How Hating My Name Made Me a Better Namer

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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15 Responses to “How Hating My Name Made Me a Better Namer”

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augusta_lee Says:

October 8th, 2013 at 11:08 pm

Frankly, I think Yona Zeldis is fabulous. That said, this piece rang so true with me. My first name is Leah, pronounced LAY-uh — the correct, Hebrew pronunciation, my parents explained over and over again before just giving up and letting doctors, teachers, and commencement speakers call me LEE-uh. Now that I’m beginning to publish in my field, having a common spelling of an uncommon name is becoming more and more of an issue. I’ve started appending my initials plus last name to my work to avoid the issue altogether. While I do love names ranging from the unusual (Atlas, Marigold) to the bizarre (Waldo, Sailor) my one absolute non-negotiable requirement is that they be phonetically spelled and easy to pronounce.

iwillpraise Says:

October 8th, 2013 at 11:52 pm

I find this article extremely intriguing and very well written! I myself have entertained the question of authors’ name choices; It would be useful to love a multitude of name genre for sure, but usually it is not that way and each author has his or her own reasons for character names. Any name, of course, offers a first impression, but it is only the first layer upon which the author builds- sometimes creating drama of the unknown, if you will. The story always draws the reader in when their first impressions are challenged…. 🙂

I myself have also wondered why women who could have easily changed their monstrously long or embarrassing maiden surnames do not. Unlike Yona, LOVING my name is actually what brought me into the name-world; the only thing that has been challenging in this area is the fact that, even after 3 1/2 yrs of marriage, I still struggle that my previous one-syllable maiden name has been changed to a very-hard-to-spell-and-pronounce 4 syllable. But my husband was so delighted that I would take his name, I’d never deny him it… and so goes love and marriage 🙂

EmilyVA Says:

October 8th, 2013 at 11:58 pm

I dislike the idea of Anglo-sizing a name. I would want to have the cultural heritage shine through. I dislike the idea of making them fit a culture I don’t particularly trace heritage to. My favorite names include the German Brigitta and Elisabeth.
Also I know a couple of Leahs and a Leah “Leia”. I always remember which is which. Still I know it must be a pain. My name is easy to pronounce and one person still managed to bungle my name. She bungled everyone’s absolutely everyone’s and proved no one’s name is safe.

dindlee Says:

October 9th, 2013 at 5:18 am

I must say… My name is Dina, pronounced dee-nah. The number of times I got dye-nah growing up was ridiculous. I agree with going wild in the middle name. But for me, first names must be phonetic, easy to spell, recognizable, and unfortunately, Anglicized. My child will be a minority in this country. Won’t saddle them with a cultural name as well, beautiful as they are.

niteowl13 Says:

October 9th, 2013 at 11:19 am

The name I was born with was Glenys Saltzman. Not only was my first name odd, so was my last. The only other person I knew with the name Glenys was my godmother, the woman I was named after, a childhood friend of my mother. The only other Saltzmans I knew were related to me. When I was a teenager there was a contestant on Jeopardy named Glenys! Same spelling! My name was always misspelled and mispronounced. Over the years people have called me Glenna, Glenda and Gladys and then it was Gwyneth. Thanks, Gwyneth Paltrow. A few thought it was Glynis, like a Welsh actor named Glynis Johns. Some people said their friend’s grandmother’s name was Glenys and I was thrilled to hear it. I have married and changed my last name and found it funny when a co-worker went to add me to facebook and had to ask me which one I was. I went from being the only Glenys Saltzman to sharing my name with a few hundred people. 🙂 I have heard the last name Saltzman used by a character from the Vampire Diaries, but I don’t hear it much. I think it is awesome to have a unique name now. I am glad that you learned to appreciate your name too, Yona!

lua Says:

October 9th, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I am disheartened by this piece. First of all, I think Yona is a beautiful name and wonder if you had remained in Israel, you would have loved it because others would have accepted it more readily. Why is “Yona” a bad name? The way I see it, it is only “bad” because of the reactions you experienced from others (closed-minded others). It seems that many people in America may claim to embrace diversity, but not really mean it (i.e., people like the teacher you mention).

It seems to me that not accepting a person’s cultural differences – in this case – a name, is a form of not accepting the diversity they represent. How sad that people with “foreign” names feel a need do Anglicize their names in order to fit in, or give their children Anglo names (if you love the name, fine, but why NOT give the child a name from his/her heritage?)

Self name-loathing strikes me as very similar to loathing one’s body because it does not fit “the mold.” I wish more people were taught by their parents and teachers to love who they are, especially when who they are represents diversity – in name, in appearance, etc.

AnnaO Says:

October 9th, 2013 at 2:23 pm

As a name-obsessed person with an unusual name (not Anna!), I really relate to the author and often “place” people by their names. That said, Yona has such a particular type of name bias—she loves the classic WASP names! Not even the eccentric upper class ones (my weakness) like Arabella and Cressida but the stalwart, respectable middle class names. Your children have the same names at the Middleton kids! It’ll be interesting to see what their biases will be if and when they have kids to name.

author in writing Says:

October 9th, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Yona Zeldis is one fantastic, heck of a name!

Goodkarmavt Says:

October 9th, 2013 at 2:30 pm

I think it’s fine to hate your name. It’s bestowed upon you– you have no say in it until you become an adult and by that time it’s a burden greater than your awful name to change it. Although it’s easy to cut down this author about hating her name due to it not fitting in or being to ethnic, it’s probably people named Elizabeth and Kate who have never experienced this more than the people that have spent many years correcting people, and making an association to their name to help people even understand it. To the person who’s lived it their whole life- this piece strikes a chord.

