Sweet Nothings

Notes Towards a Philosophy of Proper Names, Adequate to the Complexity and Wonder of Its Subject

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I’ve said it clearly enough before: I don’t take requests. After my March 7 Substack piece was republished by the New Statesman on April 9, I began getting a steady stream of messages from people telling me they would really like to hear what I have to say about “Amazonian onomastics” and related matters. I had complained in that piece that the only Substack writing that is getting any traction is the writing that focuses on “the Substack Question” itself. This remains true: journalism is hopelessly trapped in its inane metajournalistic epicycles, and the new subscriber-based venues for long-form writing have for the most part been pulled into epicyclical orbit around the same gas giants that give Twitter its energy. But I am not a journalist, and I can use this long-form venue for whatever I like. And as it happens this week I have an urgent desire to speak of proper names, of the variety of their types, of the diverse ways they are used and understood in diverse nations, &c. So let’s get started.


One of the most intriguing moments in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s magisterial Tristes Tropiques of 1955 arrives when the anthropologist is playing with a group of Nambikwara children deep in Brazil’s interior. All of a sudden:

… a girl who had been struck by one of her playmates took refuge by my side and, with a very mysterious air, began to whisper something into my ear. As I did not understand and was obliged to ask her to repeat it several times, her enemy realized what was going on and, obviously very angry, also came over to confide what seemed to be a solemn secret. After some hesitation and questioning, the meaning of the incident became clear. Out of revenge, the first little girl had come to tell me the name of her enemy, and the latter, on becoming aware of this, had retaliated by confiding to me the other’s name… After which, having created a certain atmosphere of complicity, I had little difficulty in getting them to tell me the names of the adults.

But why, now, should the Nambikwara, who otherwise seem to be perfectly at ease with this anthropologist in their midst, seek to keep their “real” names secret? Why should a person not have a single all-purpose name for others to learn upon making their acquaintance? Is it not the essential purpose of names to enable us to refer to things and people correctly?

Here we arrive at a first apparent difference between proper names and common nouns: what bears a proper name is not a thing, but a being, and the proper name that attaches to this being does not primarily serve the function of telling you what that being is.

Then what is it doing? In the Christian philosophical tradition, it has sometimes been held that since the Fall our natural languages have been arbitrary — thus cow and vache both denote cows equally well, but also in a way that is equally unconnected in both cases to whatever it is a cow “really” is. But we might suspect that at least something of the original Adamic power of language remains at least in proper names, and for this reason they seem to have a sort of conjurational power beyond the usual denotative one we recognize in words like “cow”. To say “cow” is to denote some being whose existence —even if only as a being of the imagination, as when we say “unicorn”— is already a settled matter. To say a person’s name, at least sometimes —to utter the pet name of a former lover or the nickname of a deceased child or the “true” secret name of a playmate or parent—, is to summon them into presence, perhaps for the first time, perhaps for the millionth time. It is not merely to note what makes up our world, but to generate that world.


One common account has it, as Clifford Geertz memorably wrote, that naming transforms “anybodies” into “somebodies”. This is surely in part why, traditionally, a newborn is baptized and named —which is to say subsumed under the name of one of the saints— a few days after it is born, when its chances for survival have gone up somewhat. And this is also why, generally, people who live on farms do not name the animals they intend to eat — though my own father violated the order of nature and justice by letting us name the two steers, Herb and Harry, that eventually ended up in our deep-freeze. Which explains in some measure how I grew interested in this topic.

Naming events that are literally or figuratively “baptisms” are thus rightly understood as a variety of Austinian speech acts, which bring something —or someone— into being, rather than simply noting its —or their— prior being. And this is why, on the old theory of the primordial Adamic language, it was often said that the first man “baptized” the animals when he named them. Adam didn’t just note down “elephant”, “gazelle”, etc. He brought these beings into the fold of the world by voicing them. The great Edenic baptism ceremony, then, was not a taxonomy or an ordering or slotting, but itself part of the ongoing work of Creation.

But let us try to stay focused on the postlapsarian era, when the work of Creation is all finished and there is nothing left to do but live out its consequences. Is what I have called “conjuration” really possible in such a fallen age? Or is all naming, proper and common alike, in the end just a sort of “slotting”? The short answer is that it is both, more the one than the other depending on context, and neither, properly seen, is any more “mundane” or less wondrous than the either.


