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How many David Smiths are too many? He says two.

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Sharing a name with others isn't a problem—until they show up in our professional lives and wreak havoc. (Photo by Joseph C. Lin for CNS)

When he read the e-mail, Jonathan David Morris’ heart plummeted.

The political columnist and aspiring novelist knew from the “occasional” Google self-search that others shared his name, but until that moment, he’d been confident that he was the only Jonathan David Morris in the media business—the only one trying to make, well, a name for himself.

But there, glaring at him from his monitor, was an e-mail from the “other” Jonathan David Morris. This one was a priest and, apparently, a commentator on Fox News. He wanted to alert the other Morris to his existence, since they were both in the public sphere. “I wanted to punch the computer screen,” the novelist Morris said.

True, most people called the priest “Father Jonathan.” And the Fox commentator rarely used his middle name in public. Still, the novelist, then 27, felt as if he had been robbed, as though his very identity was under attack. “It makes me feel like less of a person,” he wrote on his Web site.

Morris faced a choice: change his name to avoid potential confusion or risk a lifetime of comparisons to a conservative priest. Morris chose the latter. “I was standing firm on that one,” he says. His new plan: to become the more famous of the two.

Thanks to “narcisurfing” (yes, we all do it, though some of us call it “research”), most of us have discovered that we are not the perfectly unique snowflakes we once thought. It turns out others, sometimes thousands of others, share our same first and last names. It’s no problem until they show up in our professional lives and wreak havoc. When two people at the same company or in the same field share the same first and last name, confusion, annoyance and even turf wars can ensue, usually forcing one or both parties to start using a middle initial.

Our reputations are valuable, after all, and intertwined with our names; the thought of entrusting them to a stranger can be frightening.

“Think about how much time and money companies spend securing their trademarks,” says Laura Wattenberg, author of best-seller “The Baby Name Wizard,” who knows a lot more about names than most people do. “Unlike a company suing for trademark infringement, you can’t tell a guy to change his name.”

But you can give a guy a nickname.

Throughout David K. Smith’s career, the Georgia-based financial-services consultant has worked with seven other David Smiths. “My God, it’s a curse!” he says. Colleagues have mistakenly called Smith, 38, into meetings and sent him confidential e-mails. And nearly a decade ago, they bestowed on him a nickname that stuck.

He worked in the human-resources department of a medical-equipment distributor at the time. He sat in a cubicle tucked inside a bullpen of cubicles tucked inside a warehouse. The lights were fluorescent, the walls gray.

Then he discovered that he shared a name with a David H. Smith in operations. When employees typed “David Smith” into their e-mail programs, the other Smith’s address popped up first. This meant that dozens of e-mails were sent to the wrong Smith. “For the first three months, he was polite,” says Smith. As time passed, though, he grew irritated. Smith told Smith to fix the situation.

Smith then printed out six sheets of 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper emblazoned with the words “My name is David K. Smith.” He taped the sheets to a shelf inside his cubicle. Co-workers joked that it needed to be clearer. One grabbed a red marker and circled the middle initial. From then on, Smith became known as Circle K and eventually, simply Circle.

“I’m kind of overweight, and it gives me self-esteem issues every time I hear it,” Smith says, laughing. “Why couldn’t it be, you know, Rectangle?”

For Graham D. Kennedy, a Bible illustrator living in Manchester, England, the central concern isn’t so much clearing up daily workplace confusion as preserving his reputation. Commissioned regularly to render artwork for book publishers, greeting-card companies and Christian organizations, Kennedy is one of only a handful of full-time Bible illustrators in the world. Last summer, he was surprised to learn that another Graham Kennedy—living an hour away, in Chester—had also begun producing Bible illustrations.

Kennedy discovered his competitor while searching for one of his books on Amazon. He came across an unfamiliar cover image with his name printed on it and thought, “Wait, I haven’t illustrated ‘Moses,’ not in a children’s book.”

He’d known that another Graham Kennedy worked as an illustrator. In fact, a few years earlier, he had e-mailed the other Kennedy to introduce himself. Both men’s fathers had immigrated to England from Ireland, it turned out; both also enjoyed listening to movie soundtracks. But only recently did the other Kennedy start tackling the Bible. Shortly after his discovery, Kennedy blogged about it on his Web site to clear up any confusion. He also started using his middle initial, D (for Donald), professionally.

“The chap is a good illustrator,” Kennedy says, but he explained that, as a full-time Bible artist, he devotes significant time to researching his work to ensure its accuracy. The other Kennedy isn’t focusing on Bible art exclusively, so his illustrations are more basic. “I’ve put so much into the drawings, I just don’t want to be confused with someone else,” Kennedy says. “You take a certain pride in your own work, you know?”

This reporter found herself in a similar situation a few years ago, while working as an editor at a New York City book-publishing house. Two years after I’d started, another Danielle Friedman dared to take a job as an editor at a competing house. We regularly received e-mails meant for the other, yet neither of us had any intention of using our middle initials.

When I left the industry last summer to write stories like this, the problem was solved, and the other Friedman now admits feeling a sense of relief. When pressed, she confesses that she and her co-workers “did make jokes about being the last Danielle Friedman standing in publishing.”

Touché. For now.

E-mail: daf2132@columbia.edu