Yesterday I tweeted that Derf Backderf’s comic My Friend Dahmer was now available on ComiXology for iPhone and iPad. It’s a great book, and you should definitely read it even if you, like myself, aren’t interested in serial-killer-type stories, because this is a different sort of one.

A few people then asked me this: Is Derf Backderf his real name?

You know what they mean, right? Who names their child Derf, especially if their last name is Backderf? Well, the answer could be “his parents” and we’d still be no wiser about the matter. But that’s not the answer. Actually, the artist in question was born John Backderf (yup, Backderf) and he occasionally calls himself Derf. So, Derf Backderf is his “real” name.

See, I had never really given much thought to the term “real name” until I heard it used to dismiss the credentials of the magician/writer/outspoken skeptic James Randi. We were told that his real name was Randal James Hamilton Zwinge. Randi’s reply to this “charge” was that James Randi was as “real” a name as any other. He has lived under it for seventy years. Everyone knew him as James Randi, and few knew him as Randal Zwinge. His photo ID read James Randi. The name his parents had given him at birth wasn’t some platonic ideal, inked into the universe’s permanent records, immutable forever and ever.

Most of us have preferences regarding our names. My brother Daniel dislikes being called Dan. You may prefer to be Cathy rather than Catherine, Bob instead of Robert. Your real name is how you introduce yourself to people, what your friends call you, and, for legal purposes, what you can officially use without looking like you’re on the lam from the IRS. 

So while it may not seem like a big deal at all, while it may appear an exceedingly PC thing to do, I’d like to politely suggest that we drop the term “real name” when talking about the name folks were given at birth. It’s not nearly as offensive as, say, asking who an adopted child’s “real mother” is, or asking a brown-skinned, second-generation American where they’re really from, but it’s still a patronizing expression. I know it’s usually not meant in a harmful way, but I imagine it can be a bit annoying to be told that the name you’ve called yourself for decades isn’t “real” and never will be.

I leave you with this tweet: