What’s in a name, and how can it define you?

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What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.” ~William Shakespeare

Does a name ‘make’ a person, or do you ‘make’ a name for your self during the journey that is your life?

I’ve recently had a few experiences that have prompted me to consider how we gain a sense of identity from what we’re called, and what others call us, at different times in our lives:

  1. My father, at the grand age of 93, introduced me as ‘Sheila’ a few weeks ago. I have no idea where this came from – as far as I’m aware he doesn’t know anyone of that name. The only similarity to ‘Sandra’ is the first and last letters! When he said the name, I didn’t at first register he was talking about me, and wondered who he was about to describe. As he’s becoming more confused with each passing day, it didn’t take me long for the penny to drop and I laughed it off as he realised his error.
  2. On a supervised session with a client, my supervisor called my client by the wrong name. Again, the first letter was the same. I was unsure whether to interrupt her train of thought as she gave feedback, but decided that actually, if she wasn’t talking to the client using her ‘real’ name, the client would be less likely to resonate with the words she was saying. I didn’t know who my father had been talking about when he called me by someone else’s name. So I did point out her ‘mistake’, and the supervisor was extremely grateful for having it pointed out, as was the client.
  3. Having decided not to pay to remain on the nursing or midwifery register in UK this year, I hadn’t realised this would mean I’m no longer able to call myself an RN (Registered Nurse) and RM (Registered Midwife) in this country.  I can say I’m a ‘qualified’ nurse and midwife, but not registered. Reading the letter from the Nursing and Midwifery Council, I felt part of my identity stripped away. Why? I’ve chosen not to work in either field anymore, so the only benefit to me of paying £100 a year to stay on the register, would be to have those letters after my name. I guess because I worked so long and so hard to obtain them, it’ll be a gradual process of letting them go and finding other ways of being.

Registering a birth and giving a child a name

In the UK, all births must be registered, with a name or names, within 42 days. I recall in Junior school, aged about eight, being so inspired by my teacher that I wrote her a letter stating I would name my first daughter after her. It wasn’t until some years later, after I’d birthed and named both my girls, that I remembered this ‘promise’.  Her name was Cynthia. As I can’t recall anything else about her now, it would’ve been inappropriate to use such a name.

What I hadn’t really considered when naming my daughters, was using a family name. My grandmothers had beautiful names – Alice Maud, and Alfena May. In fact it was only when writing this blog that I realised they share the same initials! Living in New Zealand for eight years, I’ve been privileged to be present at the birth of many Maori babies, and was fascinated and envious of the way many proudly chose ancestors names for their children.

Names we’re called by others

I vividly recall, during the 1980s, my second husband rarely calling me by my name. Instead he referred to me as ‘wench’, as in “Make me a cup of tea wench”. It’s a Black Country ‘term of endearment’, but not one I related well to. I temporarily lost my soul in that marriage. Being in the forces, we were also referred to as ‘Wife of …’ or ‘Child of …’ Hmm, not the best for feeling a sense of pride in your self.

Following my second divorce, I reverted to my maiden name, and vowed never to change it again. My father had wanted a son, and after four daughters was saddened to admit defeat. So none of his children had kept his name on marriage – well I was going to, even though my children were also both girls so it made not a scrap of difference in that respect! But it made, and makes, a difference to me.

I do not ‘belong’ to my third husband, I retained my surname, and the title ‘Ms’, and feel we’re equal partners in our relationship. I did suggest he could change his name to mine, as that is a right most women don’t even realise they have – unsurprisingly he declined. He has a long complicated surname, of Germanic origin, and frequently uses my surname when we need to give one as it’s so much easier to spell! But his name is his identity, and his children share it – one of whom, as a son, may one day carry it on.

Interestingly, J.K.Rowling recently published a book under the pseudonym of ‘Robert Galbraith’ – and sold only 1,500 copies until the secret was divulged. Following that, sales rocketed 5,000 places to top the Amazon sales list. I bet the publishers who turned her down, and the book stores who only stocked minimal copies, wish they’d chosen differently!

Is there such a thing as a ‘bad’ name?

Can a ‘bad’ name really affect you?

Professor Helen Petrie, from the University of York, recently studied the psychological effects of having an unusual name.

“I found that people with unusual names had a really hard time, particularly when they were children,” she says. “They described getting teased and how traumatic it could be – because all children want to fit in. But when they became adults, they are often glad that they have something to help them stand out from the crowd. People with very common names sometimes feel that they aren’t unique enough. So I think there’s a happy medium to be struck.”

