From craft names to deadnames, nicknames to married names, usernames to aliases, there are innumerable reasons that most people have multiple names they currently use or have previously used to identify themselves. Despite what bureaucratic systems would have us believe, names, even magical names, are mutable and can change over time as our circumstances change and we, ourselves, change. Most of those names have deeper meaning than the specific letters spelled out on our birth certificates or driver’s licenses.
What is in a Name?
As I am fond of pointing out, words have power. The words we use to label and identify concepts and the things in the world around us frame much of how we view them. For example, if you own your own home, you may simply think of it as a house, much like any other house. If you give it a name or title, like “The Rogers Family Home,” “Emerald Gardens,” or “Delores,” it creates a very different perception and experience of being in that home.
You might name your home “Emerald Gardens,” even if the yard is barren, if you are putting in the work to create the garden paradise the name implies. If you are in a basement walk-up in a brownstone with little natural light and an inability to create an indoor hydroponics garden, using that name would be awkward at best.
The same is true for the names we use as humans. All names have meaning. Even in English where most names do not have a dictionary meaning, names still carry subconscious meaning. That is why one name can be a perfect fit, and other names seem completely incongruous with who that person is. If names truly did not have meaning, then anyone could be named Alex and be perfectly fine with it. I don’t know about you, but even though I rather like the name Alex, I would be more than a little upset if someone just decided to start calling me by that name, because it does not fit me. If Alex does fit you, I am sure there are no end of other names you would hate to be called instead.
Names are an ultimate kind of label. They are a way to label an individual, separately from all the other people and things which those individuals can be categorized with. I am a queer, transgender, nonbinary, white, American, witch. It says a bit about me, and provides labels which can group me in with other people, but it still doesn’t specifically identify me. Sidney Eileen specifically identifies me, and as such, it is a very visible and frequently used symbol of who I am. Your name(s) do the same for you.
Changes and additions to names are a very normal part of the human experience, so much so that many times we do not even think about how many names we actually have, or why we have them. When you are mindful of your names, where you got them, and why you use them, it provides deeper conscious awareness of yourself, and how you are interacting with and presenting yourself to the world.
Common Types of Names
This list is by no means exhaustive, but I do hope it covers all of the most common kinds of names people have, and gives some insight into why they exist. You may very well have a name which does not fit into any of these categories. If that is the case, I think that is awesome, and I would be delighted if you took a moment to comment and let me know what kind of name I missed.
We all have a birth name, given to us as infants and immortalized on our birth certificates (until legal name change do we part). For most people this name suits them fine, and they will use it, or some derivation of it, their entire lives. In Western society, this is the name which is most socially acceptable to use, and there are no shortage of haters who demean and vilify people who cast off their birth names, especially when that name change is part of gender transition.
If you like your birth name, awesome! That certainly makes things easier. If you do not, changing it can be a way to empower yourself and publicly signify that your life is yours to determine, no matter your reasons for wanting to change it.
Use Name or Primary Name
Primary names are the names by which a person is primarily known, across the board. This may be their birth name, their legal name, or a use name.
If someone decides they no longer want to use their birth name, they usually just start going by their preferred name, using the legal name only when necessary. Some people will retain their current legal name throughout their life, while others eventually go through the difficult, lengthy, and sometimes very expensive process of legally changing their name. I used the name Sidney Eileen for most of a decade before I finally managed to have it legally changed.
Sometimes a use name is extremely similar to a nickname or an alias. What makes it different from those two, though, is that it is preferentially used instead of the legal name, in all possible settings, including work, public, private, and with friends and loved ones. Nicknames and aliases typically are used in addition to the primary name, as opposed to replacing it. If the current legal name is also a deadname, it is particularly important to respect the fact that the use name is a replacement for the legal name at all possible times, not an addition to it.
For most people, their legal name and birth name are one and the same. Some of us, however, decide we want to use a different name, even on all our legal documents. Changing the last name at marriage is the most common kind of legal name change, signifying the union of two people as a single family, spiritually, legally, and in name. It is also very common for transgender people to change their legal name to affirm their true gender, but it is also not uncommon for cis people to decide their name does not fit them, and change it accordingly.
