Monday, February 8, 2010


“But the naming of Hear’Say in 2001 was nevertheless a significant milestone on the road to punctuation anarchy.”

- Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves*

My name posts have generated some interesting comments, both on this blog** and on Red Room***, where I've included some of my posts. I’ve learned that people feel strongly about names – either their own or in the privilege and responsibility of naming others. During the course of these conversations, I’ve thought more about names.

People burdened with common names have had all sorts of mishaps. One woman said that she had to provide additional information so her veterinary clinic knew exactly which Susan Brown she was, just to find her pet’s animal file. That reminded me that my father, whose last name is also Brown, once had his bank declare him dead. Apparently someone else with the same name died, even possessing the same middle initial. My poor father had to prove he was still alive.

Sometimes parents try to shake things up by taking a common name and changing the spelling. I would imagine that these mothers and fathers think they’re being unique, actually burdening their children with a lifetime of correcting misspelling. People will always default to the typical way a name is spelled, and it doesn’t make the name sound any different. And what’s an apostrophe doing in the name Mo’Nique when it’s not missing a letter? Now I sound like Lynne Truss.

I once worked with someone named, Collene. As I type this, Microsoft Word doesn’t like the way I spelled it (Suggesting: Colleen, college, Colleens, and Colane). I asked her why she had an uncommon spelling. She explained that her father wasn’t in the delivery room when she was born. Men, that was in the good ol’ days when you got to smoke, hand out cigars, and otherwise hang out, missing the “miracle” of childbirth. Anyway, it was taking a while, so her father amused himself by drinking at the bar nearby. By the time his daughter was born, he wasn’t in the best condition to fill in the birth certificate, but he did anyway. And instead of writing “Colleen”, he wrote “Collene”.

One commenter complained that she liked a certain name for her daughter, but couldn’t use it because the initials would wind up being STD. My old initials used to be TAB, which reminded me of the vile soft drink (I don’t like diet anything). Now my initials are the same as Trademark ™. I like that my daughter’s initials are MM, like M&Ms and the same as the rapper, Marshall Mathers, who goes by Eminem. Hopefully, my daughter will keep her own name if she gets married, or marry someone with a last name that begins with M. Besides, M’s look so pretty monogrammed.

Sometimes taking on someone’s last name adds issues. When my surname was Brown, I never had to spell or pronounce it, but not only do I have to spell Milstein to people who aren’t familiar with Jewish last names, but those who see it written, often think it’s pronounced “Milstin” or “Millstone” (From the town of Bedrock…). For others, I have to clarify that the end sounds like “een” instead of “ine”.

There’s also the importance of representing ethnicities when choosing first names for a child. This becomes more complicated when couples are trying to accommodate multiple ethnicities. One commenter said she was trying to choose a name that worked in Russian, Hebrew, and in America. I’ve had friends attempt something similar. Within days of one another, two sets of friends had baby boys. One couple is Greek and Chinese-Canadian, while the other couple is Serbian and British. Both sets of parents named their boys “Alex”.

I find that people burdened with names that they’re not happy with often go by a suitable nickname. Today, I’m subbing a student who has an ethnic name she doesn’t like, so she goes by the shorter “Tumi”. She’s found a way to keep her heritage without turning it into an American name. A commenter, who thought his name was too stuffy, used the nickname “Bill”, but he wanted to sound more professional, went back to the proper-sounding “Huntington”.

My mother-in-law was given the Yiddish name, Sheva, but goes by an American first name. Her original name is only on her citizenship papers. When she immigrated to America and was enrolling in school, her mother wanted to call her “Shirley”, but she protested. I wonder if she identifies with her old name. Even more, I wonder what it would’ve been like for her if she had gone through life with her ethnic name.

Another commenter mentioned that David and Victoria Bekham named their son “Brooklyn” because he was conceived there. My first thought was, what child wants to be reminded of his parents having sex every time he hears his name? Nobody EVER wants to picture their parents having sex (Correct me if I’m wrong). And nobody wants to tell that naming story. I’ve been told (unwillingly, on my part) that I was conceived during my parent’s honeymoon. Going by Bekham logic means I would be named “Bermuda” or whatever the cruise ship was called. My reaction? Shudder.

When my husband suggested the name, Zoe for a girl, I vetoed it because (at the time) I thought she might not be taken seriously. I said, “A Zoe will never be a Supreme Court Judge”. That was my prejudice based on nothing than there was a Muppet on the TV show “Sesame Street” with the same name. I believe that there actually was a federal court nominee named, Zoe. Besides, now I know other Zoe’s with that name and no longer think of Muppets.

