How My Catholic Girlhood Made Me A Name Nerd
While the roots of Linda‘s name nerdism are different from mine — you can read her story here— and I’m sure you all have your own stories to tell, which we’d love to hear! — I trace a large part of my fascination with names to my Catholic girlhood.
Most kids back at Immaculate Conception School were dying to know whether the nuns had hair under those veils or what they wore to bed at night, but to me those mysteries paled in comparison to the nuns’ names.
Nuns got to pick new names for themselves when they entered the convent. That itself was appealing enough, but what was really amazing was that their choices were not confined by ethnic background, historical period, or even gender.
The principal of Immaculate Conception, for instance, was named Sister Miriam Gervase, an appellation that had it all going on. Miriam may have been a Mary relative, but it was one used mostly by Jews. unfamiliar in our Irish and Italian Catholic enclave. And Gervase! That may have been a hot name in 6th century Gaul….for guys. But in mid-20th century New Jersey, it really stood out in the world of Gerrys and Jeans.
My favorite nun was also the one with the best name: Sister Jacinta. Sister Jacinta was young, at least as far as we could tell, and she was Irish. So where did the name Jacinta come from? I may have even been brave enough to ask her, and she explained that it was the Spanish name of a holy person — the blessed Jacinta, one of the children who saw the apparition that became known as Our Lady of Fatima.
Jacinta: What a gorgeous name, and how exotic! It was as if the nuns had access to some secret list of fantastic names they’ve since passed down to Hollywood celebrities.
These names go far beyond the names I gleaned as a girl from the Lives of the Saints books that detailed the usual saintly suspects: Anne, Francis, Cecilia, Anthony, saints’ names used consistently over the centuries down to my (yawn) neighbors and schoolmates. Though there was the occasional outlier — one boy in my class was called Guy Ignatius, and a church nearby was named for Saint Cassian — we were privy to only a narrow slice of the saintly possibilities.
Thanks to my grown-up name research, I’ve become familiar with the wide world of saints’ names that the nuns have obviously known all along, names that are still unfamiliar yet might translate into modern life. Among the thousands of intriguing possibilities are Marinus and Marcellina, Romaric and Romana, Dallan and Dominica.
(Here’s a much longer list of wonderful saints’ names.)
Of course there are also thousands of saints’ names it’s hard to imagine ever clawing their way back into contemporary usage, from Disobod to Dingad to Dodo . But that doesn’t really matter to a name nerd.
The most appealing aspect of Catholicism to my childhood self may have been the practice of self-renaming, which extends far beyond the nunnery to include Popes, pagan babies, and even yourself.
While the Pope aspect — upon election to that highest office, popes take on a new name — gave renaming the highest possible endorsement south of Heaven, it was too distant and too infrequent to have much meaning in the everyday name nerd’s life.
More immediate was the prospect of getting to choose a new name for the so-called pagan babies we collected our coines to “adopt.” Once the class had pulled together something like $36 in pennies and nickels and dimes, we laid official claim to another theoretical orphan in another far-flung locale, and held an election on what to rename her (somehow, in my memory, they’re all girls, so much more fun for an 11-year-old girl to name than boys). My classmates’ imagination for this practice was as limited as their enthusiasm, but mine wasn’t. If only there’d been a Nameberry back then, I’d have given these poor children much better names.
The only thing more exciting than naming the pagan babies was getting to pick our own Confirmation names. Not strictly a renaming, this meant adding a second middle to our own lineups. My choice, I’m chagrined to admit, was the pedestrian Mary, but for very name nerdish reasons: Combined with Pamela Ann, it made my initials P.A.M. Brilliant!
I’m not sure whether, absent the deep and mysterious world of names only hinted at by my Catholic girlhood, I ever would have become an enthusiastic enough name nerd to have spent much of my adult life writing about names. Maybe I would have simply come at the subject from a different direction bearing different name tastes and obsessions.
What’s your name nerd story? Any Catholics out there with similar name nerd histories, or did you become interested in names via a different path?