Sometimes when a person changes their legal name, the old legal names becomes just an old, rarely used name. Other times it becomes a deadname. The only person who can decide which is the case is the person who changed their name. Anyone in their life who respects them will respect that decision.
This is a name which is so antithetical to a person that it is no longer used, and should not be used by anyone under any circumstances. If you suspect or discover that someone has had or wants to have a legal name change, it is not OK to ask them what their birth name is. It is especially not OK to ask them what their “real” name is, as saying “real” implies that the currently used name is fake or invalid. Any name a person uses (other than disposable aliases created specifically for deception) is a real name, with real power to identify that person specifically.
Maiden Name/ Married Name
I truly hope this term becomes defunct as the years go by. It is a gendered term based on the social convention that women belong to their family or husband, and thus if they are successful as women, they will marry and take their husband’s family name. In this day and age, some men take their wife’s family name, some couples use hyphenations, and some couples do not change their names at all. Yet other couples will create entirely new surnames for both of them to take upon marriage.*
There is no true Right or Wrong way to arrange family names after marriage. It is a balance of cultural, practical, and personal influences, which each married couple must decide for themselves.
There is no masculine equivalent to “maiden name”, let alone a gender-neutral version for nonbinary or intersex people to use. Even though “Mother’s maiden name” can still be found on legal forms, it is an artifact of cultural standards which are no longer universally true across society. It only serves to reinforce sexist ideas of a woman’s place in the world by emphasizing family name changes for women, and ignoring men who take their wife’s family name.
I strongly recommend sticking to less problematic terms if you need to ask about or refer to someone’s change of name at marriage. “Married name” and “pre-married name” are gender inclusive and apply to all naming situations, including when there is no actual name change involved.
When I was a child in the 80’s, just about everyone had a nickname. I have noticed that nicknames seem to be less common among gen-Z, but it likely varies by region. Usually nicknames are an abbreviation or derivation of a given name, but sometimes it is a middle name, or something else entirely. Nicknames can also be bestowed by peer groups and friends, and in these cases are often based on personal traits, past events, role in the friend group, or personal accomplishments.
Nicknames are inherently additional names. That is, the person will always have a primary or legal name, and the nickname is used in addition to that primary name. That means both the primary name and nickname are equally valid to refer to a person, although sometimes the nickname is a term of familiarity. That means it is most likely to be used in informal or personal settings, by people who are friends, family, or close associates. Strangers and formal settings usually use the primary name unless they are invited to use the nickname instead.
If the nickname is not a derivative of the first name, and is the primary name by which a person is known, when their name is written out the nickname is included in quotes. This allows people who rarely or never use the legal name to still recognize the person who is being referred to, and allows strangers a glimpse into who that person is beyond their legal name. Random examples of this would be Harold “Buzz” Johnson, Carolina “Tiffy” Monroe, or Alex “Hurricane” Baker.
Usernames and Screen Names
In this era of online living, the vast majority of people have at least one username they preferentially use. Sometimes it is a derivative of their given name, but often it is something they decided upon independently. Just like with the names on our driver’s licenses, or in our everyday lives, these names are part of our first impression, and identify us to other people in the online forums where we use them.
Sometimes the meaning is obscure enough to be meaningless to the casual observer, and other times it is a deliberate public statement. I have one friend who was stuck with a username she found amusing as a teenager, and later found rather embarrassing after she shifted her use on that platform from purely personal to professional. However, she had developed enough of an organic following that it was unfeasible to delete her account and start over with a different username.
There are more reasons to want to change a username than casual vs. professional use, so many platforms now give the option to change your displayed username or screen name, even if the embedded account username remains static (much like a deadname that bigoted uncle still insists on using). It is sometimes a bit of an adjustment to others when usernames or screen names change, but people do adjust, and having the ability to fluidly redefine how you label yourself can be incredibly freeing.
Aliases are names people are known by, which are dramatically different from their legal name. Many celebrities and entertainers use aliases, whether it is to create a public persona, protect their private life, there was already an established celebrity with their legal name, the alias was “more marketable”, and more. Whether a person is a drag queen, stage magician, author, sex worker, musician, or Hollywood A-lister, aliases are so common that they are expected.
