Does This Name Make Me Look Old?

by Joan Lebow

There’s always something that rudely awakens us to the reality of age. The blank stare of the 30-something at the office when I mentioned “fiddling while Rome burns.” The moment I hesitated to use the words “pay phone” to describe a telecom job on my resume. Or simply that slightly panicky feeling I’ve felt when I’ve left home without even a tiny tube of concealer in my makeup bag.

But now the veracity of my age is starkly clear to me each day in black and white. With green trim. It comes in the Sharpie scrawl on my daily cup of Starbucks.

Wherever I go and give my name, Joan, to the cashier I almost always get back “Jone” hastily written on the side. That’s J-O-N-E. Sometimes it’s Joe, or JoAne, or Joni. Always the four letter, Mitchell version. (No flower to dot the i, like the one I added in junior high.) I’ve had Jen, Jodi, Juan and John. It happens at counters near home, in Penn Station, by my Brooklyn office, in airports and far away cities.

Grande skim latte, I tell the earnest kid with dark, liner rimmed eyes whose bare black tank reveals one arm etched from elbow to wrist in permanent swirls of blue and red. “Name for the cup,” she asks brightly. Somehow the sound and spelling of the name Joan, stated by me in clear voice, is apparently a challenge.

I started taking pictures of my name on that white cup each day, turning my disbelief into a kind of photographic essay. I have dozens of iPhone shots. Most are of Jone with a few rare Joans thrown in, set on the edge of the sugar n’ cream station as signs of the time. Mine and theirs. I ordered cappuccinos for myself and a friend; Ireen and Jone is now my most prized photo in the series.

My mother, who always hated her name Estelle, chose my name for its au courant glamour. In the vein of a young Kiera, Dakota or Chelsea, her choice of Joan summoned up Blondell, Crawford, and best of all Fontaine, whom she adored as the meek wife of widower Laurence Olivier in the film Rebecca. Ironically, Fontaine played a character whose name is never cited in Du Maurier’s novel, and in the movie version this omission meant she was, to me, forever, wonderfully, Joan.

I don’t expect the pierced, tatted, and dreaded baristas to know a damn thing about driving up to Mandalay or fleeing Mommie Dearest. Still, I’ve rationalized it’s not just an age thing, revealed against my will, frankly, when I order a latte, but perhaps a brewing national crisis in literacy, right here, in the proverbial teacup. Are all the English majors doing Media Studies instead?

And haven’t these kids heard of Joan of Arc? I know they’re too young for Joan Armatrading or Joan Jett. And I guess it’s ambitious to think that Joan Baez is at least iconically somewhat famous as a ’60s rebel. What about Joan on MadMen for Chrissakes? It’s a retro use of our name, sure, but she puts the Joan into print, doesn’t she? In Star, Us or Entertainment Weekly? Aren‘t the Beatles back and on iTunes? Who do they invite “out to the pictures” in Maxwell‘s Silver Hammer? Jo oh oh oan!

I realize you don’t necessarily read lyrics when you don’t have an actual album in hand, but they do show up on Shazzam if requested.

Someone told me that Tinkerbell is the most requested name at Starbucks. I have yet to check it out with the company’s PR department, but have sharpened my ears at the counter hoping to detect a trend. There’s the occasional Wendy or Peter. Is she Wendi? And maybe that’s on purpose, like an Ashley, who’s really Ashlee.

I look longingly at contemporaries who can say Sarah, or Jennifer or Liz; their names cross the generations. When I state that I am Joan, I’m practically a Lorraine, or Barbara or Debbie, sheepishly self-identifying as someone unlikely to know the music on the download of the day, even though I sometimes do, thank you very much.

Suddenly I see a freedom in given names where parents didn’t give a damn about how to spell them. Cyndi, Jayson, Shameekqua, Kellee, Li-An. They probably don’t care what comes back on the cup. Will they be forever names of the 1990s, or always rooted in the 2000s? Or do their creative spellings liberate them from the shackles of a time frame when displayed in the public square of the coffee counter?

Maybe I should just offer up my middle name that shows mom was far ahead of her time after all. For some reason it’s Sydne, without a final-y. A renegade move for mom’s generation. No one ever spells it correctly. At least not anyone my age.

After a career in journalism, then public relations and marketing communications, Joan Lebow recently changed things up and joined executive recruiting firm StephenBradford Search as a Senior Director for Nonprofits and Healthcare. She is mother of sons Elijah (Eli) and Saul, often misspelled as Ely and Sal.

