In these uncertain times, Your Humble Blogger has been playing a version of the Name Game on-line—it appears that I haven’t written about the Name Game before in this Tohu Bohu. My Gracious Host described it quite well twenty years ago, and although the version we play on-line is perforce slightly different, that’s the basic notion: a giver clues a famous person’s name without using any names. If the cluer can’t get someone to guess it by the actual identity of the person (he wrote about fat men from space) you clue it by the sound or spelling of the name (his first name is the guy who was in the lion’s den; his last name is a pale color followed by aitch-too-oh). It’s an excellent game, and it’s easy to adopt house rules to improve the MFQ for your specific circumstances and players.
As I’ve been playing this Spring, I’ve become increasingly frustrated how obviously it centers Anglophone people with “typical” or “standard” Western names. If you can’t manage to clue by what the person is famous for, it’s easier to clue Daniel Pinkwater than Gish Jen, and much easier to clue Hilary Mantel than Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. That means that I’m likely to think twice about choosing anyone with a name that doesn’t in some sense ‘sound Anglo’ to me.
Take, for instance, Pulitzer-winning playwrights—I am more likely to put into the hat Annie Baker or Michael R. Jackson than Martyna Majok or Ayad Akhtar, because if people don’t know the names of any of their plays, I feel confident the game won’t come to a halt while the cluer fumbles with what the name rhymes with, or some other famous person who has a similar name. In public health (which has been in the news lately, you know) cluing Thomas Quinn or Sara Bennet is more fun than cluing than Ashish Jha or Saad Omer, despite their lower level of visibility. Some people, of course, rise to a level of fame that makes a person reliably clueable—Idi Amin, say, or Mao Tse-Tung. But the level of fame that makes a name fun to have in the hat is much, much higher for a non-Anglo name than an Anglo name. And every time a name has caused the MFQ to plummet, it has been a non-Anglo name.
Since I am mostly playing a text version these days, I would even hesitate to throw a name into a hat if the spelling is “nonstandard”. Dwyane Wade is pretty famous, Klay Thompson is even more famous I think, but people are going to be irritated if they have correctly guessed the person but can’t remember how their names are spelled.
I want to emphasize that this isn’t anyone’s fault. It isn’t just that people don’t read enough writers in translation (tho’ I don’t) or that we have lousy techniques for clueing non-Anglo names (tho’ we do). It’s just how it is: the game is more fun if the names are more familiar, and the names are more familiar if they sound Anglo. If we somehow lived in a world where there were not a fairly limited set of “standard” names, with all the rest “nonstandard”, then the Name Game might not be entertaining at all.
I have become increasingly uncomfortable with it. The whole process of choosing names for the hat has started leaving a bad taste in my proverbial. We’re more likely to play with “standard” names, which is (in our current culture) going to mean more American names, and within that subgroup, more white people’s names. Isn’t it? I know it does Naomi Janumala no harm if I do not include her in the Name Game, nor am I laboring under the impression that my friends and I have tremendous influence over the broader cultural landscape. And yet… are we not telling ourselves, with every game, who is really important and who is not? Look at the list of Pritzker Prize-winning architects: which ones seem pretty reasonable to throw into the hat? For me it would be Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Philip Johnson, maybe I.M. Pei. Nothing against those old mostly-white dudes, but… well, they’re old white dudes. They’re not a representative subgroup of the Pritzker Prize winners. We know we’re just playing a silly game, and we know it—but at the same time… am I not laying down mental ruts for myself, and am I so sure I will be able to drive out of them whenever I want?
Anyway. I just wanted to get that off my chest.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,