A lot of people use aliases online, in addition to their username. Sometimes this is for entertainment or marketing purposes, but more often it is for the sake of anonymity. Online aliases can also be extremely useful when someone is having trouble figuring out who they are, to give them a chance to test-drive different personas, interests, and hidden aspects of themselves in relative safety, without fear of backlash from friends and family. If Jane thinks they might actually be Jake, they can create an alias and try it out. If Nick is gay and in the closet, an alias can provide an outlet for their true sexuality. If Terry is expected by his parents to be all things toxically masculine, he can create an alias to connect with other people who are share conventionally feminine interests like botany or embroidery.
At the other end of the spectrum, some people will take on aliases for purposes of harmful deception. Whether it is a stolen or fabricated assumed identity, aliases are used daily to avoid consequences for a wide variety of crimes and bad deeds. Whether names are lifelong, long-term, short-term, or extremely temporary, this is the only kind of name I consider false, because it is specifically designed to obfuscate who the person is, rather than identifying them or helping them to express themselves.
Sometimes a name will apply during a person’s stage of life, rather than their entire life. This can be accidental, or it can be deliberate. For example, full names are often seen as formal, professional, or “adult”, and nicknames can be seen as casual, familiar, or “childish”. Some people stop using nicknames as adults because of these perceptions, even if they never deliberately decide to only use their full legal name. The nickname is then relegated to representing youth, and the full name representing adult life.
I do not mind my given name of Sandra, nor the primary nickname I used as a youth, Sandy. However, when after years of shadow work I was finally happy with who I was, I felt those names no longer applied to me and I changed my name. I now think of those names as my childhood names, because they did apply to me very well as a child and young adult, even if they do not apply to me now. I can appreciate the meaning they had for me at a different stage of my life.
Even if a legal name change is not involved, age-recognizing names are perfectly valid, and it can be incredibly transformative and empowering to deliberately take a new name when you enter or accept a new stage of life. This can be done casually, or it can be part of an elaborate rite of passage ritual (public or private) to commemorate the transition as a whole. Heron Michelle posted about an elder rite of passage which her coven devised and conducted for one of their members, which may give you ideas for your own rite.
Game and Character Names
The names that people use in LARPs and reenactment like the Society for Creative Anachronism are valid names for the people who use them. Sometimes these names represent characters with complex histories and alternative personas, like a performative alias for an entertainer, and other times they are simply names that fit better with the setting of the LARP. Members of the SCA are strongly encouraged to take historic names, even if they are not interested in character building or alternate personas, just to help create a more immersive experience for everyone involved.
As with any social group, assumed names like these can transition into becoming true nicknames, also used outside of actual LARP events to reliably identify the players even when they are living normal lives in the modern, mundane world.
There are a great many reasons a person may want to take on a magical or craft name, or more than one. Sometimes these are used publicly, and sometimes they are kept secret, to only be used privately between the practitioner and their deities, ancestors, and spiritual aids. Some people have both a public and a private craft name. Exactly how private or public you are with your names will depend upon your practice and philosophies. There is no wrong answer to the question of public or private as long as you arrive at your answer through deliberate and conscientious consideration of what the name means to you and your practice.
Some traditions will include the choosing or donning of names as part of their established rites. If you are part of such a tradition, it is best practice and most respectful to adhere to the conventions and customs of your tradition in the choice of name and where and how to use it. These names and the rituals around them will be rich with beautiful history and meaning, so I highly recommend a deep dive into understanding and fully embracing that and what it means for you, your life, and your personal path within the tradition.
Catholicism is a mainstream religion that includes such a naming convention. Saint names are given at birth or taken at confirmation, and ideally the domain of influence of the saint will have personal importance to the individuals who bear their name. Similarly, it is not uncommon for pagan and pagan-tangential traditions to include taking a new name upon initiation, or achieving specific ranks or accomplishments within the tradition.
If your tradition does not require such a component, but you would like to add a naming into your path, I recommend speaking to your elders, leaders, and teachers. Discuss with them the possibility of crafting such a rite of passage, or including a naming aspect into an established rite of passage, and how to treat such a name in a way which is respectful to the established conventions of your tradition.
If you do not have a magical, craft, or tradition name, that is fine too! I don’t have any such names, and it would not surprise me if I never do. I contemplated taking a craft name when I was in my 20’s, when it seemed like The Thing To Do To Be Valid, but nothing ever clicked or stuck. It works for me to just use my legal name for all things, especially since I do not compartmentalize much and it is a name I wholly chose for myself to represent my truest self.
