The Power of Names

As I have written about before, no one is born voluntarily. Additionally, as soon as we open our eyes and see light and the doctor arbitrarily announces “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl,” we are involuntarily assigned a series of names that we are forever associated with.

Changing one’s name is an extremely difficult process, if one wants to do so. Upon marriage, laws allow for last names to be changed with more ease. 

Why does our culture make it so very complicated to be legally known by something one is comfortable with? Shouldn’t there be some kind of process whereby at a certain age people can easily change their legal name, if they wish?

“Legal” names matter a great deal, as they are what are on everything! While I personally love my name, many people find their name painful and uncomfortable, especially our trans friends.

One of the many things I love about the University of Houston is that students and faculty can log into their account and enter a “preferred name.” This is the name that appears on emails, Blackboard, graduation materials, class rosters, etc., etc. This name can be ANYTHING. Trans individuals can get a UH ID Card with their preferred name, too. 

And, on another note, why do people involuntarily edit other people’s name? For example, I use my full name on everything, including this blog. I’m (Dr.) Andrew Joseph Pegoda. Yet, all the time, people abridge my name. They omit my middle name without my permission and against how I always write my name. Or they turn my middle name into a letter and a period. And all of this irritates me! It probably shouldn’t, but it does. 🙂

Regardless, our name begins defining and shaping who we are and our positionalities from day one. We learn very, very early on whether or not we have a “male” or a “female” name and what this means. We learn very, very early on whether or not our name is “easy” to pronounce and spell. We learn early on whether our name will help us gain attention and respect and privilege or not.

Names are powerful.

People want to know your name and whether you are “male” or “female” before anything else. 

What kind of power does your name have?  

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda 

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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6 replies

  1. Does this mean that I can’t call you, “Andrew?” 😊


  2. Ah, “Dr. Pegoda” kinda gets around that dilemma, doesn’t it? This article brought back some deeply troubling memories. We all respond differently to trauma and there are few rules, but I have discovered some. Identity is such a deeply immersed concept in the brain.

    I always hated my first name because of being abused as a child and clearly unwanted by my mother. By her choosing to reject me at birth, I was denied having an identity, so my name would irritate me. I realized how identity is so critical for human survival when I saw a CBS 60 Minutes episode (“Gospel Teens”). Vy Higginson encouraged teens in inner city neighborhoods to join her choir and learn how to sing Gospel music. I saw how most of those kids were probably unwanted. They hid their faces. When asked to speak out their names to introduce themselves to everyone, could not, and I saw myself at their age. That is what rejection does to us.Saying our names proclaims our identity. You could hear the fear squelch some voices, so learning how to sing out with gospel music was a HUGE step. Vy spoke about one child whose parents never came to her performances. When at home, these kids have to hide themeselves because, if they are noticed by their parents, they will get attacked. If you can’t trust the first adults you ever meet, how can you trust anyone? The episode has been repeated every once in a while, especially in the summer when they do re-runs.

    Vy Higginson also started a group for adults to sing songs that they deeply felt were part of them (both of these episodes are old and may not be viable anymore but I had saved them: Some songs they chose were gospel, some not, but I saw in those adults how most of them were probably rejected at birth, too. A very moving part of the video was when grown men cried at the song “Georgia” and riveted, listening to their comrades songs. The woman who sang it, did so as a farewell to her son when he joined the Navy (I think I remember that correctly). The men listening to how she expressed herself in that song were truly wishing they had a mother like that. Another was when the woman conquered her struggles to reach those high notes in “I Will Always Love You,” a song clearly on everyone’s mind at the time that sequence was shot because of Whitney Houston’s death. The performances were truly moving and I have never gotten tired of listening to these people. None were professionals, but learned how they could express such deep emotion in these songs.

    Throw-away kids become throw-away adults, if they survive. It takes magic to help both reach peace with the past. (Got to stop now, this is making me cry).

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  3. Thanks for the virtual hug. I needed that.Those shows were that memorable. I still want to watch, truly enjoy and am just as riveted to the repeats as I was to the original broadcast. And I still cry when I watch them.

    I want to alert you and your readers to a speech done by Laverne Cox (from TV show, ‘Orange is the New Black’), “Transgender Vulnerability,” on Alternative Radio ( this week. It normally broadcasts on KGNU on Wednesdays, but I stream it on KUOW (Seattle), which streams it on Wed nights (Pacific time) and Sunday afternoons. I can also stream it on WREK starting on the Sunday after it first broadcasts, at any time during a 2 week period. WREK has its schedule at They stream “on demand”, meaning you go to the Sunday morning slot where it is listed and click on the streaming bandwidth you want, at any time, to listen to it. One week from Sunday, it will be found under the “last week” url on that page.

    She is funny, truly informative, and leaves you with a ton of quotable quotes. You can buy a copy of the recording at the site, and probably get permission from them to play it for your students, if you need to. They used to provide transcripts but I haven’t bought any for years, so don’t know if they still do. There are several other radio stations who also stream it, some 1-2 weeks later, or not every episode. You could listen to it Sunday and assign it to students to listen to it over the next 2 weeks for a discussion in class about it. That gives you time to get a list of questions together. I usually give those questions out when I assign such broadcasts ahead of time so they know what to think about while listening. It is amazing how much my students get from a PBS Nature or NOVA show when I do this. They learn how to enjoy watching PBS for the rest of their lives. When I was doing this, I could record the show and put it into the library for them to check out (still satisfying the educational fair use laws). However, such assignments probably would work better if you could send auto-email reminders to students every day. There will be fewer coat-tail riders in discussion groups. (Oh, I divide up my class into small discussion groups of 4-5 to talk out answers to questions and later share what their group decides with the rest of the class).

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