Subscribe to our newsletter

* indicates required
Post Categories:


27 Responses to “Does This Name Make Me Look Old?”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

niteowl13 Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 9:39 am

This made me laugh. I usually just give a G. I don’t expect any Starbucks barista to know how to spell Glenys. Nobody else can spell it properly.
It is really terrible that people can’t spell Joan! My grandmother’s name was Joan. It’s a mid-century classic, and there are many famous Joans.
Apparently giving the name Primrose Everdeen was a big thing when The Hunger Games first came out in theatres. So people could shout: “I volunteer!!” I never understood why they started asking for names. Were people stealing drinks?

niteowl13 Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 9:43 am

My supervisor, who is in her 30s, is named Jean. People mistake her for a man! Either a French man or Gene.

niteowl13 Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 9:44 am

Obviously not in person though. haha

jessieo Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 10:49 am

No one can spell Joan anymore? Jeepers that’s a bit scary in my opinion.

Mrs_Darling Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 10:59 am

I had a situation like this happen to me recently and I have a classic, transcends generations kind of name. You aren’t alone!

I blame spell-check. No one knows how to spell anything anymore.

rosierose Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 12:04 pm

I’m in my 20s, and I love the name Joan. I think of Joan Jett, Joan of Arc, Joan Baez… many great female figures. It’s an elegant, creative, strong name.

That side, I’ve never met a single one my age.

I think Joan is definitely ready for a revival! I’d love to meet a young Joan going by Joan. (I realize I’ve known a few young women named Joanie/Joni who could have been Joan on the birth certificate…)

southern.maple Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Someone in their thirties doesn’t recognize the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns”? Not being able to spell Joan and Irene? I think that has a lot less to do with you being old and a lot more to do with lack of education.

ricalini Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 1:33 pm

I’m 18 and I know how to spell these names. I think people just live under rocks and don’t pay attention.

tararyaz Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Haha I am a former barista and a lover of the name Joan, the novel & movie Rebecca and various Joan namesakes! I would’ve chosen it for my daughter if it hadn’t been a pronunciation problem for my in-laws (in their Russian accent it just sounds like John). I never worked at a Starbucks or anyplace where I had to write down names onto cups, but I’m sure I was on autopilot enough to write some pretty horrible misspellings half the time!!

acawood Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 3:20 pm

I’m a big fan of mid-century names. Irene is one of my favorites! Also, the estate in Rebecca is Manderley not Mandalay.

Tressa Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 4:25 pm

I worked at Starbucks for a few years, and yes the names on cups are so that there are less people taking the wrong drink by accident (surprisingly a lot of people don’t know what they ordered, but they’re too embarrassed/rushed ask, so they guess. Then someone else is missing their drink.)

In the baristas’ defense, they are going a mile a minute (physically and mentally) and they don’t have the time to stop and think about spelling names logically, or even to ask the spelling.

That being said, Joan is pretty obvious.

Sometimes though, if someone was particularly rude, the only ammo we had was the purposefully misspell their name. It made us feel better when we couldn’t shout back.

CsprsSassyHrly Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 5:16 pm

I don’t go to Starbucks so my experience with this has been at fast food restaurants, where they’ve started using names instead of order numbers. As a 25 year old Irene (named after my mom’s favorite aunt), I grew up feeling my name was just “an old lady’s name” since I knew so many Ashley’s, Brittany’s and Stephanie’s. When asked for my name by some teenager who would rather be sitting at home on their computer than actually working, I dread the spelling that’s going to show up on my receipt. Ireen, Irean, Areen, Arin, Aryn, Iryn, Iryn, Ereen… Yup, I’ve gotten all these. The only time they seem to get it right, is when I pronounce it in Spanish, ee-reh-neh. It never fails to come back spelled correctly. Though, I do get talked to in Spanish and, though I may have Mexican descent, I’m not particularly skilled in conversing in Spanish. I do have to be grateful, however, that I don’t have my cousin’s name… Jermina… She usually gives my name when we’re out together. My mom, who’s name is Georgina with j’s instead of g’s, just gives her nickname, Jojo… You’d be surprised how often she gets that misspelled. The funniest one? JoeJo. What is that?! You start it spelled Joe but end it Jo?

iamamiam Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 6:10 pm

LOL this is why I think the “Starbucks” test is ridiculous…the one where parents-to-be “try out” a name on a barista to see how it makes them feel about a name…usually whether it is too unusual to use for their future child. And if it gets spelled wrong, that’s the harbinger of a too-difficult name. FLAWED!!! Coffee shops are noisy! They can’t even get Joan right. My name is Amity. How do I get them to get it right? Say it, then spell it. It’s not that difficult. That’s what anyone should do if they really care about whether they get it right, no matter how common the name is.

