Tuesday, March 27, 2012

First Names

Amid all the reports and blog posts and 300-comment threads about the Zimmerman/Martin affair, one aspect struck me, and I haven't seen anyone else notice it. Every single report, article, post, and comment refers to the shooter as "Zimmerman", and almost every one of them refers to the deceased as "Trayvon". I haven't seen any talk of "George", and very little of "Martin". Why is that, I wonder. If the people doing so were suspect of being white racists, I might have suspected that this is an attempt to belittle Mr Martin by reducing his status to that of a mere boy, while dignifying Mr Zimmerman with the status of an adult who is referred to by his surname. But many of these reports are by people sympathetic to Martin and hostile to Zimmerman, so that explanation doesn't fit. Of course there's also the fact that Martin was a boy, but the distinction in status between minors and adults is not usually observed so punctiliously. Nor do I suppose that any of the reporters, bloggers, and commenters who employ this usage actually knew Mr Martin at all, let alone well enough to be on a first names basis with him.

I've noticed a similar phenomenon with women in the news; people seem to assume the right to refer to them by their first names, while similarly-situated men are referred to by their surnames. Why were the main candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2008 constantly referred to as Obama, Hillary, and Edwards? I mean, it's not as if anyone thought Bill Clinton was a candidate, so "Hillary" wasn't necessary in order to distinguish them. And again, it's not just right-wing sources, who can be expected to be hostile to Mrs Clinton (though no more so than to Barack and John) who did this, it was left-wing sources too. So what explains it?


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