If you want a craft or magical name, but have not discovered the right one yet, that does not invalidate you or your practice. Same if you have a name you are using or have used, which works fine, but you are still searching for your True name. Names are deeply personal in general, and even more so when you are seeking a name to represent your true self or your purpose on a magical or spiritual level. Finding a name to fit your truest you is an exercise in finding your truest you, and almost none of us grow up knowing who that is. Do your shadow work, find and craft your truest self, and when the time is right, you will find the name that sings to the beautiful creature you are.
Magical and craft names can also change over time as you change during this insane journey we call life. Just like with given and legal names, it is up to you whether your old craft names become deadnames, or continue to be yours even if you use them rarely or never at all.
If you are interested in reading more about magical names in particular, these articles go into that subject in greater depth. All of them are written by people who, unlike me, have and use magical names.
- Pagan Basics – Questions When Picking Your Magical Name by Laurel Reufner
- What’s In a Name? by Gwyn
- Finding Your Magical Name by Patti Wigington
- Your Magical Name by Rachel Patterson
Titles and Honorifics
Titles and honorifics can become part of our names, or in specific circumstances can be used instead of a conventional Western name. One of the most common titles used in pagan circles is High Priest/Priestess/Priestex, and most traditions will have other titles which are bestowed on people who act in specific capacities or roles for the community of the tradition, or indicate a specific rank or level of accomplishment. There are also temporary titles which are used when performing specific rites or rituals, and are valid names for the people they identify when in the context of the rite or ritual.
Titles are more often bestowed than taken, as they usually rely upon community approval for validity. Even if someone names themself a High Priest(ess/ex) of their self-conceived tradition, if there is no community to learn from them and attend their rituals, the title is effectively meaningless. Also, if instead of earning titles you just dub yourself with Lord, Lady, or another similarly self-aggrandizing title, it is generally seen as tactless, rude, and presumptuous.
Other times titles are earned through memorable events or specific deeds unique to the person who receives them. In this way, titles can blur the line between nicknames and other more common forms of names. For a mythological example, Cú Chulainn (Cuhullin) was not born with that name. It literally translates to Culann’s Hound, and he was given that name after he killed Culann’s hound and then acted in place of the hound until a new pup was trained to the job. It then went on to be the name by which he was most well known.
In a modern context “Culann’s Hound” would be a title, given during or after an exceptional accomplishment or event. Following nicknaming conventions, such a title could become a commonly used name, perhaps even better known than the individual’s birth or legal name. As long as people familiar with that person can immediately identify who is being referred to, it is a valid name, and one that likely has a great story to go with it.
Contemplate and Fully Claim Your Names
Here is an exercise to help you consciously understand all the name you have, where you got them, and what they meant and currently mean to you.
Take a few minutes to write down all your names, including any names you no longer use. If you are using paper, leave some space for notes beside and under each name. If a particular question does not apply to a particular name, just skip it. If you think of a question which I did not list here, go ahead and ask yourself that question. The goal is to drill down and achieve conscious understanding, so these questions are guidelines, not hard rules.
After you have written down all the names you can think of, whether it is two or two dozen, go through them one at a time, contemplating and taking notes on each in turn.
- Where did you get the name, and why was it chosen? Did you choose the name for yourself, or did someone else? Is there a specific story associated with gaining the name?
- Do you still use this name? Why, or why not? Would you prefer to use or not use the name, and why? How strongly do you feel about using or not using it?
- Under what conditions has/does this name get used? Is it all the time, or only under special circumstances or with particular people?
- What people in the past have used this name when referring to you? Did you want these people using that name, and why or why not?
- What people in the present use this name when referring to you? Do you want these people using that name, and why or why not?
- If this is a name you no longer use, did this name accurately reflect who you were in the past?
- Does this name accurately reflect who you are now?
- Does this name spark joy or dread, or are you ambivalent about it? Why? If this question makes you uncomfortable, be like a curious child, and for each answer keep asking yourself Why until you have drilled down to root answer(s). There is a beautifully simplistic depth and wisdom in continuing to ask why even after an answer has been found.
- How important is this name to you, and why? Was it more or less important in the past, and why?
