“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”
- Marshall McLuhan
True story: A friend told me about someone who had seen a girl’s name written down as La-a. “Is it La?” he asked, stretching out the ah, like it was two syllables. The girl’s mother replied, “That dash isn’t silent. It’s Ladasha.”
Years ago, names were Americanized. At Ellis Island, my cousins’ family became Ampela from a much longer last name. Grace Lin’s book, Year of the Dog mentions the Americanizing of names. She was Grace out in the world, but had a Chinese name at home. During college, I worked at a music store, and one of the students had been given the American name Herman. When he was ten, his Chinese parents came in and asked me to alter his paperwork to reflect the new name he’d just had legally changed, Michael. Poor parents had given him the wrong American name. People used to take great pains to have names blend in, rather than stand out.
With an emphasis on diversity over assimilation, there’s been a new phenomenon in name changes. I guess it began in the 1960s, but it seemed to be the exception rather than the norm. Subbing, when I look at a class roster, I cringe to pronounce the unfamiliar names*. Now I just have the kids check off their own names. Sure, I don’t learn them this way, but I don’t offend anyone by mangling them either.
I know you can name your child anything as long as it doesn’t have numbers. Is this the singer Prince’s fault? He became a symbol for some years when he couldn’t get out of a record contract. Is it because of actors and actresses bestowing names like Apple and Moses on their children? (I love Gwenyth Paltrow and Chris Martin of Coldplay, so I’m not judging them too harshly.)
My children’s names are more common, but I made sure they weren’t too ordinary. For my son, I wanted something that was Hebrew, but not as ethnic as Moshe. For my daughter, it’s Italian, but it can be a nickname for a longer, Hebrew one. I love the way her first and last name sound together, and wonder if one day she’ll take on a different last name.
The biggest criteria in choosing were that my children’s names had to be too short to turn into nicknames. Throughout my life, people have tried to call me Terri at their own peril. I cringe just writing the name. When I was two-years-old, my paternal grandmother tried to call me Terri, and I testily responded, “My name is THERESA!”
I was named after my mother’s friend, which I didn’t mind, since it wasn’t as common as Jennifer. Once, I had four girls named, Jennifer on my soccer team. But it was odd that I was given an Italian name, while my sister was given an Irish one. When we’re together, we represent both halves of our ethnic identities, but apart, only one.
My name became an issue when I decided to convert to Judaism in my early 20s. Knowing that I was going from Brown to Milstein meant that it would be obvious that I wasn’t born Jewish. When I worked at a car insurance company, lawyers who called, especially Jewish ones, liked to poke fun at it. Looking at me, it’s hard to tell my ethnicity. I had considered adopting a more neutral version of my name (Tess, Terese), but I was already changing my last name, so I had to keep something of me.
When naming characters in my manuscripts, I think long and hard about it – perhaps even longer and harder than I did when naming my children. Designations of main characters are almost always meant to provide clues to character or plot. I recall seeing an interview with J.K Rowling, who said that she had a special notebook to come up with her character names**. She showed an example page, which hadn’t led to a name, but it was interesting to see her process.
My own path to name finding utilizes the Internet. I do a Google search like, “Names that mean sea”, and then I peruse the list. When I find the right one, sometimes I do a separate search to determine the last name. I might search under “Italian last names”, and then play around until I get the right match, whether it because of sound or some other larger meaning.
Your child or protagonist (which feels like a flesh and blood child) has to go through life with that name (or longer if it’s a protagonist from a best-selling book that lasts beyond your lifetime), and all the positive and negative associations it conjures. Unless you are lucky enough to name your child after a dead relative because of religious reasons or to follow some other rule (My father was the third person to have his name in the family), you have to come up with something your child can live with. Naming anyone is an important trust.
“What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;"
- Juliet in play, “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare
*See previous post for more detail on students’ names:
** Can you imagine what those notebooks would be worth if they’re ever up for auction?