I never knew anyone that went by their middle name until I was in college where everyone assumed my normal middle name was the name I went by, not my weird non-name first name. I wish I had been smart enough to catch on and use my middle!

nutopian Says:

October 9th, 2013 at 7:42 pm

@AnnaO, is your moniker a Sunset Rubdown reference? 🙂

Anyway, I see a lot of ways in which people’s own names inform their naming proclivities. As someone with an unsual, but not unheard-of, name that people find difficult to pronounce (Leanna, correct prn Lee-AH-nah), I want to choose a name that’s unusual, but accessible. But I’ve heard many with common names who want their kids to stand out, and many with very unusual names who want their kids to fit in.

mary97 Says:

October 10th, 2013 at 9:02 am

I agree with what Lua wrote.Self name-loathing strikes me as very similar to loathing one’s body because it does not fit “the mold.” I wish more people were taught by their parents and teachers to love who they are, especially when who they are represents diversity – in name, in appearance, etc.

Names come in and out of fashion so quickly. Even more so than years ago because of sites like nameberry where names are served up as the soup du jour. Juliet, such a great name? I get it, it sounds nice and fresh today in 2013 and a fine choice, but if you gave me that name 20 years
ago I’m sure I’d have wondered why my parents chose it. We are in fact more than our names.

alainarae Says:

October 11th, 2013 at 11:41 pm

I was named after a character in a romance novel, Alaina and then my middle name, Rae, after my Aunt’s middle name. Growing up, I was always embarrassed of my middle name, because I thought it was very masculine sounding… But wouldn’t you know, now everyone I know is throwing Rae in as their daughters middle name! It just goes to show that things change over time, and now, I’m not embarrassed of my middle name at all, but I don’t plan on using it if I were to ever have a girl, which I doubt, I will I’m currently expecting my 4th boy! And I don’t want to use it because I don’t particularly love it- but I definitely like that my name has a reason and a meaning to it! That is the kind of substance that I try and put into naming my children— I pick a first name that I love because it’s different, but not weird, and can picture a grown man having, and their middle names all have family ties— mostly grandfathers. It works for us!

princesskitra Says:

October 12th, 2013 at 10:44 am

At birth I was named Letitia, after the daughter of an older married man that my mother couldn’t have.

That name I was given at birth never, ever suited me. It looked and sounded stupid to me (no offense to anybody whose name is Letitia or any variation thereof; just expressing how I felt when I had that name!), and I hated having to provide a freakin’ pronunciation guide to everybody I met. It is pronounced “luh-TISH-uh,” with the “tish” part rhyming with “dish.” I always had to explain to people, think of the words “nation” and “vacation.” We don’t say “nay-tee-on” and “vay-cay-tee-on,” we say “nay-shon” and “vay-cay-shon.” The second “ti” in Letitia says “sh,” the same as in words like “nation” and “vacation.”

(Not to mention that there is a slang word for a woman’s body part smack dab in the middle of Letitia…)

And when I got older and found out why my mother picked the name she did, that upset me. I felt as if she wished I was somebody else. I feel the reason she chose it was, at very best, unethical.

So I had my name legally changed. I chose a relatively simple name, somewhat unique, and easy to pronounce without your brain exploding when you look at it. I picked Kitra. 🙂 I’ve only heard the name Kitra pronounced two different ways; “kit-rah” and “keet-rah.” I use the “kit-rah” pronunciation; “kit” like a kitten. Kitra means “crown” in Hebrew, which I thought was lovely, too. (Hence my handle, lol, princesskitra!)

Names can be a very tricky thing, that’s for sure!

ggmuzz Says:

October 14th, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Hi it’s true I have a horrible name so that made me name my children’s names better I’m 36
Belén Nevada Grace born 12/12/99
Penelope Scarlett Neva born 31/08/01
Una Eliza Viveane born 01/07/02
Kennedy Indigo Blossom 23/03/04
then with my second husband
Evangeline Danielle Mai 05/05/07
Kimbriella hazel September 03/09/08
And with my third husband
Dixie April born 21/04/10
Charlotta Enero 31/01/11
Christmas December 25/12/12

wildsage Says:

November 25th, 2013 at 4:42 am

I found this piece while Googling “I hate my name” and it struck me so much that I had to make an account and comment.

I know my name isn’t the worst name in the world, but it sometimes feels like it. My mother didn’t have a particular reason for choosing it, aside from the fact that she liked how it sounded. I’ve never felt like it suited me though – it’s very cutesy, ditzy sounding and probably what many people would consider to be a “stripper name”. It’s also spelled wrong, which I often give my mom grief about. She also has an unusually spelled name that nobody gets right, so she should have known better!

Also, I’ve since found out that it isn’t even derived from an old Irish name (as my mom had told me) but is instead a modern surname-turned-first-name that only sounds similar to that name. It probably seems trivial to most people, but I’m a huge history and etymology nerd so the fact that my name lacks any meaningful history bothers me.

I’ve often thought about going by my middle name instead but I’ve never had the guts to go through with it. I do think my dissatisfaction with my own name has influenced my naming preferences for any future children I might have. I like classic names that are easily recognizable and versatile so that if they happen to hate their full name they have lots of nicknames to fall back on.

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