Category: name and identity
Guest blogger JILL BARNETT ponders the reinvented names that work magic on our lives….or do they?
I stood in front of the mirror backstage, proudly inspecting my makeup and blue and white gingham costume. Granted, I was in the midst of the most unfortunate awkward phase in the history of adolescence (my parents truly should have kept me indoors as a public service), but on that night, opening night of our middle school musical, The Wizard of Oz, I was too excited about my debut as Dorothy to notice that my skinny body and giant hair made me resemble a human Q-Tip. As I saw my gangly13-year-old reflection staring back at me, only one thing entered my mind: stardom!
I couldn’t deny that dress rehearsals hadn’t been pretty–the Stryofoam rainbow prop had a habit of crashing to the ground as I sang about troubles melting like lemon drops, and then there was that pesky issue of my ruby slippers shedding chunks of red glitter with every step I took, but in my mind, this elite middle school production of The Wizard of Oz (complete with an orchestra consisting of a pianist, a flatulent flautist, and a drummer who smelled like Velveeta cheese) was my launching pad to certain fame. Who cared that many of the Munchkins were taller than I was, that our Toto was missing in action, or that the stage crew had never gotten around to actually building a set? Not I! I was too busy daydreaming about seeing my name in lights.
WAIT! My name in lights? Jill Barnett in lights? I didn’t even like my given name for everyday use, and certainly had no desire to see it on the marquis of the Gershwin Theatre or to hear it read aloud upon the win of my first Tony Award. Nope, Jill Barnett simply wouldn’t do, and in my opinion, it had even less star quality than a name like Frances Ethel Gumm, who happened to be my favorite actress and singer.
Guest blogger Dionne Ford swore she’d never do what her parents did: give all her kids names starting with the same letter. And then she discovered the up side of coming from a family with a unified name theme.
When I was a kid, I hated my name, not just because it rhymed with peon and my teachers couldn’t pronounce it, but because it made me an amorphous indistinguishable entity from my siblings. We are all Ds; Debra, Diana, Derick, Daniel and Dionne. And if that wasn’t enough, we have matching middle initials – Js for the oldest boy and girl, Ls for the rest of us.
Tongue-tied at almost every meal just asking one of us to pass the salt, my parents often resorted to addressing each of us by D. I grew up thinking my parents couldn’t remember my name.
I swore I’d never play such a cruel joke on my own kids.
My mother’s name is Mary, and so my father has never called me such. Dr. Freud would approve. And while my extended family makes the distinction by calling me “Mary Beth,” somehow my dad came up with Bessie and thought it was adorable. When my parents discovered that Bessie was easy for my toddler brother to pronounce, it stuck. At least on the nuclear level.
As you might imagine, in my adolescence, I did not like being Bessie. It was not, nor is it yet again, popular. While the U.S. Census pegged Bessie as the 13th most popular girls’ name in 1880, it plummeted out of the top 100 by 1930 and nosedived from the top 1000 by 1970.
Worse yet for my teenage years, Bessie is neither sleek, nor sexy. It is not stylish. Not a single model in Seventeen magazine ever had that name. And, though somewhere in a corner of Park Slope there may be an urban hipster mother plotting to bring back the name is a burst of ugly-chic, to this day Bessie remains shunned.
The nickname didn’t bother me as a very young child. Heck, I was surrounded by relatives with equally unattractive, ragged-old-laundry-hanging-in-the-back-alley names—like Reenie (for Irene) and Mossie (for Martha). But by my teenage years, I really, really wanted my dad and my brother—and by now my younger sisters who had gotten in on the act—to quit it. The worst was when my brother’s friends would tease me about the name: “Bessie the cow.” “Old Bess, my gun.” (And this from a kid with a big schnoz whose surname was Finnochio. Sheesh.)
Sure, there was Bessie Smith. And Bess Myerson—the first Jewish Miss America. But that was IT. Unless you were belting out the blues with a voice full of sorrow and steel, or you were transcendentally beautiful, this was not a good name. With my reedy soprano, eyeglasses and frizzy hair, I was none of these things (although I have since graduated to contact lenses!).
Hope Edelman, today’s guest blogger, is the acclaimed author of the influential bestseller Motherless Daughters; her new book, a fascinating and inspirational personal odyssey titled The Possibility of Everything, is out this week.
My daughter got her name from a San Francisco Guardian newspaper box.
Actually, she got her name from a prophetic graffiti artist who chose a Guardian newspaper box as his canvas. But I get ahead of myself.
It was September 1997, my eighth month of pregnancy, and my husband and I were taking our last pre-baby vacation. All the way up the California coast, we debated what to name our daughter. She was to be named after my mother, Marcia, who’d died when I was seventeen. By Jewish tradition, this meant we needed a name starting with an M. After several false starts we’d narrowed the field to Maya— popular in my husband’s native Israeli culture–and Melanie, just because we liked it.
That evening, we checked into a hotel just outside Chinatown. As we were getting dressed for dinner, the debate continued. Maya or Melanie? Melanie or Maya? The decision felt like a profound one, a label our unborn daughter would carry with her for life, and given that it was one of the very first choices we’d make for her as parents, we wanted to get this one right.
As circumstance would have it, we didn’t have to make the decision alone. When we stepped onto the sidewalk for dinner, we were greeted by spray-painted graffiti letters sprawled across a newsbox right in front of the hotel: MAYA. I stood there staring at the letters in disbelief. Even to a hardcore skeptic like me, it seemed like some kind of sign.
We named our daughter Maya Jill. Three years later, we took her on a journey to Central America to get rid of a troubling imaginary friend, a story I tell in my newest book, The Possibility of Everything.
When one of my friends read an early draft of the book, he was concerned about my use of names. They were just “a little too precious,” he said. “Maya was healed by a Maya healer, and your name is Hope? No one’s going to believe it.”
But what could I do? It’s a memoir. It would have been silly to create pseudonyms for my daughter and myself. So I left our names as they are.
Granted, it was confusing as a writer to have “Maya” describe both a child and a culture. I had to do constant and fancy gymnastics to keep Maya’s name from appearing in the same sentence where “Maya” was also used as an adjective or proper noun (as in “Maya temples” or “the ancient Maya”).
When I refer to the secret meaning of names, I’m not talking about kaballah. I’m not even talking about names like Nevaeh, where the so-called secret meaning is quite clear.
Instead, I’m intrigued by the difference between the meanings given by baby books and the reasons our parents pick our names.
Head to most baby name websites, or flip open your favorite book to Kayla. Or Kaylee. Or Kaitlyn. Odds are that the guides will offer a one-word meaning: pure. They might also note that Kayla, Kaylee, Kaitlyn and kin are considered variants of Katherine. As well as Kathryn, Cathryn, Katrina, Katinka, Caylee … the entry could fill a page.
Name aficionados will pause and reflect that Katherine’s meaning is debated. It is likely that Katherine’s origins are wrapped up with the goddess Hecate, she of witches and demons. At some point the name was altered to more closely resemble the Greek katharos, which does mean pure.
But if your mother loved the soap opera Days of Our Lives in the 1980s, she probably had the popular character in mind when she planned to call her firstborn daughter Kayla.