“I’m sure this is the right way to use language, rather than tossing about words stripped of all meaning.”

With so much name-calling these days, this short excerpt seems timely: It’s from the novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk:

What a lack of imagination it is to have official first names and surnames. No one ever remembers them, they’re so divorced from the Person, and so banal that they don’t remind us of them at all. What’s more, each generation has its own trends, and suddenly everyone’s named Magdalena, Patryk, or—God forbid—Janina. That’s why I try my best never to use first names and surnames, but prefer epithets that comes to mind of their own accord the first time I see a Person.

I’m sure this is the right way to use language, rather than tossing about words stripped of all meaning. Oddball’s surname, for instance, is Swiersczynski—that’s what it says on his front door, with the letter “S” in front of it. Is there really a first name that starts with the letter S? He has always introduced himself as “Swiersczynski,” but he can’t expect us to twist our tongues trying to pronounce it. I believe each of us sees the other Person in our own way, so we should give them the name we consider suitable and fitting. Thus we are polyonymous. We have as many names as the number of people with whom we interact. My name for Swierszynski is Oddball, and I think it reflects his Attributes well. . . .

Unfortunately, I couldn’t choose a suitable name for myself. I regret the one that’s written on my identity card as scandalously wrong and unfair—Janina. I think my real name is Emilia, or Joanna. Sometimes I think it’s something like Irmtrud, too. Or Bellona. Or Medea.

Meanwhile Oddball avoids calling me by my name like the plague. That means something, too. Somehow he always finds a way to address me as “you.”

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