Thursday, February 01, 2007

What's in a name? No, seriously, I want to know what is in a name.

According to RandBall (which got the info from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), Troy Polamalu's legal last name used to be Aumua. And by used to be, I mean a few days ago. He has recently changed his legal name to Troy Polamalu.

But we've known him as Troy Polamalu for as long as we've known him! What the hell is going on?

This leads to all sorts of questions about identity. As an existentialist, I believe that an individual's identity is tied to his/her actions. But I also believe as individuals, we have control over our identities. What we are is how we act, but what we are is also what we want to be (or, if you prefer, we choose our actions that define our identities. I am a vegan not because I say I am, but because I choose not to eat animal products--but then, I choose not to eat animal products because I consider myself a vegan. The relationship between self-awareness, identity, and action is a convoluted web). Of course, there are aspects of our identities beyond our conscious control that we may end up tying closely to our identity (I'm left-handed, and didn't choose to be), but we still choose what we want to make important to our identities (whether I think being left-handed has anything to do with who I am is up to me). Perhaps this philosophy places too much control on the individual and doesn't give enough power to "fate": it's hard to say that an individual has total ownership over his/her identity if he/she is really short, deformed, mentally challenged, really tall, particularly ugly, deaf, etc. But it's still an empowering philosophy.


None of us pick our names. We have such control over our identities, but before we're even aware that having a name matters, somebody else picks a name for us. My son will eventually act as he chooses, and his identity will be what he chooses--but his name was given to him by his mother and me. He may eventually hate or love his name, but he had no control over that name. So that one thing, that one thing that is so critical to public and private identity, is beyond choice.


In some cases we do choose our names! I've chosen the names "Vegan Viking" and "Pacifist Viking"; my parents didn't give them to me. And so when we communicate online, we can choose to use our given names, or we can choose new identities and names.


What do we mean by "real name"? Just because Troy Polamalu's name wasn't "legally" Polamalu, does that mean his name wasn't "really" Polamalu? Are our identities only tied to what we are "legally" or "officially"? If he has been called Polamalu for years, if everybody else has called him Polamalu for years, if he's only known as Polamalu, isn't that what his "real" name was all along (or at least, according to the story, for the past 15 years)? What is "real," and what is "legal"? I suppose Nicholas Cage's "real" name is Nicholas Coppola, but is it "really"? What the hell do we mean by "real"?


Doesn't what others call us mean a lot? And doesn't taking ownership of a name mean a lot? Think of Kunta Kinte. Think of how members of one race or group take possession of slurs that other groups have for them, how they are "allowed" to use those terms. Think of whether you get called by your first name, or get called "Mr.," or get called "sir," or get called "boy." How people choose to address us often signals how much or little respect they have for us. Generally, if people call us what we want to be called, it means they are respecting us.

I'm not providing any answers here; seeing that Polamalu is officially changing his name to Polamalu merely raises many existential questions about identity and name.


  1. I have a friend with a two-year-old, he and his wife gave him the middle name, Trouble. I'm very curious to see how that does, or does not impact his personality longterm.

    Any info on why Troy changed his name? Religion? Family problems?

  2. He went by Polamalu--his mother's middle name--since he was like 10 and his parents divorced. Even a lot of official documents had him listed as Polamalu--he just never changed the real name.