So there’s potentially a lot in a name, isn’t there?

Maybe parents could give more thought to the potential long-term consequences of naming their child Messiah, Hashtag, Sanity, Google or Hippo (yes, those really are genuine 2012 names)!

What do you think? How has your name or title defined you during the course of your life so far? As usual, I’d love to hear from you …

19 comments

  1. Hello, Sandra …

    I very much enjoyed reading this article … and I agree that our name attaches to our lineage, and as such, becomes a historical leaf on our own family tree – which is quite separate from whether it’s an aesthetically pleasing name or not.

    Through the course of my own life, how Ive felt about my own name has run the gamut from hating it (because I couldn’t pronounce it easily as a child) to loving it (because it’s not all that common, so it does stand out a bit) … but the more important relationship I have with it now, much later in life, is that it connects me to my paternal grandmother – and will be recorded as such in the annals of our family’s history. This brings me a peaceful feeling, knowing that I have fulfilled a name, rather than only having a name fulfill me … so you’re quite right – there’s a lot more to the impact of a name than what meets the eye.

    I enjoy your writing style, and will definitely keep a watchful eye for more from you in the future.

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    1. Hi Lily-Ann, thank you for your feedback, I needed to hear those words of affirmation today from you and Dhanya!
      And how wonderful you’ve been gifted with the name of your paternal grandmother, a very special and privileged part of your self 🙂

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  2. A beautiful and thought-provoking post. I have the birth name I was given, which I played with throughout my growing into adulthood and now very much like being called the full extension of my forename rather than the shortened version, where it fits for people.
    I was also granted “Sannyas” some time ago and as a part of this, I was given a new name. However, although the meaning was very beautiful, it did not work for me; the name was Akhilla, meaning total love. Yet immediately someone re-said it to me as “a killer”, something that I found difficult to relax with. So, I was granted the name Tarani, which is related to the green goddess, how perfect as I have such an affinity with greenstone, emeralds and various green associations… However, the seed had been planted and I heard this name as “tyranny”! From killer to tyrant, oh dear! Again I requested an alternative; my mind was quite the challenger of this identity transition! I was later called Sameera, but I felt nothing. So I chose at that time to decline the name although in my heart I felt I had already begun on the path of being a Sannyasin – (http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1979/gjuly79/what.shtml).
    A year later, my ego had softened, and I knew in my heart that it was time for me to honour this part of who I feel I am. And I now have a new name, which means “Great Love”. What a powerful reminder I carry with me every time I am called this or I think of it as my self.
    A dear friend and fellow Sannyasin posted the below message courtesy of Sri Prem Baba only a few days ago, and it fits very well with this post!

    “You are not your name. Divine presence cannot be classified by a name. However, in order to help you remember who you are, sometimes you receive a spiritual name so that this divine presence may manifest through you. This name has the same power as a mantra: it is a way to evoke the divine presence that inhabits your body. Still, the ego can easily take over this experience and cause you to become conceited. In order for a spiritual name to be used as an instrument for spiritual evolution, it has to be given to you by your master teacher, for only he or she knows when the moment is right for this. Your spiritual teacher knows when you are ready to use this key. In some cases, devotees may receive a name through their own intuition, but only a spiritual master can validate that name. Only your master can give you this present in order to help you avoid impairing your evolutionary process by creating an even greater split in your personality.”

    Love and light!
    xxx Dhanya

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  3. Hi Sandra, great blogpost, I use my full name because it is distinctive, without my middle name (Edward) my first and last name are quite common. My name has driven me to be un-common in a value oriented manner.

    ~Coach Mark Edward Brown

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    1. Hi Edward, thank you so much for reading and responding. Mark Edward is definitely distinctive. I toy with using my middle name, and on my personal Facebook decided on ‘Sandra Louise Walsh’ and my Avatar of course uses it also. I’ve recently recognised another message using my full name that I’m considering exploring – maybe in my next post?!

