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I’m a namer. I named three humans. I attached to each newborn bundle, a signature designed to carry them from infancy to old-age; a handle with which to address them and distinguish them from one another. I then launched them into a social world populated by other people, critters, places and things signified by the names given, at one time or another, by those who named them.
We name our children as an act of love, or as an act of duty and tradition, and sometimes as an extension of our own egos. To name is to exercise power; a power with an unfortunate potential for cruelty or error — a misnaming. A name can last a lifetime. As one who gave names to three children, eleven dogs, nine hens and countless cats (Not all of them mine) — I wanted those names to last. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.
When my parents named me and my sister, they gave us each uncommon, but not overly exotic names and they felt happy with their choices; but I never liked my name. My name always felt too childlike (it ends in an i that one can dot with hearts or stars). It seemed diminutive, passive, and not a name one could comfortably grow old with. But attached to mine and my sister’s names were more common middle-names. They gave ‘Marie’ to Leslie and ‘Elizabeth’ to me (after Catholic saints — though our folks raised us secular). I love(d) my middle name, and it became my lifelong (albeit sporadic) mission to claim and be addressed by my middle name. I waged a largely unsuccessful campaign against my father throughout childhood, and more recently against the user-name guardians at Facebook. My father died a few years ago, thus losing his claim to my name by default. I finally won my struggle with Facebook this afternoon.
A middle name is the refuge for the unfortunately named. It functions like an understudy, waiting in the wings, fully prepped, to take the place of the ‘failed’ first name. It’s a ready alternate when the first name is simply unsuitable or disliked. My father used his own middle name throughout his life and would visibly wince if someone addressed him by his first name (Edward) that sounded so awkward and unnatural to the ear. But my dad spent a lifetime ‘being’ Keith; I have only enjoyed occasional blocks of time as ‘Elizabeth’ — most often in writing, and only occasionally through the spoken word. To hear it still feels foreign and strange, like driving someone else’s car. The name is not yet mine.
Still, it’s a kick-ass name — grown-up, assertive and versatile too! I can go for the full four syllables or amend it to Liz, Beth, Betty, Lizzy, Bette or Liza and I’m sure there are even more possibilities from which to choose.
I have a friend with the most beautiful name: Ana Gabriella. It’s a name that summons the soft strumming of a Spanish guitar and the lingering fragrance of night scented stock. The two names, spoken together, exude sensuality. But everyone calls her Ana. She complains that in both work and school people either misspelled her name, or shortened it even further to the one syllable ‘Ann’, which she despised. In August, she began using only her middle name. She changed her social media profiles and requested that her friends and family call her by Gabriella, or ‘Gabby’ for short. For most of us who complied with her wishes, there were initial stumblings and stammerings. But we will adjust. She met resistance, however, with her family.
As one who has named, I appreciate their frustration. Naming a child is serious business. Baby-names books have been around for ages, and now people can choose from a selection of websites for names that rank most popular, most unusual, traditional, vintage, or androgynous. I dearly wished that my children would like their names. I still hope they do. And I suppose if I learned that if one of my boys wanted to change his name, my ego might sting a little. After all, I launched those names. But that does not mean I own the autonomous individuals attached to them. To name is to present a heart-felt suggestion, with a hope that the other will embrace it. But it’s not an edict; the named can reject the name. I have worked to reject my own for decades.
Naturally, no change is official until Facebook deems it so. Today I became Elizabeth. But you can call me Liz, or Lizzy or Betty or Beth. You can even call me what you always have. I will love you just the same.