KateMP91 Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 9:14 pm

I am in my very early twenties (a general barista-age American and Starbucks frequenter) who can spell Joan, knows who Joan of Arc was, and I have had the pleasure of watching Joan Jett perform. I don’t feel it is fair to clump my generation in a group that way. While they may not know how to spell Joan, they also misspell Kate and Katie regularly, which is crazy since I am certain that they went to school with many Kate’s and Katie’s. I think a huge reason they spell it “oddly” is because that’s how our generations names are spelled, uniquely. Of all the Katie’s in my class, I was the only one spelled the traditional way. The rest were Kaitee, Caity, Kaitey, etc… Your baristas may feel like they have a better chance of spelling a name correctly if it isn’t traditional. On the other hand, the closest I have ever been to actually meeting a Joan, was actually a Jones, and a boy. OR, maybe they are just spelling it phonetically, just because it is easier. Just to help them get your coffee made a little faster. Sometimes, I say my name is Penelope and they spell it correctly every single time.

RainbowBright908 Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 9:53 pm

It’s well-documented that spelling and literacy have gone downhill since the dawn of spell-check and iPhones. Ask any teacher. Kids never *have* to learn how to spell anymore, so they don’t. Give it a few decades and kids may never have to learn to write. They’ll just talk into a computer. Heck, my smartphone can do that… poorly.

Would you believe that when I was a kid, we were the ONLY people in my middle class neighborhood with a computer? The typing program didn’t have spell check, and our printer had a ribbon in it. We had to rip the little side strips off the printer paper when it was done printing. It took around a minute to print a single page. We had a TV with knobs on it, no cable, and no remote. Oh, we also had a rotary phone, and the original Nintendo. Duck Hunt, anyone?

Do I sound old now?

I have known people with names such as John or Daniel have to spell their names for people. Really? Does the silent H in John throw you off that much? J-H-O-N? D-A-N-Y-I-L? Really?!! *facepalm*

Joan is IMO, as “dated” of a name as, say, Stephanie or Dorothy. However, not being able to spell Joan is inexcusable. Joan of Arc is a major historical figure. Did they sleep through 12 years of school? Joan Baez? Joan Jett? Joni Mitchell? I pity anyone who doesn’t at least know that they were once very famous, influential women in music! I’ll let it slide that younger folks may not actually have listened to anything by them. These ladies were in their heyday a few years before I was born, by the way.

Hurricane Irene happened recently. That was all over the news. Ireen? That, too, is inexcusable.

I’ve been a barista. I was never so much on autopilot that I would misspell J-O-A-N. “Jone” has nothing to do with your name being dated and everything to do with ignorance.

I have a dated name, too, Joan. I feel your pain.

EmilyVA Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 11:15 pm

I love this post! One of the best posts I’ve ever seen!

And yes I also knew right away it was Manderley (from Rebecca) not Mandalay.
Mandalay Bay is a casino and hotel in Las Vegas.

I agree too Joan from Mad Men is awesome, as is Joan of Arc, as is Joan Fontaine, as is Maxwell’s Hammer.

I like Joni too. Irene spelled Ireen could be dyslexia, but Joan spelled Jone is just wrong.

EmilyVA Says:

December 23rd, 2013 at 11:18 pm

Also I have never heard the expression “fiddling when Rome burns” which is surprising since Mama uses lots of out of date expressions. (under 30 )

I can spell Joan and Irene.

halle Says:

December 24th, 2013 at 1:28 am

My name is Halle. Pronounced and spelt like Halle Berry. That’s what I tell people, and still a lot of people have trouble with it. I’ve been called Haley, Holly, Hail, etc. Whenever a teacher would take attendance I always know when my name would be called next because they’d take a long pause and then say, “Haylee? Holly?”. Eventually I just got used to responding “Halle” instead of saying “Here” when my name was called. Joan is such a classic name and I’m shocked that people have trouble with it!

lunazola Says:

December 24th, 2013 at 1:47 am

I think a lot of you in the comments need to get off your high horses. Y’all are going on and on about how kids today are so illiterate due to technology and blah blah blah. You know what’s really going on? People are multitasking. They’re trying to remember your order so they can get it right. They are probably not even giving a single thought to what they’re writing on your cup. I KNOW how to spell “rhythm” but if I’m typing/writing quickly and not giving a single thought I ALWAYS spell it wrong on the first go. Perhaps they have dyslexia. Perhaps they have a hearing impairment. Perhaps they are feeling frazzled that day. Perhaps they have a family member that actually spells their name Jone and that’s the first spelling that pops to mind. Perhaps, they are really bored at their job and think it’s funny to mess up people’s names. Maybe English isn’t their first language and while they are perfectly proficient in English, sometimes their first language squeaks through. And maybe they aren’t very good a spelling, but is that really the decline of civilization as we know it? And if this generation IS our downfall don’t forget who raised them. That’s on you.

