Women of Letters

A black and white photo of an older couple.

Do you have a middle name? Not everybody does. Some people have two or more. If you have one, do you use it? Do you shorten it to an initial? In the US, we have some leeway in the ways that we identify ourselves, so you may have encountered these questions already in your own life—what name to put on, say, a job application or an apartment rental contract. Deborah Cameron, a feminist linguist who pays attention to many aspects of language use, wrote this July 2021 post about names for her blog, Language: a feminist guide. (By the way, she writes her blog under the name debuk.)

Read it here.


1. According to Cameron’s explanation, why might a woman author prefer to use initials rather than her full name on her work? Why might a woman author prefer that her full name be used? How might age or nation of residence factor into the decision? How well does Cameron explain the complications? How did you arrive at your assessment of her explanation? Point to examples that support the reasoning behind your assessment. 

2. Cameron is indeed an academic and has published extensively, but in her blog, she uses an informal and conversational tone. For example, near the end of her essay, she admits that she really has no answer to the question she started out with, stating, “I realise that’s not very helpful.” Point out three more examples of informal expression in Cameron’s blog post that you wouldn’t expect to find in a textbook or academic article.  

3. LET’S TALK. Imagine yourself ten or so years into the future, and your first book (or play, or academic publication, or magazine article) is about to be published in English (not a bad idea, huh?). How do you want your name presented? Full first name(s)? Full first and middle? First name and middle initial(s)? All initials? How did you arrive at your response? What is the image of yourself that you would like to see presented by your name? Did considerations of sexism or racial/ethnic bias figure into your decision? Why or why not? Think about these questions and discuss your responses with a few classmates. How varied were your group’s responses? Were you able to observe the complexity that Cameron describes? Did you rethink your own reasoning after listening to any of your classmates?

 4. AND NOW WRITE. How accurately does Cameron describe the academic world you inhabit? Make note of all the names of all the authors of your textbooks from all of your classes as well as all of your instructors’ names as they are shown on your course syllabus, your school’s website, or other official materials. How are your instructors generally addressed in person or in emails? (A spreadsheet might be useful for keeping track of your data.) Once you’ve compiled all the information, look for patterns with regard to gender and age. How do your data compare with what Cameron says? Write an essay detailing your observations and how well they do (or don’t) coincide with Cameron. 

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