Drawing on a substantial body of work on Amazonian onomastics from the eminent Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Stephen Hugh-Jones has argued that we may observe in that cultural region a continuum of naming practices, ranging from the purely “endonymic” at the one end to the purely “exonymic” at the other.

Exonymic onomastics, such as seen among the Ikpeng, the Yanomamö, and other Tupi-speaking groups, relies on a more or less fixed set of names, typically coming from gods or ancestors, but also from animals. By contrast, Gê-speaking groups such as the Timbira, who deploy an exonymic naming system, generally emphasize individual uniqueness in the coinage of names, and treat these names, once coined, as “corporate property”, designating particular social relations. Endonymic systems keep a limited stock of names in perpetual circulation, while a fully exonymic system treats each name as truly “proper”, as a “one-off” token, just like individual people are held to be in some cultures (and not just under the ideological regime of “Western” individualism).

It is not hard to see that the traditional onomastic system of the Christian world was highly endonymic. Even now, in large parts of Eastern Europe, a person’s “saint day” remains a more important celebration than their “birthday”. That is, one marks not the anniversary of the date of biological birth, as is noted by the administrative state on vital records, but rather the day of the saint after whom they are named. Commonly, but not always, the name the person has, moreover, is not a “choice”, but is simply the name of whatever saint has his or her saint day on the day for which the naming of the infant is scheduled.

I’ve been to many saint-day parties over the years, and I’ve noticed they feel an awful lot like birthday parties. These days the two are often fused together, and sometimes it’s not even clear which one we’re celebrating. But it is still worth remaining attuned to the different metaphysical commitments the two sorts of celebration imply: the birthday marks the anniversary of a singular noteworthy event that results in the insertion of a new individual into a family and into the records of the state; the saint day marks the return of a sort of eternal entity, and the celebration of a class of people who are socially slotted under the heading of that entity: little Joe under Saint Joseph, little George under Saint George, and so on. The little guys are, at least within this system of names and days, not so much individuals as they are instantiations.

Nor is it hard to see that such an onomastic regime at least implicitly approaches something like a doctrine of reincarnation. Many in the modern West have had trouble grasping how anyone could ever believe in such a foolish thing. Yet part of this appearance of foolishness results from our transition away from an endonymic onomastics in recent times, towards extreme exonymy, which constrains us to think about any conceivable “coming back” as the coming back of a particular one-off individual. But what if the coming back is, rather, the coming back of Joseph or George not as the historical husband of Mary or the second-century Capadoccian who may have slayed some sort of reptile, but as organizing principles for the structuring of a shared world, i.e., among other things, the sort of world in which we mark the social position of new little guys who enter the world by calling them “Joseph” or “George”?

The untethering of individual selves from such principles is marked in many common practices of the contemporary world. In the seventeenth century, if a Scottish merchant named Andrew went to Muscovy, on arrival he would be greeted as Андрей/Andreï. If I had lived in the same era, Russians would have known me as Юстин/Yustin, but today they call me Джастин/Dzhastin, a ridiculous attempt to approximate the sound of my name in English using Cyrillic letters. An Andrew in Russia today, similarly, becomes Эндрю/Endryu. In France, meanwhile, all but the very elderly (God bless them) insist on calling me something like djeusstine, which they take to be my “real” American name. I would so much rather they subsume me under Saint Justin le Martyr (dit le Philosophe!) and pronounce my name ʒystɛ̃, just as its spelling in French hagiographies dating back several centuries would require. In the misguided aim of accuracy, they cut us off from history, from meaning, and grossly mispronounce my name while they’re at it.

The system of cross-linguistic equivalencies of names once did the political work of unifying Christendom as an imagined community (at least in principle, notwithstanding all the neverending rifts and heresies and wars). Today, by contrast, the different versions of vestigial saint names have become the property of national-linguistic communities, which in the modern period are ideally coextensive with nation-states. These saint names have been decoupled from their saints, and now exist alongside a wide array of alternative exonymic names from which parents are generally free to choose (with some restrictions, as when parents in Brazil are told by the state that “Rambo” is off-limits). We might in fact do well to define Christendom itself as the cultural-geographical area of given names (“Christian names”) derived from the saints, with established equivalences from one language to another.

