In Public Life, First-Name Familiarity Isn’t Always Affectionate

<i> David Benjamin Oppenheimer is an assistant clinical professor of law at the University of San Francisco. </i>

A decade ago, when I worked for then- Chief Justice Rose Bird of the California Supreme Court, I was frequently asked “how’s Rose” (or “how’s Rosie”). When people asked after Matthew Tobriner or Stanley Mosk, it was always “how’s Justice ----,” but the chief justice was almost always “Rose.” In time I learned to quip that Justice Bird and I were on a first-name basis: “She calls me David; I call her Chief.”

I’m reminded of this by the reaction I’ve received lately to my “Jackson for President” button, which prompts friends, colleagues and students to remark how well “Jesse” is doing. I smell a rat.

How did Jackson come to be publicly known by his given name? I haven’t heard anyone refer to the fellow he’s running against as “Mike.” On the other side of the fence, does the vice president have a first name?

Think about our current and recent national leaders. In conversation, most of them are generally spoken of with reference to their last name only. A few are referred to by their given and family names together. None is so widely referred to by first name alone as Jackson.


When we do refer to our leaders by their first names alone we are almost certainly using them as diminutives. President Carter was “Jimmy” by his own preference. But if we call President Reagan “Ronnie,” a belittlement is implied. Our informality is a means of communicating our lack of respect. The only recent exceptions to this apparent rule took on their public personas as a President’s kid brothers; we called them “Bobby” and “Teddy” because President Kennedy (informally, “J.F.K.”) did.

Our use of language reflects our history, often without our awareness. When Jackson’s ancestors arrived in this country as slaves they left behind their family names with their history; here they were only entitled to first names. If they carried last names at all it was simply as a designation of who their owners were. Although the practice is now beginning to change, it remains the rule in this country that a woman is given the use of her father’s name until marriage, when she is expected to take her husband’s name.

Are we more comfortable calling our black and female leaders by their first names because these names are historically all that is properly theirs? Is the diminution intended, or merely unconscious?

Whatever the cause, now that I’m aware of the phenomenon I’m finding it easy to change my usage. As a name, “Jackson” has a nice ring to it--very presidential.