People make assumptions about us based on our names, but our original names aren’t in our control. Do we fit our names or do our names fit us? Buy a baby name book or do an Internet search, and you can find out the meaning of your name, and people’s impression of that designation. If you call your child Damian, and he raises hell, is it your fault? If your name is uncommon, does that mean you like to stand out or does the attention it receives cause you constant discomfort? If your name is common, does that mean you like to blend in or do you want to shout out to stand out in the crowd? Do you choose a nickname that better represents who you are? Does your name fit you?

*She’s a stickler for proper apostrophe placement. The quote is from her chapter, “The Tractable Apostrophe” on page 36, regarding a rock band.

**Previous name posts:

***My Red Room profile:


  1. Ooh, do I get bonus points for pronouncing your last name properly? :)

    I have a friend who's neighbors named their daughters after the place they were conceived. Apparently they like the coastal region of Georgia. Their daughters are Savannah and Tybee. Good thing they weren't vacationing on Jeckyll Island!

    And speaking of Brooklynn, I read someone where a long time ago that some poor girl was named Brook Lynn by her parents. Her last name? Bridge. *smacks forehead*

  2. Hi!

    Shame on me!! Up until this post, I'd have pronounced your surname "Mils-tine". Whoopsie!!!

    And oh ok, my first name is Jennifer.

    I've just come across someone with the same phonetically sounding name. Except she spells it:


    Serious to goodness and to all that is good and ness like.


    I ask you.


    Take care

  3. Here's my beef with my name: I like the spelling my parents gave me, but as a teenager people would call me "Jack-KAY" instead of "Jack-KEY" because it was spelled like the lady from 227 and Sister, Sister. I hated the emphasis added.

    I always wondered how to pronounce your name. Now I know!

  4. First, I love Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Hilarious!

    Second, I have a very plain name. I actually went to school with a girl who had the same first, middle, and last name as me. But, honestly, I love it. I wouldn't change my name for anything. People tend to think too much about how a plain name might somehow derive a plain child (oh no!), but I think people forget that a nice, simple sounding name isn't an end all.

  5. Surfie, you are awarded three bonus points for pronouncing my name correctly. Oh no, that Brook Lynn Bridge story can't be true!

    Old Kitty, was your name as popular then as it was when I was born? It was the #1 name that year. What does Gennypher think of her unique name spelling? Since you've become a follower and faithful commenter, you brighten my days!

    Jackee, I would hate that too. It's like when people call me "Tehr ay sah" instead of "Tehr ee sah" because that's how it's pronounced in their home countries. It's fine for someone else, but it's not my name.

  6. I've been arguing with my mum about my name ever since I was old enough to realise that people sometimes change theirs. I like one version, but not the version she still insists on calling me, which she must have dredged up from the 1960s; I've always hated my middle name, because it feels feminine and diminutive, and I'm not.

    But at least my middle name is a name, and not a surname, and doesn't contain any non-specific punctuation marks...

    Is the Mo'Nique-type apostrophe an actual apostrophe, btw? Or are we meant to read it as some kind of diacritical?

  7. Hampshireflyer, I think Mo'Nique doesn't really sound any different than Monique, so it's not a diacritical. Perhaps it's used as a little bit of separation between the two syllables, but I think it's more for visual flair.

    Our poor parents probably went through much trouble to name us, only to have us complain.

  8. I have no middle name and used to feel a tad bereft by it all. Now? It feels freeing. Just like always carrying on when I travel and purging my closets once a year!

  9. Tab? Tab? That's my favorite drink! Oh well, I still like your blog, so I gave you an award. Come by and get it!

  10. Rebecca, when I got married, I took my middle name off of everything. The only place it periodically comes up is on one college transcript. Even though I left out the middle name when I changed my last name, they decided to transfer it anyway. Getting rid of it was freeing too!

    KarenG, now you can think of me when you drink Tab, or any time you see the trademark symbol. : ) Thanks for the award!

  11. With a last name that begins with 'P', my parents thought they were careful when it came to initials. No DIP's LIP's WOP's or PP's for their offspring

    Little did they know that the women's movement of the 80's would along and spawn the term for "male chauvinist pig" shortened to MCP which just happens to

  12. Kauai Mark, I'm glad your parents were so thoughtful. I never realized the perils of P's as a surname! Lucky for you, MCP isn't too well-known.

  13. I never liked my name, either the first one (Linda) or the middle one (Susan). A large part of that was that 1/5 of all girls born in the US in 1951 shared that first name. I never felt special.
    As a teacher, it certainly would be easier to have common names used, as students are VERY picky about spelling and pronunciation. On the other hand, we swung too far in the other direction in my youth.

  14. Linda F, I agree with you that instead of too common and too unusual, a nice balance would be appreciated. I was watching an episode of "The Worst Cooks in America" and there were three people named, Jennifer, though they mixed it up with Jenny and Jen.

    You might like this previous post, which talks about different names even appearing on assessments: