In one life I toiled in the trenches as a substitute teacher, mostly at the high school level. One of the first things I’d do upon entering the classroom was to surreptitiously scan the seating chart and learn four or five names. Then in the first few minutes of addressing the class, I would look at a student and call him by name. I could feel everyone flinch. If she knows his name, she might know mine.
After citing a few more names, I felt pretty confident that things would go smoothly. There’s nothing like hearing your name and thus having your veil of anonymity lifted to make a person feel vulnerable, as in a student who doesn’t want to get written up, or special, as in being called up out of an expectant crowd for having won a drawing for a new Toyota Prius.
It’s even possible to break someone’s anonymity without using their name. That’s why the guy stocking the grocery store’s shelves is taught to greet the customers. He’s not being friendly. He’s making it psychologically difficult for customers to shoplift. But I digress.
While donating blood the other day, I got into a conversation about names with my phlebotomist, Will, and told him about this post. He said in Catholic demonology, if someone calls the demon by name it will make the exorcism go easier. Now that’s some powerful intimidation. So I googled the subject and found a site called Religious Demonology. Its author is Adam C. Blai, Peritus, M.S., a clinical psychologist who, among other things, trains priests in exorcism.
He answers this question: “Knowing or saying a demon’s name gives me power over it, right?” by saying “No. Only God has power over demons.” Later he says, “People not called to spiritual warfare who know a demon’s name have no more ‘power over’ that demon than a high school student has power over a professional boxer in the ring just because he knows that boxer’s name.” I suggest you read the post as it’s more nuanced than I’ve presented it here.
Does any of this matter to a writer? Maybe peripherally. A character who is dealing with a rude customer service rep or nurse or flight attendant asks, “What’s your name?” Or, in a thriller, a woman is approached by a creepy stranger who addresses her by name.
Another random thought about names. In real-life conversations, people rarely use one another’s name. Woe to the writer whose dialogue sounds like this:
“Did you pick up the dry cleaning, Brad?”
“No, Malinda. I didn’t have time.”
“So, Brad, what do you plan to wear tonight?
Why do they call it Vers-otchi? I don’t put an Otchi bandage on my ankle.