Once in a while, someone asks me if I’m Matt Gemmell. I always tell myself that next time, my reply will be a wry Only if he doesn’t owe you money, but in reality I just say yes then silently curse the missed opportunity.

A year and a half ago, I wrote about losing my surname then taking it back, and the story will always be a defining part of my past. It shook my identity loose for a time, and I’ve never regained ownership of the person I was during those years. I did learn something, though, or rather I relearned some ancient wisdom that we’d do well to keep in mind.

We’re given labels by our parents, chosen for reasons from the aesthetic to the traditional to the whimsical. Some are burdened with unwieldy or undermining labels, and some don’t identify with what they’re called, and later choose to make changes. That’s fine. They’re only labels.

But they are also Names.

When we use the word ‘name’ as a verb, it deliberately doesn’t have a passive meaning. To name something is to assign, or to identify, or to command. To name is to coalesce the concept of a thing into words, thus loading those words – in the moment of naming – with the essence of the thing. To name is to construct a proxy.

To speak a name is to perform an incantation. It’s a summoning of meaning, and usually of attention. To speak the name of another within earshot is to call their focus to you, and to begin to address them. A runic shorthand for the pulling of someone’s mind towards you.

It’s the opening of a conduit.

Perception is everything, and everything is perception. The only world we know is the world we make, from instant to instant, by the filtering of sensory input and the filling-in of blanks, by the architecture of assumption and education, by ignorance and prejudice, and by instinct and intuition. We build our own proxy, for the unknowable and only vaguely-guessed actual truth of reality. We see only the barest sliver of the spectrum, no matter which sense we’re talking about. The world we know is a simulation, and we are the simulators.

Names are talismans. They’re keys which open pathways; routes from one point to another. Even if those who are named aren’t present, the door still opens – because in this dim, shadow-universe we’ve collectively built in the scant inches around the fragile campfire of our consciousness, there’s no meaningful distinction between our concept of a thing, and the thing itself. We can’t know any differently.

To think of a name, then – to call it forth from memory and fasten upon it – is to invoke the shape and associations and uniqueness of a thing; to name is to conjure a topology. And to actually speak a name, perturbing the air with its sound and propagating its possible association, is to perform a small work of magic.

When I walked around the lochs that evening as a teenaged boy with my brother and father, and I let slip that single word – Ridley – that told my father that the surnames of my brother and I had been changed to no longer match his, the word fell into the calm surroundings like a stone. Leaves rustled. Birds took flight. The waters of the loch rippled and slapped against the shore. A cloud dusted across the face of the Sun, just for a moment. There was silence. A curse had been performed, worked over months and engineered to burst aflame on any such evening. I was its proxy, and its final component. Words have power, and none more so than names.


The imp is banished, without the new queen’s first-born, only by her chance discovery of his name on the eve of his collection of their Faustian bargain. Sometimes he is Tom Tit Tot (in England), or Päronskaft (in Sweden). In France he may be Tracassin or Perlimpinpin, amongst others, and parts of India know him as Ram-Khel-Tilak. Here in Scotland, he is Whuppity Stoorie – as I was Ridley – but it’s the truth of his name that matters.

Our names summon us, and open us. They lay us bare to the magic of others, or indeed of ourselves. They are the silvery highways, and lattices, and webs that can be conjured to life simply by addressing the thought-form of another entity. When they’re true, they are our greatest vulnerabilities.

Be careful about who knows your true name. It carries very real risks. For a time, my true name was Matt Ridley, coward. For another, it was Matt Gemmell, failure. I have other true names now, and I keep them hidden, because for another to speak them would deal me a profound blow. Like a fist against the cheek, or a word uttered by a boy on the banks of a loch, quietly, yet loud enough to startle every bird in the forest all around.

The magic of these names is our own: we imbue the words with power, and create our vulnerability to them. They are the names we call ourselves; our self-bound invocations.

Where there is the sword, though, there is also the shield.

We can bind other names to ourselves, given time. We can choose our names – like Gemmell, or like writer – and we can make them ours. All it takes is to rebuild the shadow-universe in its entirety, brick by brick, starting at the ends of our fingertips. To reframe our subjective reality, placing ourselves at a different nexus in its network. To build a new world, beginning with who we want to be, instead of who we are.

We can claim those names, you and I. We can use them to draw power – the energies that my particular language calls aspiration and confidence and determination, and more besides – and we can use that power to construct a shield for ourselves.

We don’t have to wait to be given our marks; our labels and runes. We can decide.

Our true names hold sway over us, but they also govern the world around, and how it can reach us. They set the routes, and the amplitudes, and the frequency. They shape our own form in the minds of others.

It’s important to know them, and to choose them, because they bind us.