Just as Francis Maude was revealing his exciting plans for grand reform of the civil service, I received a message from a friend who once worked in Whitehall. In the subject field: ‘What fresh hell is this?’ Underneath, a screenshot of an email she’d just been sent by a civil servant. There was the name of the sender, Alex Smith, then underneath that another line: ‘SAY MY NAME: Aaa-Luhx Smeeth.’
My first thought was that Alex was taking the mick, making fun of people who couldn’t pronounce a simple name. Alex won’t be long in the job I thought. How wrong I was. It’s not just Alex. Great swaths of the civil service, I discover, have signed up to what’s known as the ‘Say My Name’ pledge – a commitment to include a phonetic guide to pronouncing your own name in every written communication.
‘Our names are central to who we are as individuals, and getting people’s names right is crucial to helping people feel seen, included and valued,’ I read in Civil Service World, Whitehall’s in-house magazine. I also discovered that in 2021, when large parts of government were still refusing to leave home for fear of Covid, Defra nominated itself for an ‘enterprise award’ for ‘outstanding advancement’ for asking its staff to sign up to Say My Name. Pronouns are old hat. I’m in debt to Alex Smith for alerting me. Phonetic pronunciation is the new measure of real progress, which is why Lord Maude should keep a beady eye out for departments that deploy it, and mark them down as most especially in need of reform.
The Say My Name movement actually began in a reasonable fashion in America as part of the anti-racist business.