- Do you want to adjust when, how, and with whom this name is used?
- How would/do you feel if people use the name in ways you do not explicitly consent to? If your consent is violated, what steps do you feel are appropriate to stop that violation?
- Are there specific memories that you associate with this name? What are they?
- If this is one of your favorite names, why is that? What depth of meaning does it have beyond the others?
After you have gone through all your past and current names individually, look at them overall.
- Are there patterns to when and how you have gained new names?
- Are you surprised by the number of names you have? Are you reflexively assigning value to that number as being good or bad, and why?
- Is there a new name or type of name you would like to have, which you do not currently have? Why do you want that name? How important is it and why?
- Are you expecting or contemplating gaining new names in the near future? Why, and what meaning does that process have for you? Why is it a future event, and not a present reality?
- Are there any names which you forgot or left off the list, even “inconsequential” ones? If so, add them.
Bonus round, for those who would like to do more contemplation into naming in general.
- What are some other names that you do not use, but you would not mind being called? Why? Do they just feel nice, or is it more than that?
- Are there additional kinds of names you can think of which I did not mention here?
- Think about the names your family, friends, and acquaintances use. If you know multiple names for them, do you prefer to use particular names, and why? Do any of their names seem incongruous to you?
- Do you have favorite names which you would never want to use for yourself?
If you find yourself accumulating names until you become Dana “D” Betta Jones, Raven Drake Thornbrook Oakenwind, Keeper of Books, Heart Guardian, and Priestex of the Four Winds, please just keep on being gloriously and unapologetically you.
If you are Dana Jones, and that solitary name fits you like a warm snuggly hug of self-realization, please just keep on being gloriously and unapologetically you.
Names are Like Tattoos
Most people will have at least one or two names in addition to their birth name. Some people will have a lot more names than just that. I think of it a lot like tattoos. It is valid to leave your body the way it naturally developed (like a birth name). It is also valid to be completely covered in tattoos, but most people these days will have just one or two. Tattoos are accumulated over time, and are often meaningful, commemorative, or memorial, but sometimes they are just really neat or fun and make their bearer happy.
Some tattoos will be in locations that are visible at all time, like on the hands or face or neck. Others are easily visible or easily hidden, like on the arms or legs. Others will be in locations which are almost always or always hidden from public view. The visible tattoos become part of first impressions, like the primary names we use. The easily hidden ones are also easily shared with those we trust to appreciate them, like public craft names and nicknames. The partially hidden ones hint at more glory just out of view, like names and titles that hint at greater stories and personal journeys. The fully hidden tattoos are only to share with those we trust most, like secret tradition names and secret craft names.
If you have a friend with a tattoo machine or jury-rigged stick-and-poke with india ink, or just have one hell of a night with a convenient street shop nearby, it is possible to end up with a tattoo you never planned on, much like a nickname bestowed upon you by friends during or after a series of (un)fortunate events. You may like it, or you may not, or you may just accept it as part of the friendship and that time in your life. Regardless, it is going to be there for a while, and maybe for the rest of your life.
We tend to think of both names and tattoos as permanent, but it is not unusual to decide that a particular tattoo is no longer wanted, and either cover it up or have it lasered off. Depending upon the original tattoo, the skill of the artist doing the coverup, or how many sessions of lasering a person can sit through, part of the original tattoo may still be visible. It is similar for a deadname that relatives insist on continuing to use, or a hated nickname that “friends” just will not let go. If you are patient and get some more work done on your coverup or laser removal, over time it may be possible to genuinely eradicate any visible trace of the original tattoo. It can be a long process, like setting boundaries and eventually cutting off people who do not respect your names, and by extension you.
That is because names and tattoos are both choices we make about how to claim ourselves in this life, and how to present ourselves to the world, our communities, our friends, our loved ones, and ourselves. When it is done well, it is a glorious expression and affirmation of self, and part of a neverending process of self-discovery and self-expression.
So go forth, beautiful people, and be your most glorious and truest selves, proudly bearing the names you have and will earn in this life.
* EDIT: In the section about married names I added, “Yet other couples will create entirely new surnames for both of them to take upon marriage.” I was not aware of this convention until I read an excellent blog post from Major Arqueerna titled “Names, power, and vulnerability“, where they delve into their personal journey with names.