One morning as I was sitting in the courtyard of San Miguel’s Biblioteca Pública, I noticed a woman in white standing to one side intently scanning the area. Our eyes met a couple of times as I began to survey the courtyard in reflexive sympathy. Eventually, she came over to where I was sitting and asked me what sounded like “Are you do glass?” ([aryúdúglas?] to which, after the brief pause required to reparse the question as “Are you Douglas?” I replied, “No. Sorry.” I was not surprised when it subsequently turned out that Douglas was a guy about my age, coloring, and dress sitting nearby who was waiting to be  tutored in Spanish by the woman in white, the courtyard of the public library being a popular place for such activities.

 It occurred to me (later, of course) that there were any number of more imaginative responses I might have given to the question “Are you Douglas?” than the vanilla, “No. Sorry,”  such as:  “No, Douglas is my evil twin (my Doppelgänger, understudy, imaginary companion…);” “Sí, pero creo que busque usted a mi tocayo” [‘Yes, but I think you’re looking for my namesake’]; or, simply, “Yes.” Less imaginative (i.e., serious, truthful) possibilities would have been one or another of the names by which I am actually known—my given name (Paul Alexander Humez), my nickname (Alex), or (stretching a bit), my tecnonym (Andrea’s Dad), a tecnonym being the name (ὄνυμα/ὄνομα) given to a parent based on that of his or her child (τέκνον)—in this case, a combination of the first name “Andrea” plus the hypocorism “Dad”—as in “Hey, Andrea’s Dad, is your name by any chance Douglas?”

When the Cyclops said to Odysseus, “Tell me your name” [Μοι τεòν ὄνομα εἰπὲ], the latter replied, “My name is Nobody” [Οὖτις ἐμοί γ’ ὄνομα], setting in motion a shaggy dog story that ends very badly for the Cyclops. In Homer’s day, a Greek, whether male or female, was given a single name (a tradition echoed by such modern-day celebrities as Madonna and Sting). Among the Romans, a male received a  praenomen (a first name, e.g., Gaius), a nomen (the name of his clan [gens], e.g., Julius], possibly supplemented by a cognomen (originally, a nickname, e.g., Caesar, which might be passed down as a subclan name), sometimes topped off by an  agnomen (an additional cognomen, e.g., the “Africanus” of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus). As for Roman women, according to The Oxford Concise Companion to Classical Literature, “at least in the upper classes, the praenomen was virtually abandoned, and they were usually known by the feminine form of their nomen or clan name, e.g., ‘Cornelia’, ‘Claudia’. A person’s nomen was of course the same as the (legal) father; women did not change their name upon marriage.”

Homeric Greek and Roman parents had a fair amount of liberty when it came to choosing a first (or only) name for their offspring, as we in the U.S. do today, witness, for example, the given names of the Zappa children: Moon Unit, Dweezil, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen—their sibling Ahmet was more conventionally named for Ahmet Ertegun—or the Campbell children, Adolf Hitler, JoceLynn Aryan Nation, and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie. (We may take at face value the speculations that Pigeen is a misspelling of pigeon and Hinler is essentially Do Glass for Himmler.) In other countries, one’s choices when it comes to personal names may be constrained not only by convention but by law. In France, for example, article 57 of the civil code ( states in part that when one or another of the first names chosen by the parents strike the civil service official in charge of vetting names as not in the best interests of the child or a violation of the rights of some third party, the matter goes to a judge who, if necessary, can assign the kid a noncontroversial name. (For gleeful elaboration on the legal constraints on personal names, see

Just as there are restrictions on what you can name your child in some countries, so are there restrictions on what you can legally change your name to if you don’t like the one you’ve got.  For example, in Québec, we read (  under “Quelles sont les raisons légalement acceptables pour changer de nom?” [‘What are the legally acceptable reasons for changing a name?’]): “Thus, a person named Julie could not, for example, present a request for a change of name on the grounds that she would like to be called Fantasia ‘because it’s more original.’ Nor could she change her name because the fact that it’s a common one causes her some inconvenience, for example, if she often receives the mail for another Julie Tremblay who lives in her neighborhood,” surely a reference to the classic joke in which a man comes before the magistrate with a request for a change of name. “What’s your name?” the magistrate asks. “John Turd.” “Yes, well, I can see why you might want to change your name. To what would you like to change it?” “Franklin Turd.” “??!!” “You see, there’s a guy down the street from me named John Turd and I keep getting all his mail.”

Nicknames, of course, are not typically a matter for the courts. (The word nickname was originally eke-name, getting its initial n as the result of the misparsing of an eke-name, an eke-name being, according to the OED “obs. An additional name, a nickname,” the eke- part being “an addition, increase; a piece added on; a supplement,” cognate with the aug- of augment. Eke-name has also been proposed as the origin of the word moniker, but that is another matter.) Usually, your nickname is foist upon you (for good or ill) by others, though under certain circumstances you may select your own, as in the following case:

 A burglar enters Mr. and Mrs. Jones’s bedroom and finds them in bed. Pointing his pistol at the woman, he says, “I’m going to kill you, but first I want to know your name.” “My name is Elizabeth,” she manages to say. “Ah,” the burglar says, “My sainted mother was named Elizabeth. In loving memory of her, I can’t bring myself to shoot you.” Turning his gun on the woman’s husband he asks, “And what’s your name?” “My name is Douglas,” the husband replies, “…but everybody calls me Elizabeth.”