And your name was . . . ?

There is this peculiar conversational idiom popular now for some years.  Most often I find it occurs during business transactions, but it might just as often happen with a new personal acquaintance.  It is simply this: somebody asks for your name in the past tense.  Think about it. We have all experienced it, perhaps we are compelled to use the idiom ourselves.  But my question is why?  Why do we ask What WAS your name, rather than What IS your name?  To be sure, I am often tempted, and frequently succumb to the smart-mouthed rejoinder, “still is”.  Unfortunately, to this day, no past-tenser has ever quite understood my point.

I used to think this was sort of a face-saving device.  You are introduced to someone, you promptly forget their name, and a little bit later in the conversation you need to be reminded.  You don’t want to say,”What is your name?” as if you had never heard it before, as if it mattered so little that not only had you forgotten it, but you don’t even recall you were told once.  So, you cover yourself the best you can.  You say, “What WAS your name?” meaning, “What DID you say your name WAS?  This is likely a true and accurate account of the phenomenon.

Yet, something tells me there is more.  I suspect there is a sort of intimacy and exposure to the present tense that compels most of us to back down.  The past, after all, is so safe.  It is determined and predictable.  It is safely in the pocket. One can retell it to suit one’s taste or prejudice, and it cannot rise up and contradict, because only a present power can do that, and the past always was, and never is. The present is the realm of responsibility, wakefulness, indeterminacy.  In the present I am a soul with inward being; in the past I am a form or object.  We ask others in a glib sort of way, How are you?  It is a polite greeting that we don’t really want anyone to answer too deeply.  Imagine how uncomfortable someone might become if we insisted, “No, really, how ARE you, right now, this moment?”

“What IS your name” is a kind of soul-to-soul encounter.  The right-now me wants to acknowledge the right-now you.  “What WAS your name” is, on the other hand, akin to asking, “What did your parents name you?” it is safely in the past, and is about the actions of other agents.  “What do you call yourself?” is about your self-regard, right here, right now.  Imagine establishing THAT as a popular idiom!

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