Post-Christendom, in turn, is the world in which, as Bruce Willis’s character so poignantly put it in Pulp Fiction (speaking narrowly of American onomastics), “Our names don’t mean shit”. Thus today we say that Jean “is the French version of John” and “Ivan is the Russian version”, but we do not think it necessary or meaningful to translate from the one version to the other as we move from nation to nation, in the way we do when speaking of cows. To put this another way, it is not so much that our given names are simply and inflexibly “proper” while the names of, say, animal species are “common”, but rather that their quality of being proper increases with increasing exonymy as defined by Viveiros de Castro, and as we move towards the other end of the continuum, to endonymy, we find names functioning in a way more characteristic of the “slotting” use of common nouns. And in the present age we are going through a period —not the first in human history— of extreme exonymy.


So, if in putting up some small resistance to this modern trend I dare to suggest that I am still, in spite of it all, in some respect the reincarnation of Saint Justin Martyr the Philosopher, this is not wishful thinking or megalomaniacal delusion on my part (though I do admire him greatly), but rather an effort to retrieve a mostly forgotten understanding of what it is “to be [a] Justin” (the square-bracketed indefinite article reminds us that one would not have the option of adding it in many languages, not least Latin). On this understanding, implicitly, it is the name itself that is the bearer of the essence, which we might dare to call the “soul”, that is then channeled or traduced across the generations of Justins.

Such a view can at most be implicit in the Christian tradition, which was forged in a delicate balance of those elements of Platonic-Pythagorean tradition that proved assimilable, along with a quiet discarding of those that were not. What we somewhat crudely call the belief in “past lives” did not make the cut, as no amount of cleaning-up could ever render overt metempsychosis amenable to Christian orthodoxy — though Justin Martyr himself may have done his best to make it happen, remaining a proud Pythagorean until the very end, even as he was sent to the lions in his purple philosopher’s robes.

In some other traditions, by contrast, the idea of the name as soul-bearer is developed much more explicitly. This is particularly the case in a number of circumpolar cultures, from Greenland to Alaska to Siberia. Barbara Bodenhorn notes that in the Iñupiaq language of the Alaskan North Slope, for example, one can not ask, “What is your name?” but only kiña atiñ? (“Who is your name?”). She observes that this formulation expresses a social ontology in which the identity and the social position of the nameholder extends well beyond that person’s immediate universe. To respond to that question, “I am Qimmieluk” is literally to identify with Qimmieluk, an abstract and timeless entity who makes it possible to say who a given physical person who shares in that name is. Bodenhorn cites in this connection the Kiowa poet M. Scott Momaday (from much further south than the Iñupiaq; this is a widely attested onomastic trait after all), who documents the self-identification of a fellow Kiowa:

My name is Tsoai-talee. I am, therefore, Tsoai-talee; therefore I am. The storyteller Pohd-lohk gave me the name Tsoai-talee. He believed that a man’s life proceeds from his name, in the way a river proceeds from its source.

Back in the Arctic, Zacharias Kunuk’s 2001 film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner depicts the onomastic flow between generations as well. A child is born, a girl, and an elder examines her; she sees some traits or an expression in the face that remind her of her own grandmother (or she pretends to see these), and she declares that the child shall bear the same name as her grandmother: her grandmother is back! This is just the ordinary flow of reincarnation. In thinking of myself as a rivulet of the flow that has St. Justin at its source, I find that the proposition “I am Justin” makes far more sense to me, when I utter it or think it, than I am usually able to find in the emptiness of that strange placeholder.

In order to find this meaning, I don’t have to err at all far, to the Arctic or the Amazon. I only have to go back in time a bit, before the rise of the modern administrative state in the nineteenth century. Yet the idea that names have souls is so far from the present range of concerns of philosophy that, like reincarnation, it seems silly even to bring it up.

The accusation of silliness might however be an expression of fatigue. Philosophers have been so busy denying souls of bodies, it seems almost rude to remind them that this is only one head of the monster of “dualism” they imagine they are combatting, and that there are many other possible loci for spirit to lodge itself in. But in the record of human beliefs, the idea that words are alive, informed, ensouled, or however you wish to put it seems at least as well attested as the idea that bodies are. I am not defending this view here, but am only testifying to its impressive record.



