All in a name

I enjoy making puns and I enjoy the reaction of people when I make an especially clever pun. Last night I got a reaction from my sister by telling an elaborate story that featured our Uncle Ted, who had a brother named Giles. In our family, Giles was known as Gus. So I made up a story about how they formed a baseball team with ten players, which meant that they had “a spare Gus.” We had just eaten delicious asparagus as part of our evening meal. Uncle Gus died decades ago and we do not have other family members with that name, so there was no individual who heard the joke on their own name.

I have, on occasion, made jokes about the names that people have, but I have learned to exercise caution. It is likely that whatever joke I might make about someone’s name is one that the person has already heard. And jokes about one’s name can be annoying. People get tired of being the topic of a joke.

When Susan was in the hospital, we met a very talented and caring nurse’s assistant whose name was Alexa. We commented on the fact that her name was the same as the word used to wake the digital assistant sold by Amazon and asked her if people kept giving her orders because of her name. She told us that she had a roommate whose name is Siri, the word that is used to wake up apple digital devices.

I think, because of the way she told us her story, that the roommate named Siri is a real person that actually exists, but in retrospect, I have wondered just a bit. Did Alexa so tire of all of the questions about her name that she made up a fictional roommate as a way to deal with the situation? We were so well treated by Alexa that we don’t believe that she felt bad about our inquiries about her name. We certainly hope that she feels good about her beautiful name and her nursing skills and her ability to help people in need.

According to an article published by BBC, parents of children named Alexa report that their daughters have been bullied and in at least one case the bullying was so intense that the family decided to change the girl’s name. Other parents are calling on Amazon to change the name used to wake the digital assistant. Apparently it is possible to program the devices to respond to other voice commands, but the vast majority of the devices are set up to respond to Alexa.

We have a friend whose name is Siri who is a brilliant young attorney. She is confident and assured in her manner and I can’t imagine that she would tolerate bullying of any kind, but I wonder if she has experienced an excess of jokes because Apple decided to use her name as the wake up command for their digital assistant.

We own several devices that give instructions in digital voices. Some of the voices are less pleasant than others. When we purchased a Garmin brand GPS unit to use in our car, I found out that it had several voices in the programming. I didn’t like the American English voice and so experimented with the other voices that could be used. Afrikaans was the first language on the alphabetical list. I liked the voice, but do not speak or understand the language. I finally settled on British English for the device. After a while we started calling our GPS unit “Hyacinth” after the character in a British sit-com. The device finally wore out and we replaced it with another unit that has different voice options. Somehow I ended up calling the voice in this unit “Jill,” though I don’t know how I came up with that name.

It is rather silly how we think of electronic devices as having human qualities. However, the manufacturers of the devices do want us to form relationships with them that will endear their devices, and the brand that they sell, to the public.

We have digital assistants that come with our cell phones, but we don’t have a voice command device in our home. Frankly, I’m a bit creeped out with the thought of some corporation being able to listen in on my conversations. It seems a bit too invasive for me. I am surprised and a bit bothered when my cell phone makes a response to something I have said when I didn’t mean to wake the digital assistant program. Because we do not have a land line telephone at this time, we leave our cell phones on all the time, so this can occur at times when I don’t expect it.

Britain, and I suspect other countries, have experienced a dramatic decrease in the number of new born girls who are given the name Alexa. It makes sense that parents, careful in choosing just the right name for an infant, would avoid a name that might hold the promise of future bullying. But that is no solution for girls and women who were given that name and whose identities are already attached to it. The situation is slightly less common with those named Siri because in Norwegian and other Scandinavian countries the pronunciation is different that what is common in English. In those places the name is pronounced something like “see-ree.” Many who use the name as their chosen moniker have the given name of Sigrid.

The reach of giant corporations is so deep into our lives that the names chosen by the companies can be a real problem for those who are real human beings who have also been given that name. I hope that the technology is becoming sophisticated enough that each device can be given its own name and trained to respond to the name chosen by the owner instead of the one assigned by the company. In the meantime, those named Alexa and Siri face a barrage of bad jokes and the potential for bullying because their given names are the same as the ones chosen by corporations for devices that are designed to accept commands.

For now, I resolve to be very careful with my joking and avoid any jokes about the names of people with whom I have contact. They don’t need me to add to the inappropriate and inane jokes that they have to endure.

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