Tim Whatsit

Donald Trump casually discarded 700 years of tradition last week, referring to Apple CEO Tim Cook as “Tim Apple.” What are surnames for, anyway? We all knew who he was talking about, especially since Tim Whatsit was sitting right there, keeping a straight face.


The gaffe made Twitter lose its collective mind – admittedly a low threshold to cross. Tim Cook was celebrated for changing his Twitter name to Tim [apple emoji]. Alex Thingummybob at Wired magazine called it a “most legendary sub tweet.”

If we list mistakes made by heads of state, top to bottom, this gaffe is at the less catastrophic end. All of us talk like this all the time.

“I saw Mark for drinks last night.”
“English Mark?”
“No, rugby Mark.”

Most of us have lots of different names to different people. The Mark I know as “rugby Mark” might be “Christchurch Mark” to one person, “big Mark” to another, and “Mark next door” to someone else.

In the past, names have changed with circumstance. A child might receive a saint’s name at the time they were baptised, their ‘Christian’ name. A woman getting married would lose her patronymic, her father’s name, and gain her husband’s name.

We see a vestige of changing names for changing circumstances in the royal family. Queen Victoria was christened Alexandrina and Edward VII started off as Prince Albert.

We also use customary names for people whose official identity is unknown, like Jack the Ripper.

Add nicknames and diminutives to names that change with context and we have a complex tapestry of identity.

To insiders, all these overlapping identities provide a richly detailed social context. To outsiders, it’s completely opaque. In Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott compares the social context of customary naming techniques to the networks of little alleyways in medieval towns like Bruges. The layout has evolved for centuries to meet the needs of the locals.


In contrast, the modern idea that everyone has an unchanging canonical name, registered with the government, is more like the grid layout of Manhattan. It’s dead easy for an outsider to find the intersection of 5th Avenue and 33rd Street but that doesn’t tell you anything about what’s there.

Being easy for outsiders to find is exactly what official names are all about. In England, the idea of inherited surnames arrived with the Normans. After the Norman conquest, King William wanted a stocktake of his new possessions. He ordered a survey of all the lands in England, what’s now known as the Domesday Book.

When the King wants to know exactly who owns what, it’s usually because he plans to take some of it. Knowing the ‘what’ tells the King how big the tax yield might be. Knowing the ‘who’ tells the King who to hit up for the cash. Stable identity, legible to outsiders, is essential to knowing the ‘who.’ In William’s day, tax was tied to land and so surnames were only common among the aristocracy.

Peasants survived another three centuries without surnames. In 1380 the English economy was in turmoil. Constant war with France bankrupted the Crown and the aftermath of the Black Death meant labour was in short supply. King Richard II announced a poll tax.


Unlike King William’s land taxes, Richard’s poll tax fell on everyone. To administer the tax, county rolls were used to list everyone subject to the tax, and official names were recorded to make the population visible to the tax collectors. The Peasants’ Revolt, led by Wat Tyler and John Bull (or just Wat and John as they would have preferred to be known), marched on London in 1381, burning the county rolls as they went. Eventually the Revolt was put down, the rolls were redrawn, and surnames gradually became a part of everyday life.

A fixed official name in a government register is like a database ID, a unique identifier that allows a ruler to quantify his property. A list of literal “human resources” is essential for mass taxation and conscription, the financial and military fuel of the modern nation state.

As nation states consolidated their power from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, surnames spread with them. As those nation states spread across the globe forming empires, surnames followed. In the Philippines, for example, surnames were mandated on November 21, 1849. Scott, in Seeing Like a State, describes how those who didn’t have surnames were assigned them from a list. People in the provincial capital got surnames starting with A. The Bs and Cs and Es through to Ls were assigned along the coast, M- and S-names went up valleys and the end of the alphabet was assigned to the islands.

Official names have since been supplemented and superseded by passports, IRD numbers, fingerprints, DNA profiles, and facial recognition software, but surnames are what started us down the path of fixed identity and were essential to the rise of the nation state.


Some have speculated that the technological forces that helped Trump to power are undermining democracy and paving the way for a techno-feudalism. No wonder that tech baron Tim Apple was so good-natured about Trump’s disregard for one of the nation state’s most ingrained institutions.

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