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  4. Hi Sandra,
    My goodness what an insightful and thoughtful post. A lot for me to revisit and consider on two levels. In the middle of practicing law, shortly after my last surgery due to a catastrophic injury, I decided to momentarily “retire” my active “Esq” initials. I decided to take a break, reassess, and went back to graduate school. I wanted to avoid the high CA State Bar Fees, and pay the “lower” retiree fees, while in grad school. After I got my master’s degree, I returned to practicing law for a few more years and re-activated my Esq. initials. While I am now coaching and have turned away from practicing in traditional law firm settings, I decided to keep my “Esq.” active. The reasons are multi-layered, but I can definitely relate to what you have shared.
    In my first marriage, I did not change my last name. But am engaged again and will be getting married. I adore him and love his last name, Buenaflor (good flower, in English). Focused primarily on feminist theory and methodologies in my recent grad school ventures, but this Chicana progressive feminist will be changing her name, and loves to tend for him because he also loves to tend for me. 😉
    Thank you! Wow so much to reflect on! Bravo!

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    1. Hi Erika! Thank you so much for the feedback and the sharing of similarities – fantastic that you could resonate with the post in so many ways. The coming marriage sounds wonderful and mutually uplifting, and fascinating you studied feminist theory and are able to feel comfortable and secure changing your name – how blessed we are 🙂

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  5. Ahh, names. My given name is Catherine, after my maternal grandmother. My father wanted my middle name to be Emma after his mother, but mom thought it was an old lady name (Emma Peale changed that). I was nicked named Kitty which is what my family still calls me. Early in school, kids called me Kitty-Cat, I was hurt, changed back to my given and then ultimately Cathy. I’ve had three last names. In end, these different names are all part of the different parts of my personality. I’m not too attached to any of them. I wish my middle name was Emma (but not enough to have it changed through the courts) and I wish I went by Kitty (but not enough to go through the hassle of changing how people refer to me). I’ll stay Cathy or Carol-whatever you prefer. 🙂

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    1. Hi Cathy! Thank you so much for sharing your journey. I suspect there’s lots of stories like ours out there, and as we mature we can reflect openly on the decisions made, which were for the best reasons at the time. Maybe we just become more ‘comfortable’ with who we are? 🙂

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  6. I was named after my great aunt who died a month before I was born. Neither of my parents anticipated the problems we would have with the spelling. I spell it Susy. But I’ve seen Suzy, Susie, Suzie, Suzi, Soozie, Suzzie, Susi, Siouxsie …
    What really irks me is when they read an email or Facebook and still spell it wrong. It’s ignorance!
    On the plus side my middle name is straightforward (Jane) and my name sounds like a superhero 😉 Susy Stark!!

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    1. Hi Susy, thanks for stopping by my ‘name’ post and commenting. How fascinating that there’s so many spellings of your name – wow! It could be worse, they could’ve chosen the longest spelling – imagine how many times would that be misspelt!
      I adore your superhero name, it really rolls off the tongue easily.
      🙂

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  7. I’m always amazed that people realise that my WordPress username is in fact my real name: Firn. And it’s all too easy to assume that Firn is some traditional African name, given the fact that I’m a born and bred South African. However, Firn is just what it looks like – Fern, like the plant, but you spell it with an I.
    Personally, I adore my name; it’s pretty, unique, and derived from nature. It’s short and easy to remember, and with the addition of a Y, becomes a sweet nickname. The spelling is cool, too. It echoes my parents’ sentiments – their imagination, sense of beauty and love of the natural world. There’s just one hitch, and that is that only my closest friends can spell it and few people can even pronounce it. English people usually grasp the pronunciation on the third or fourth go, or once it’s been spelt in the worst cases (I have resorted to introducing myself as “Firrrrrrrn”, rolling the R, otherwise I end up as Finn), but Afrikaners and Zulus just don’t get it. It’s not worth changing it, though – my parents’ taste, as usual, was impeccable!
    I do sometimes wish that it had a deep meaning, but that’s supplied by my second name, Caitlin, which means “pure”. My favourite name remains my boyfriend’s; a beautiful, classically Afrikaans hyphenated name that just flows off the tongue, and which (surname and all) means “blessed Christian from the lake of swans”.

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    1. Wow! Thank you so much for stopping by Firn and sharing that wonderment about your name and its origins. I love how you describe that your name ‘echoes my parents’ sentiments’. I guess with the spelling and pronunciation, it’s one of those things that we can ask ‘does it really matter in the grand scheme of things’? People ask me whether my name is S-A-ndra, or SAR-ndra. I say I don’t mind.
      Maybe at the end of the day, the meaning of our names is what and how we portray our selves to the world?

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