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


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 …