People often say "Morddel? What kind of name is that?" (Meaning what nationality or ethnicity produced such a name.) I learned soon enough not to tell people that I had made up my name in the bath during a blizzard. The first question out of their mouths was always: "Oh, then what's your real name?"
"That is my real name. It's my legal name, the name I am known by at university, at work, at the bank, to the state of California. You can't get more real than that."
"No, what were you born as? What is you real name?" they would always insist. Even intelligent people did this, some of them introducing me by my name, then adding: "But her real name is..."
Why? Does this go back again to tribal and parental rights to control names? (As discussed previously.) Does this stem from some sense that changing a name is taboo, even if it is permitted by law?
One of my hobbies is to read reference books, the older the better. I like the supreme confidence of all those editors and professors who thought they knew everything. I like climbing into the minds of the people who wrote intellectual and scholarly articles about how nothing will ever exceed the murderous power of the Gatling gun, or about the fact that Pluto is a planet, or is not a planet, or is not even in the sky.
One of the reference books I most enjoy reading is the Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. In places, its Fifties Freudianism is preposterous. Throughout, its pompous certainty is both poignant and risible; and I find its pseudo-scientific heartlessness to be a form of blindness. Still, it is incredibly interesting and a good read. Here is what it has to say, in part, on names and name taboos:
"Names have a mystic or magical importance in all cultures.....names and souls are closely associated." (p.782, vol. 2) Then it rattles on with a long list of naming customs and taboos among the Chinese, the Kwakiutl, the Egyptians, the Lapps, and more. Then, in the following article: "Name tabu includes also the prohibition against revealing one's own name, in the belief that the personal name is a vital part of the self, that it is dangerous for anyone to know it, and to reveal it puts one in the power of the other....The name-tabu motif is prominent in both European and primitive folktale .... In German folktale a dwarf promises money to a mortal [dwarfs are immortal?] if he guesses his name" (p. 783, vol. 2)
Did those pesky people nattering on about what they believed was my "real" name somehow, deep in their ancestral memories, think that the name I had discarded was a secret name? That they would have power over me if they discovered it? If so, they had it wrong. If any name had my soul, it was the one I chose, not the one I dropped.
No, I think that these were the kind of people who live with a sad rigidity around their minds, which I tend to picture as their heads having been trapped for years in a child's bicycle helmet, deforming brain development. These are the kind of people who have to add nasty little comments to any mention of another person, such as: "That's Louisa X, she's divorced you know," or "This is Bob, he's adopted you know," all said with the same weight as they would say "There goes Hugo, he strangled his mother and threw her body down the hotel laundry chute, you know." Surely it is these intolerant people who are behind so many emigrations. It is most definitely because of them that I stopped saying I had changed my name, in order to prevent their inconsiderate questioning.
Back to my Dictionary of Folklore, etc. which says that, "Among several groups, [of native Americans] it is believed that if one is sick one's name is possibly not agreeing with one, hence the name is "washed off"..." (ibid.) This probably most closely identifies my case. I certainly felt better after I changed my name.
So, here I make a plea for those ancestors who, for whatever reason, changed their names. How far in our genealogy should we push to find a birth name and when should we respect the wishes of the dead and let sleeping dogs lie? I can be pretty obsessive in my genealogical hunting, as I think most of us can be, but sometimes I wonder if it is not, even though the person may be long dead, a kind of invasion of privacy to dig so deeply when clearly the person did not want something known. (Recently, James Tanner, on his blog, Genealogy's Star, discussed -- though relating to living individuals -- this issue of the conflicts between genealogy and privacy.) Maybe something so heartbreakingly monstrous happened in their lives that they never, ever want to be associated with it, in life or in death. Should we as genealogists show more compassion for the dead whose stories and lineage fascinate us so? Do we play the scientist who puts discovery above all else? Or do we look at that brick wall in a new light, seeing it not as our failure but as our ancestor's success? Dear Readers, I welcome your views.
©2010 Anne Morddel