The What-Chya-Call-It about Names

I’ve always noticed how I (and most if not all members of my family) follow the (I’m assuming) largely Asian tradition of calling people, places and even things by every other description except their proper name. There is a large population of “so-and-so’s Mum” and “The Auntie-Next-Door”s and of course the generic “Uncle” and “Auntie” title for just about every Asian member of the community, whether they are related to you or not. And this doesn’t just apply to names, we have a whole vocabulary of phrases and descriptions for places and objects. We all do it, of course, when talking about “Oh that Thai place we went to last time on so-and-so’s birthday and where you spilt coke on yourself” to pinpoint an exact memory, rather than just give the actual place name. I can think of several instances where I have described the corner grocery shop  using the name it used to have about ten years ago: we all know the name has changed and yet my family and I still continue to call it the ‘B.B Cash & Carry’ (which got sold years ago and has had it name changed at least four times since). Or even the cheap-and-cheerful fabric shop near my house which literally used to be called “The Fabric Centre” and now goes by the names of “Fusion” to make it sound more funky and up-to-date, but that hasn’t stopped any of us using the original name when referring to it.
Similarly this time warp applies when talking about an obscure member of the family or family friend, we tend to describe them in relation to other people that we know, and even by things that have happened to them. I’m sure that I am not the only one who has heard a statement along the lines of  “Oh yes that Auntie R whose daughter ran away but then came home and married a nice sensible boy – his brother?” or something along the lines of that. And the person on the other side often don’t help with this – they will often adress themselves in a certain way which avoids names being given. I imagine this is something that may be restricted more to the Asian culture – the amount of times that some Auntie has rang my home telepone and expected me to know instantly who they are (Smee? Who is Smee?) is surely testimony to this.

So what is this stubborn refusal to make our own lives easier by using the simple concept of names as they are properly meant to be used? Surely it must be more than a just a technique to  give a colourful description to aid our dodgy memories. I think we can all agree that there must be more to it than just a simple memory-loss problem or even a question of using this method to add a little gossip!

I’ll try not to stray from the beaten path here too much, to avoid this topic becoming to broad and obscure, as this is a vague topic and it is something I would say that although us Asians are very familiar with, it is also pretty much a universal trait. In regards to people’s names, there are a whole range of reasonings and psychology behind this whole issue, much of it related to various aspects of culture, personality and general quirkness. One reason given here could be the fact that in today’s society, the sheer volume of people that we meet and interact with makes it harder to keep names in our head. Thus we use a process of association to identify places, people and dates so that we can keep it in order in our heads. I used to know a guy friend once who used to adress all the women he knew as “hey you…” in a certain tone, which he justified as making it easier to adress everyone without being required remembering their name, which made the women feel special with minimal effort from him. Ignoring the extremely sexist (and ignorant) side of this, I could argue that this was his way of avoiding getting himself in trouble by using the simplist terms he could think of. It was also pure laziness but let’s not get into that.

Another strand of this (especially with people’s names) is the whole politeness culture which we have honed for so long. Of course, this is nothing new to any of us, it’s considered polite to address people (especially our elders) by a title, rather than coming across as forward and even a bit bold (and not in a good way) to address someone by their name. I have heard a whole barrage of ‘reasons’ for this, some being that it is seen as a sign of respect, another being that it encourages solidarity and close-ties, to even other beliefs such as saying that it is actually forbidden to adress your parents/husband/elders by name.This leads more into the whole aspect of culture and propriety: what is considered acceptable amongst community and unspoken rules. With the risk of restricting this topic too much to Asian culture and discriminating, I feel as if this is an issue which points to the socialisation that we undergo, and also the way we follow the behaviours of those around us. Perhaps we enforce this issue by mirroring our elders who have had this culture handed down to them.

Simiarly, this process of identifying by way of association is an easy way to help us remember things. I think we all remember things from our earlier years and prefer to use techniques where we make places and things more memorable, and also more identifiable. Perhaps we like to use good memories to make things easier to remember. “That dress I went dancing in at the lake” sounds a lot better than “the red Oasis dress in size 10”. Or maybe it’s just the simple fact that that this is the way we speak in this time and age, we rarely use the straightforward language that might be expected. It could be argued that we use a longwinded style of description in this era where information is everywhere, and something personalised is required to seperate the wheat from the chaff.

But no matter how we reason it, I think we could agree that it is a strange quirkiness which is just a way of our lives. I hope that I have not tried to pin it too much on Asian culture here, as there is much more than just the stigmas of society and our upbringing which underlies this.

What are your views on this idea of naming (or rather not naming)? Is it something that you recognise in your everyday patterns?

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