Often, in science fiction, knowing a person's true name gives you power over it. One such example is in the Inheritance Cycle series. Also, sometimes only knowing the person's name can give you power over them as well, as in the Doctor Who episode The Shakespeare Code. What were the earliest examples of names having power over the owner?


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The idea of a true name being linked to the essence of an individual or object's being is an ancient philosophical and mystical concept predating the novel, and the fantasy and science fiction genres.

@recognizer commented on the notable use of true names in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea milieu:

By the Illusion-Change you can make it look like a diamond—or a flower or a fly or a flame—”, The rock flickered from shape to shape as he named them, and returned to rock. “But that is mere seeming. Illusion fools the beholder’s senses; it makes him see and hear and feel that the thing is changed. But it does not change the thing. To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name... And to do that... even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world. It is the art of the Master Changer, and you will learn it, when you are ready to learn it.”
—The Master Hand from A Wizard of Earthsea

The fairy-tale Rumpelstiltskin is a European folkloric example of a person's true name conferring magical power over them. The point of the Rumpelstiltskin tales is that a young woman is freed from his coercive power by learning and saying Rumpelstiltskin's name. Variations on this theme have appeared in contemporary literature, for example, Susanna Clarke's story "On Lickerish Hill" appearing in The Ladies of Grace Adieu deals with a similar theme. William Gibson's anthemic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer provides a science-fiction version of the true name, wherein an artificial intelligence seeks to transcend its own limitations by learning its own name.

I don't know. You might say what I am is basically defined by the fact that I don't know, because I can't know. I am that which knoweth not the word.
—The AI Wintermute from Neuromancer

The idea of the true name also has a long history in religious mysticism. For example, pious Jews utter aloud the honorific 'Adonai' to refer to god, rather than the name of god, 'Yahweh' (יהוה, or YHWH). Arthur C. Clarke invokes the concept of god's true name in a 20th century science fiction short story "The Nine Billion Names of God" to tell a tale of early computer automation permuting through all possible phonemes to find all possible versions of god's true name (with an amusing conclusion to the tale, to be sure).

Linguistic research published the same week you asked this question points at the possibility that spoken language may "tap a universal code," so some of the philosophic ideas behind the "true name" get run-time in the sciences (whether or not they are accepted or rejected, is, naturally for the process of science to develop :).

Conclusion: The idea of the true name is not a recent invention, and has a long history in philosophy, folktales, and religious and secular mysticism, and these histories have proven fertile subject matter in contemporary speculative fiction.

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    Cf. Genesis 2:19-20 and by extension Acts 19:15.
    – user23715
    Aug 13, 2015 at 21:04
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    TVTropes lists "I Know Your True Name" as "older than dirt" - meaning preceeding the greek alphabet.
    – Taemyr
    Aug 14, 2015 at 8:41
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    Isis goes back to at least the late Old Kingdom and made use of Ra's true name, which would be an earlier example than Judaism. I think there are examples in Sumerian belief too, but am not sure.
    – Jon Hanna
    Aug 14, 2015 at 12:02
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    @JonHanna -- "before 'In the beginning'"? Non sequitur that. And I'm not familiar with Archbishop Usher, Usher, vis-a-vis the songs Nice or OMG, I know of though. -- FWIW my initial comment here was used as an aside in a term paper I did for a Modern Lit class a couple years back on Vinge's True Names... and Other Dangers.
    – user23715
    Aug 14, 2015 at 14:51
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    @user23715 Archbisop James Usher came to the conclusion that the events of Genesis chapter 1 took place in 4004 BCE. A bit before the Old Kingdom, but sometime after the rise of Sumer.
    – Jon Hanna
    Aug 14, 2015 at 15:11

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