A few further observations, anyhow, rush in to complicate matters. For one thing, I was not named after Justin Martyr; my parents did not even know who that was when I was born. I was in fact named after Justin Trudeau, who is three months my elder and who has rudely stalked me like a doppelgänger my entire life. Another problem is that, although “Justin Erik Halldor Smith” appears on my birth certificate (without the accent over the o), for my first eight years I was known only as “Erik”. My grandparents called me “Erik” their entire lives, nothing could break them of the habit, and that is the name that appears on my birth announcements, and on all of my early birthday cards and other such ephemera.

This is all quite unexceptional. Many of us go by a variety of different names according to age and context, and this precedes the practices of the administrative state with its fiction of the “legal” name. Indeed in parts of Europe that still mark saint days, but where a person’s first name might not figure on the calendar of saints, they might celebrate the saint day of one of their middle names; if they are religious, they might come to think of that middle name as their “real” name, and of the first name by which everyone knows them as a mere conventional marker for use on the secular plane, on which, in any case, everything is a lie and an illusion.

In the modern administrative state, we typically take a person’s “legal” name as their “true” name. But it is not hard to discern the inadequacy of such a view when it is put in practice. The French left-wing newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique (unaffiliated with Le Monde), for example, has long had the laughably supercilious, if impressively consistent, editorial policy of converting “Bill Clinton” to “William Clinton” and even “Jimmy Carter” to “James Carter”. But every American knows that President Carter’s real name is not “James”; it’s “Jimmy”! An important part of Carter’s legacy as president is that he managed to become president with such a folksy moniker, that, circa 1976, Americans were “in the mood for a Jimmy”, and to efface that, with Ignacio Ramonet et al., by appeal to the hyper-legalism of the birth certificate is to conceal at least some of the truth.

In our age we tend to bracket, devalue, and otherwise dismiss what are lightly called “nicknames” (in French, interestingly, the word is surnom, cognate to “surname”, but also having the same meaning as the “ekename”, from which “nickname” derives). The low status of the nickname may in fact be seen as a side-effect of the legal fiction of “real” names. In cultures that have no such fiction, notably in the Nambikwara culture described in Tristes Tropiques, a person does not so much have one real name and several lesser “unofficial” names, as rather different names in different relations, perhaps including a “secret” name that is known only to your spouse and children, which might translate to outsiders as a “mere” domestic term of endearment, yet from the inside —again, without the apparatus of law to impose an all-trumping “real” name on us— might appear as the realest name of all.

I am reminded here of something I read a while ago about community efforts, in Los Angeles I believe, to get people in neighborhoods with significant gang crime to stop giving nicknames to their little boys: names like “Li’l Suge” and so on. But what could be the harm in such expressions of community belonging? The fear is that these monikers generate an established fact about gang-adjacent identity before the kid has any say at all in the matter, and that as he gets older, and experiences the moniker in effect as “more real” than his legal name, he will experience his thrownness in the world as wrapped up with his name-based identity, as dictating who he really is. How can I get some boring job as Calvin Broadus, the thought would be, when I am Snoop Dogg? (Things turned out alright in this case, exceptionally.)

To “break yourself” of a nickname may in fact be more difficult than to change your legal name, which in the United States is in any case a vague process, in which you simply start writing your name differently on credit-card applications and so on, until eventually the new name figures more frequently in paperwork than the old. Paperwork does not dispute what it registers, whereas fellow gang members and grandparents often do: you can tell them you’re Calvin now, and not “Snoop”, or James and not “Jimmy”, or Justin and not “Erik”, but if that’s not how they see you your resistance may be futile.

Nowhere is this clearer than in break-ups strictly speaking, where often very abruptly a person is expected to revert from the pet name to the legal name, from “Sweetie” to “Elizabeth” or whatever, against all of natural instinct and sense of who that other person is. An obsessed ex is the one who so to speak refuses to “let Sweetie die”. We tend to suppose that this is just metaphorical talk. But if we inhabit a world in which it is names that are the bearers of souls rather than physical persons, which in turn makes it possible for a single physical person to bear several different souls in different relations, then it could be something more than metaphor: to retire a pet name is to kill, or to attempt to kill, the “name-person” associated with it, even if the physical person endures.

