There’s a weird phenomenon I noticed when growing up. My friends were categorized into first-name names and last-name names. Some boys in my class were called by their first names by the rest of the class and others were known by their last names. As I was never a girl, I don’t know if this phenomenon exists with them, but from what I understand, calling someone by their last name is more often a male thing. But what causes the use of first names or last names? How do children decide collectively which name to use?
It is my theory that everything was based on the boy’s first name. If he had a generic first name like “Yehuda” or “Dovid,” he was called by his last name, regardless if that last name was just as common, like “Goldberg” or “Friedman.” But if he had a less common name (in our circles), like Uri or Yoel, or really any secular name, he was a first-name person. The other thing that could’ve deemed you a first-name person was a nickname. It didn’t even have to be a unique nickname. The first name “Moshe” basically guaranteed that you would be a last-name name, but if your name was “Moish,” you’d be a first-name name. My name is Yisrael, and until sixth grade, that meant everyone called me by my last name. When I got a nickname, I instantly stopped being called “Zwiren” and started being called “Izzo.”
Being called by my last name was actually a source of somewhat discomfort for me. I didn’t like being called by my last name. It felt distant. It was as if my friends were oddly detached from me. I didn’t even realize this until people started calling me by my nickname; I preferred that so much more than the last name. Once I noticed this, I made a conscious effort to stop using other people’s last names, and try to only use first names. It makes me feel on a more even level with them, and less distant.
I never realized how universal this principle was until this past month. I was watching some of the analysis on the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. For those living under a rock, Kyle Rittenhouse is the 18-year-old who was just acquitted for killing two people and injuring a third during what has now been legally deemed a self-defense struggle during riots in Kenosha last summer. During the various analyses, whenever anyone who seemed to be on the side of Kyle Rittenhouse was speaking, they referred to him as “Kyle.” They were humanizing him, making sure you knew him as a kid named Kyle. Whenever someone who was ridiculing him spoke, he was called “Rittenhouse,” his last name. It’s cold and distant, like someone who you understand the idea of, but don’t have anything to do with.
Whether these decisions are intentional or subconscious, they do tell us something about how the human brain works. If they are intentional, the speaker knows that anyone listening will be warmer to the first name being spoken, and colder to the surname. If it is unintentional, they subconsciously understand that using the first or last names have certain connotations that each is trying to convey.
And to be honest, I know that in my own writing, I do this as well. For instance, when writing about either president on whom I have commented, I decide how to refer to the president based on whether I am praising or condemning. If I am praising, I make sure to show respect by using the title “President Trump” or “President Biden.” If I am condoning, I likely just say “Trump” or “Biden.”
I’m curious if I’m the only one who consciously does this with friends, though. I have many friends whom I, when younger, called by their last name, but then changed later on in life. Is there anyone else out there who does this? If so, why? What do you think the reasons behind first-name names and last-name names really are?
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.