My Name, the Performative
One conventional verbal act in my home growing up was being called by my name: Vir-gin-ia! This utterance-name, as used by my angry mother, carried heightened meaning, and the tone employed was one of warning, exasperation, and promise. These qualities hint strongly that a name used consistently in a particular way can be considered a performative. In the sense that saying something is doing something, there is no doubt that the utterance-name in question is a performative. In the style of How To Do Things with Words,1 by J. L. Austin (1962), we will first “get out of ordinary language what we can” (p. 123), then reconcile what is left with Austin’s special theory (p. 146), the points of which follow.
Conventionality—Certain conditions governed the use of “Vir-gin-ia!” One condition was that I was in big trouble. This condition was met frequently in my house. There was the incident with the pearls; I ended up in the hospital under general anesthesia. There was the incident where I tied a long thread to Pogo the parakeet’s neck so he had a well-defined flight radius; and probably the worst was the India ink on the wool carpet—a result of my mother shouting, “Vir-gin-ia!” And that was only indoors. The use of the utterance-name was consistent and conventional outdoors as well.
Meaning—“Vir-gin-ia!” had meaning in terms of sense and reference (p. 100). It meant stop, don’t take another step, you’ve screwed up, you’re going to get smacked—I promise. In reference to me, it was a warning not just to stop what I was doing, but a warning of what was to come.
Infelicity—At one point, I mistakenly thought my name meant, “Run!” I was wrong. While both my mother and I were pretty fast runners, it went against the terms (or rather the conventions) of the performative “contract” to treat the utterance in this erroneous fashion.
Locutionary State—From criteria set forth in Lecture X, the use of my name appears to have been a locutionary act. It was an utterance with a specific construction and meaning, used with a specific sense and reference (p. 94). It appears to have been illocutionary, as well. Intonation was as important as grammar. My brothers were capable of mimicking it, and frequently did, and it was reportable when my father arrived home: “She yelled, ‘Vir-gin-ia!’ and Virginia ran” (p. 96). Unlike many illocutionary acts, my name had an “alternative non-verbal act” (p. 120) that was eerily chilling. It was the sound of my mother’s heels on the sidewalk as she came after me; and, of course, every child born prior to 1962 is familiar with “The Look.”
Arguments—One counterexample to Vir-gin-ia!’s being a performative is that it was an exclamation; however, exclamations are not all alike. A typical exclamation such as “ouch” (p. 133) indicates the sudden end of an event. If “the perlocutionary object of one illocution may produce the sequel of another” (p. 118), a name that produces a sequence of events in the same sense signals the promise of a beginning. The name’s being an exclamation changes nothing. It still anticipates both present and future actions. The argument against “Vir-gin-ia!” being a performative is weak at best.
In the final analysis, Virginia, as it was used prior to my finally maturing, was a performative. According to the special theory referred to in Lecture XII, it was commissive and represented a declaration of intentions (p. 157). It will not be on the list of performative verbs, but it will certainly take its place with other children’s names throughout the world which resulted in heeding the parental warning to “R-U-N!”
1 Austin, J. L., How To Do Things with Words. Cambridge, Harvard Press, 1962. 168 pp.