On the other temporal end of this process, at the beginning (and here unfortunately I can’t give any concrete examples without betraying intimacies), it has sometimes seemed to me that the coming-into-being of a love-relation is simultaneous and coextensive with the coinage of terms of endearment for designating the other. It is to move outside of the legal framework that constrains most of our social relations, and to enter into a secret realm where the words we use to designate the other speak the metaphysical truth of the other, and have the power to conjure that other in their physical absence. They sound like nothing from the outside —“sweet nothings”, as we say—, but from the inside they “mean the world”.

It is fitting that these names should be different from those of the mere paperwork that records our vital statistics, and all the illusions and lies that make up our secular lives. And it is also fitting that these be different from the names of the saints or gods or other ancestors that slot us into transgenerational community with others. The truth of such slotting may be deeper than the one recorded by administrators on our birth certificates, but it is still relatively trivial compared to the deepest truth of names spoken in love, which among other things is a form of ecstasy, bringing us outside of the law, and of our bonds, however strong, with mere neighbors.


I cannot tell you, here, my realest names. Maybe someday I will, if I am very old, and everyone I love is dead. For now, though, I will say that the “secret names” brought back by Lévi-Strauss from the Amazon are not at all so exotic, when we stop to think about it.

In turn, I confess I am stunned, as I go back over “the literature” in the analytic philosophy of proper names, and I find an overall satisfaction, accompanied by some grumbling about the details, with the direct-reference theory, which holds that proper names, unlike common nouns, are peculiar in that they refer directly to individuals without any additional connotative force or sense. This theory, like the causal theory of reference with which it sometimes competes, typically takes each individual to have one exclusive proper name, their “real” name. The philosophy of proper names is thus established and developed on the presumption that the only name worth investigating as my name is the one on my birth certificate. But this can’t be right. For one thing, it may be true that “Justin Erik Halldor Smith” has no connotative power, that it is a mere placeholder, a nothing that is not even sweet (with time, “Justin E. H. Smith”, my “pen-name”, takes on a sort of character of its own). But my real names, as I experience them, the ones you don’t know and I won’t tell you, are pure connotation.

Analytic philosophy, in trying to simplify the matter of proper names so that it may be studied as it were in the laboratory, has entirely failed to notice that these names behave quite differently in the wild. But this oversimplification is more than just a methodological error, and more than just an expression of analytic philosophy’s total ignorance of the richness and complexity of ethnographic insights, and of the full record of humanity’s stunningly diverse range of ways of structuring the world in different places and times. It is also, most damningly, an expression of analytic philosophy’s pathetic submission to the existing institutional and legal framing of “reality” as if it were reality itself. Here as elsewhere, academic philosophy functions as a rationalization of the existing order, rather than a tool for exposing that order and helping us to understand why it is so easy for us to take it for granted.

The administration of our vital statistics, not least the “legal” names we are compelled to recite, along with our “DOB” and our “social” every time somebody, or some bot, wishes to “ID” us, generates and sustains a powerful fiction about who we are. It’s the task of philosophy to get behind this fiction.


First of all, I wanted to begin by extending a basic and heartfelt thanks to all my subscribers. This is such an unusual experiment that I’ve begun here, to undertake a weekly “deep-dive” in this new forum for which there are no preexisting rules of engagement or tone. Even I occasionally find it is just too new and strange, and start to think I should pull back. But my readership keeps growing, sometimes in phenomenally rapid spurts, and I’m going to keep writing for at least as long as that continues.

I’ve had a few messages, and even a few unsubscriptions, from people who are disappointed that I do not provide the possibility for comments or any other interaction. But I have to remain firm on this. I believe deeply that we need to preserve spaces for “slow writing”, which means among other things writing that doesn’t invite immediate response and compel the writer to enter into immediate dialogue. That is not to say that I shun interaction or dialectical engagement about ideas. It is just to say that there has to be some delay between the release of a written text and the inevitable wave of “feedback”, if writing is to remain distinct from oral culture at all. If you would like to interact, you are more than welcome to e-mail me: jehsmith@gmail.com. I might have too many other commitments to write a lengthy reply, but I will try.

Finally, my new book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, has passed final review and will soon be appearing from Princeton University Press. I’ve been talking it up for a while now, but it really is almost here. Please watch for it, plan to review it, tell your Silicon Valley frenemies about it, &c.