Dantea Says:

December 24th, 2013 at 2:11 am

“Would you believe that when I was a kid, we were the ONLY people in my middle class neighborhood with a computer? The typing program didn’t have spell check, and our printer had a ribbon in it. We had to rip the little side strips off the printer paper when it was done printing. It took around a minute to print a single page. We had a TV with knobs on it, no cable, and no remote. Oh, we also had a rotary phone, and the original Nintendo. Duck Hunt, anyone? ”

That’s all me too (and I owned a typewriter that they don’t make ribbons for and a flute that isn’t made anymore either). I’m 22 😛 I also get the “fiddling while Rome burns”

That being said, I sort of agree with the person directly above me. There’s probably a lot more going on than someone just not knowing how to spell. That could be it or it could be lots of other things. I have had similar problems at the daycare when trying to write a receipt for a parent with 20 screaming kids (or more). “You’re names Catherine? Sorry, I don’t have time to find out if your a C or K or what.” It happens.

The weird thing for me is that my name, Angel, is CONSTANTLY spelled Angle. I’ve had police and teachers spell it that way, not just Starbucks people. It’s weird. I also get this a lot “My name’s Angel.” “Oh, April/Angela/Angie/Ashley/…”

hermione_vader Says:

December 24th, 2013 at 9:30 am

@lunazola: I completely agree with you. I currently work in retail, and when you’re behind a register, you are often doing multiple things at once, and I assume its similar in a coffee shop. Baristas are doing their jobs as quickly as they can, and they may have to abandon spelling to get the author her coffee as soon as possible. They have to choose between quickness and correctness, and they’ve probably heard more complaints about the former, so they just do it as quickly as they can and hope the name looks somewhat recognizable, which I completely understand.

Also, the reason kids aren’t taught spelling anymore has less to do with computers and more to do with the fact that teachers HAVE to teach to the standardized tests. Teachers don’t have time to teach spelling anymore, which is a shame, but won’t change until we change our educational priorities to benefit the children instead benefitting the states’ funding.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

megwinslow Says:

December 24th, 2013 at 10:50 am

This article pops up for me on the morning after I decide to name our third child Joan. lol

chi1127 Says:

December 24th, 2013 at 10:53 am

Honestly, this seems to be describing a combination of lack of education and the inability to spell. (My husband is educated, but he can’t spell worth a darn.) And I’m not yet 30 and understand “fiddling while Rome burns” perfectly. I also have watched the film Rebecca multiple times. I personally know a couple of Joans, and I am familiar with history well enough to know that Joan of Arc was actually Jean.

tararyaz Says:

December 26th, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Honestly as a former barista, we are all just hung over & we really don’t care what your name is. We just want to get your drink order right so you go away & stop bothering us. Everyone I worked with in that industry was artistic, creative, funny & intelligent. They wouldn’t have been confused by any of the Joans you mentioned & would probably have a few more interesting namesakes to add to the list. Didion, anyone? Most of us were students who had no one paying our way, struggling artists, writers & business owners.

JoanSydne Says:

December 27th, 2013 at 9:10 am

Thanks for all the warm and complimentary responses, folks. It’s been fun hearing everyone’s examples; friends have been sending me cup pictures too. I want you to know, however, that I have taken on a new name. It’s Morty. As in mortified. Blabbing away about spelling, prompting discussions of Spellcheck, etc. and I messed up Manderley? Groaaaaan from Joan. Was my subconscious Jonesing for a mid-winter getaway to Vegas? Hey, maybe. A girl can’t spell, but she can dream.

And to those noting there’s a literacy issue out there, with one front line of the battleground being the lowly coffee counter, I agree. I chose to be a bit self-deprecating about age, however, rather than be the cranky 50-something grousing about reedin n’ rightin. Good thing, because this former English major got an appropriate slap down (not sure if that is hyphenated).

Thanks again for your fun responses, endorsements, and empathic tales of name joy and woe.


Names That Age Well – Baby Name Blog – Nameberry Says:

June 23rd, 2014 at 10:07 pm

[…] from your own perspective.  For more on how names age, see Joan Lebow’s hilarious essay Does This Name Make Me Look Old?, or our blog on Mom Names.  Most people have names that, like Joan or Jennifer, peg their age […]

gmdx Says:

April 13th, 2015 at 9:42 pm

So, I totally know how to spell Joan and Irene, but I would almost definitely spell them “Jone” or “Ireen” in a hurry.
That being said, I once made a joke about Rome burning during a play rehearsal one night and it went over the heads of my castmates.

leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.