How to understand the power of the personal name

I asked Mrs. Kat earlier this week—"So, what is our schedule for this morning?" She replied, "First, Ilan, then Benny followed by Lior and after that, Momi." For Kat readers who may not have understood, it being totally clear to this Kat, I will translate: "First the greengrocer, then the baker, after that the butcher, followed by the home supply store."

This exchange between Mrs. Kat and me has its roots deep in the way that homo sapiens have developed as a social, communicative animal. These dynamics still obtain, despite the telegraph, railroad, telephone, radio, automobile, airplane, and internet. Trademark law and practice may pay less attention, but it remains a potent means of commercial communication. "It", being the power of the personal name.

First, some wisdom from Yuval Noah Harari and his internationally acclaimed book, "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind". In Part I [Merpel says: "Read Part I; you will never look at the world in quite the same way."], Harari describes how gossip (exchanges of information) in small groups enabled the forging of interpersonal bonds millennia ago. Gossip was the communications glue that held people together without any formal structures, the key being exchanges based on intimate acquaintance. Small scale meant everything.

The problem was that the efficacy of gossip, the means by which mutual trust, the cornerstone for social cohesion, was established, became ineffective when groups exceeded 150 people. Above that, the number of interpersonal interactions engaged in gossip became prohibitive; some other social mechanism to secure social order became necessary. Harari describes this mechanism as the creation of commonly held "myths", imagined realities by which those in larger and larger collectives could share with one another, in place of the validation of trust based on interpersonal relations within a small group.

"Myths" do not simply mean the stories of Greek gods, but any belief system around which people can coalesce, including legal systems. Laws are no less (or more) real than Olympus or Hades. They transcend the need to rely on the intimate and personal, even if they lack the validating authority that flowed from the world of gossip in small groups.

One such myth is trademarks, and its imagined constituents, goodwill and confusion. Consider that even if goods or services might have been exchanged in small groups in prehistoric times, there would have been no need for any mark. The source was directly identifiable, intimate, and personal. Trademarks came later, like all the other myths, when personal exchanges as the foundation of social cohesion were no longer feasible. But one remnant of the identifiable, intimate, and personal is encapsulated in the form of Mrs. Kat's communications, in her schedule from Ilan to Benny to Lior to Momi.

Trademark law made its own accommodation with myths through its treatment of family names, resting on the myth of secondary meaning/acquired distinctiveness. [Interestingly, as an elaborated example of his notion of myth, Harari, from an endless array of alternatives, devotes several pages to the rise of the Peugeot car company, as it moved from Mr. Peugeot to the family name of a small business to Peugeot as the name of a multi-national corporation.] But Mrs. Kat did not use family, but rather personal, names. What do we make of this?

First is the compactness of Mrs. Kat's communication. Ilan, and the others, are real people who are engaged in commercial activities that are directly and intimately connected to them. There is a striking similarity between Mrs. Kat's use of these names in this context and the unmediated interpersonal environment of the small-group past. Each of these people is the purveyor of a small business with a regular customer clientele.

From among this clientele, a subset exists that identifies the respective business solely in terms of the relevant personal name. When members of this subset encounter each other, they can communicate based on these personal names and even provide a set of characteristics for each of these names that are generally accepted within the group.

There is also the role of place. Each of these people, for tens of years, have operated from the same single, fixed location, which further reinforces the power of the personal name. When I say that I am going to Benny, I mean not only that I expect that Benny will be there to sell me the baked goods, but he will do from the same location. These locations are all within a radius of 50-100 yards from each other.

Should one of them move, then the mere mention of the personal name may not have the same power of draw. Recalling the small social gatherings of the prehistoric past, it means that he has left the confines of the group and the intimacy necessary to confer the power enjoyed among those who are part of the subgroup.

As well, should one of them pass away or otherwise no longer be directly associated with the business, the likelihood of continuing to refer to it as Ilan, Benny, Lior or Momi will diminish, if not disappear entirely. If there is no longer any Lior to meet personally, the less likely that Lior means the butcher. It is this that highlights the power of the personal name and a live remnant of Harari's mythless world of the past.

"We're off to Ilan", says Mrs. Kat. Now, Kat readers know exactly what she means.

Picture on lower left is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain as the author died in 1926.

Picture on upper right is in the public domain.

How to understand the power of the personal name How to understand the power of the personal name Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Thursday, October 21, 2021 Rating: 5

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