s band.

There is a theory that says a person’s name influences their role in society. J. W. Splatt and D. Weedon were the authors of an article on incontinence the British Journal of Urology. The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales is named Igor Judge.
But nominative determinism is not new. It is, in fact, how all surnames came to exist in the first place. Frank Johnson was John’s son. James Fletcher put the fletching on arrows. Dave Cooper made barrels. All these names were given to identify, to allow others to know their place in society.

Even early in the 1900s, thousands of immigrants to England from Europe changed their surnames in order to better find their place. My grandfather was one of them, changing his Polish name (Schakowsky) to something considerably more Anglicised (Lewis) in order to more fully assimilate into his adopted country.

And today, parents agonise for nine long months to come up with the perfect name for their children, but by the time we get to school we all end up being called what our classmates want to call us, anyway. We all nestle neatly in to a niche somewhere and it makes sense that our names end up reflecting that.

These mutating identities are nothing new, it’s just that now we record things in a different way, often a much more public way (see: Facebook, Twitter, blogs).

It would be easy to assume that our relationships must be diminished because of this loss of personal information. How can you possibly be proper friends with someone if you don’t even know their surname, if you can’t possibly recall their mobile from memory? I would argue that these things are simply the natural evolution of language and culture, and while I don’t expect Jen Whateverhernameis to suddenly and officially change her name to Jen Hen Cake, it is a connection we share, a way we become more fully assimilated into our social circle, a sign of affection that I do actually know who she is and what she does, and our friendship is better for it. Even if I can only maintain it on speed dial.

What do people call you and why, or what odd names have you found in your phone book?

Image: Pink Poppy Photography