What’s in a name? | Off the cuff – Gulf News
“What’s in a name? What/we call a rose by any other name would smell just as good. William Shakespeare can be forgiven for his Dark Age innocence when names were just names and unambiguously meant a unique human identifier.
I’m sure Shakespeare never had a passport made and never crossed the seas where he had to report to the immigration authorities who insisted on including the father’s name in an individual’s name to exclude the possibility of duplication.
My Indian passport bears the name which I always thought was my “full” name and included my “first name” and my “surname”. I, in my profound ignorance, believed that this combination was a sufficiently unique identifier of my existence.
After all, a name given to me by my parents and my surname should nominally distinguish me from virtually everyone else I was likely to come across.
The process of acquiring a resident ID card was a brutal upheaval as it stipulated including one’s father’s full name as a “middle name” in one’s own name, thus expanding the “full” name to a almost disorienting sentence.
Long and stretched names
My fellow South Indians have traditionally had their father’s first name and place of origin included in their rather long names and the local requirement to add father’s full name in their names has further stretched their names.
There are agencies that insist on dividing names into three separate parts and qualifying them as “first name”, “middle” and “surname”. This presents a challenge for those who have never bothered to acquire a middle name and don’t know what to do with the blank box. Conversely, there are those who have multiple first names, but some name search portals ignorantly forget to create spaces for multiple first names.
At the risk of being considered gender insensitive, I have to say that the nomenclature for women suffers from an even greater complexity where some agencies also look for their “maiden” name and then their “acquired” name. Most women rightly demand that their maiden surname be included in their full name so that their premarital identity is not completely extinguished.
But that’s not the only addition. There are cultures where convention requires her to include her husband’s name as her “middle name” after marriage, a feature that now allows her to exclude her surname from an overly long “full” name.
This man-made conundrum caught my eye when my wife reached an airline check-in counter for a recent trip. The tour operator we booked through had, for the sake of brevity, excluded our ‘middle names’ from the booking document.
Same images, different names
The airline manager refused to accept that my wife, who had three different names on three different documents by three different methods, was the same person. That his photo out of the three was identical had no consequence and it took desperate persuasion to allow him to travel, but it got me thinking.
Later, a visit to a popular hypermarket and my inquiries with its stock manager turned out to be apocalyptic. He revealed that they process 184 varieties of cookies and thousands of their daily cookie sales are completely error-free.
In addition, they had over seven thousand items in their inventory whose stock balances changed every minute. They carried out an inventory every fortnight and the additions and deletions of articles were massive and frequent.
How come they never made a mistake and never faced duplication? Was it not the same for human populations distributed as they are in different geographies, making an easy analogy with the displays of a hypermarket? And just as dynamic as the items on the shelf, with continuous sales and timely replenishment?
The answer was so easy to see. He looked me in my face. The only way to achieve uniform, error-free human identification across geographies was to assign each of us at birth, along with the name, an ubiquitous network of parallel lines, the barcode.
Dr. Rakesh Maggon is a specialist ophthalmologist with an interest in literature