I’ve just started reading Laurus, an English translation of a contemporary Russian novel. The book opens with this paragraph.
He had four names at various times. A person’s life is heterogeneous, so this could be seen as an advantage. Life’s parts sometimes have little in common, so little that it might appear that various people lived them. When this happens, it is difficult not to feel surprised that all these people carry the same name.
This reminded me of the section of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State that explains how names used to be more variable.
Among some peoples, it is not uncommon for individuals to have different names during different stages of life (infancy, childhood, adulthood) and in some cases after death; added to these are names used for joking, rituals, and mourning and names used for interactions with same-sex friends or with in-laws. Each name is specific to a certain phase of life, social setting, or interlocutor.
If someone’s name had more than one component, the final component might come from their profession (which could change) rather than their ancestry. Scott goes on to say
The invention of permanent, inherited patronyms was … the last step in establishing the necessary preconditions of modern statecraft. In almost every case it was a state project, designed to allow officials to identify, unambiguously, the majority of its citizens.
In short, governments insisted people adopt fixed names to make them easier to tax and to conscript. Before fixed names, governments would ask towns to provide so much tax money or so many soldiers because it could not tax or conscript citizens directly. For a famous example, see Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus: all went to be registered, each to his own town.
It’s hard to imagine people not needing fixed names. But when people lived on a smaller scale, interacting with a number of people closer to Dunbar’s number, there was no danger of ambiguity because there was more context.