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How Hating My Name Made Me a Better Namer

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by Yona Zeldis McDonough

Whose name is worse than mine?  Almost no one’s, by my lights. I’ve spent decades looking, and 99 percent of the names I hear are better than my own. Once in a great while, I do come across a name that I actually think is worse, and I view such names with both pity and awe–but more on this later.

What’s so bad about my name?  I come by it honorably enough; I was born in Chadera, Israel, where the name Yona was perhaps not so common as the Susans or Debbies that populated my grade school classrooms, but neither was it freakish.  Then my parents moved back to the United States and it did not occur to them to Anglicize my name, which was always confused or mangled: Yola, Yoda, Ona and Zona were a few of its many ungainly permutations. And coupled with my unusual last name, Zeldis, made for an even more confused reaction.

When I entered a new school in fourth grade, my teacher looked at the class list and said, “What is Yona Zeldis?”  I had to raise my hand and say, “It’s me.”  She thought it was a misprint and that it should perhaps have been Zelda Yonis; no such luck though.

I did have a brief moment in college in which I sought to use my middle name Miriam and filled out all my official school documents with that name; my diploma reads Miriam Zeldis.  But I did not have the conviction, foresight or both to make the switch; I now ardently wish I had.  So here, in my sixth decade, with five novels, twenty-one books for children, two essay collections and scads of published articles, essay and short fiction to my name—this unwieldy, two-headed calf of a name—I have made a grudging peace with it. The name may be awful, but it is mine.

Because of my heightened name sensitivity, I am almost obsessive about the naming of anyone else in my life: children, dogs and even (especially?) my fictional characters.  When it came to my kids, I opted for James and Katherine: gender specific, Anglo, easy to say, to spell, to get.  I inched out a tad on the middle names—Redden for my son, because that was my husband’s mother’s maiden name, and Constance for my daughter, because it was the name of my dear friend and her godmother.  If you are inclined to go wild at all, do it for the middle name. A middle name is optional, and your child can choose to use it—or not.

As for the characters that populate my novels, I love the process of bestowing their names and devote a lot of time to it. The names are not always ones I like; that would be too easy. No, the names have to fit the character—his or her gender, religion, nationality and class.  (And names convey so much about a character; we perceive Margaret Anne Worthington as distinct and different from Sadie Mossbacher without another line of description about either.)  Also the names have to speak to me in some ineffable way—each new name is like a poem to my ears and I have become highly attuned to its music.

So what about the names that I consider to be worse than mine?  Because there is that one percent.  When I encounter such a name, I feel an enormous amount of pity and tenderness, not only for the name itself, but also for its hapless owner.  A dear friend had an uncle named Oscar Kornblatt: worse.  The first syallable,“Korn,” suggested not the tasty yellow ears but the affliction of the toes, and second, “blatt,” had the misfortune to rhyme with splat. And the combination of the two induced shudders. But this name was paradoxically dear to me because of its very awfulness and I gave it to character I loved in my first novel, The Four Temperaments.

I chose the names in my new novel, Two Of A Kind, with the same degree of attention.  The male protagonist, Andrew Stern, had the sort of Jewish boy name I was familiar with from my own childhood. Andy is a high-risk OB/GYN and he’s a smart, driven and essentially decent man, though at moments he can be overbearing and obnoxious.  I felt I knew his type well and I found a name that put me in mind of it.  For the woman he meets, the name had to be Christina.  He’s Jewish and she’s not; this religious difference is one of the issues they must overcome to build a life together.  Christina was about as clear and emphatic as I could get—can’t miss the reference to Christ in there, can you?  Her last name, Connelly, is Irish because she comes from the kind of working class Irish family that used to make up the backbone of Park Slope, where she’s lived all her life.

Her daughter Jordan and Andy’s son Oliver have names that are reflective of their generation; I knew of no one, other than characters in books or in movies, who had such names when I was growing up, whereas my teen-aged daughter and twenty-something son both have friends and acquaintances with these names.  Andy’s mother, Ida, got her name from my great-aunt; I wanted a name that suggested her European Jewish roots and felt that was the one.

Two of a Kind

My old habit of judging names is still my first reflex every time I hear or am introduced to a new one. I can’t help it; by now it’s just part of me.  And I continue to marvel at people who either exchange beautiful names for less felicitous ones (Catherine DuBois became Kathy Fincke) or those who hang on to an awful surname when marriage would have made the change so easy (Gwen Cockenthaler did not take the name of her husband, Tim Prescott when they wed.)  What we are called so deeply affects who we are and how we see ourselves, as well as how others see us.  Our names are our calling cards, our aspirations, our defining stamps; who doesn’t want one that expresses, precisely, who that is?  Shakespeare’s Juliet was disingenuous when she asked her famous question. Look at the name she was given. Shakespeare didn’t call her Brunhilde, did he?  What’s in a name? I would say: just about everything.

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of five novels, the most recent of which, Two Of A Kind, was published in September by New American Library.  She is also the author of twenty-one books for children and the editor of two essay collections.  Her short fiction, essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper‘s Bazaar, and Cosmopolitan; McDonough is the Fiction Editor at Lilith Magazine.  Visit her website and check out her book at Amazon.

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