Tuesday, March 15, 2005

What's in a Name?

I got the following note from my father the other day. I've been meaning to answer it, so I figure I might as well post my response here.

Dad wrote:
   A thought which I had early (about 4 or so AM) this morning, was the changing of one's name--even in a small manner, in the course of life. I'm sure someone has written about this. Percy [Gilmore - friend of dad's since his youth] changing his to Ken. My given Irvin to Bruce, and yours, slightly, to Rick. There are certainly reasons we do this, and, maybe consequences which might be interesting to explore. I know mainly that--I "ve gone through a few existential doorways during the early part of my life and for some now mainly forgotten reason--Irvin did not seem to fit. But the consequences, though not serious, sometimes create confusion in the ordinary commerce of daily life. "OH, I thought your name was Bruce!" And I got to thinking, could this give you a new and different persona, personality---maybe not.

I reply:
It's alway amuses me when I'm around my dad or one of my old friends and get called "Ricky." When I was 6, I actually "changed" the spelling of my own name to "Rickey." I don't know that any deep reason was behind my adding an "e" to distinguish myself. I remember I was at Lakeshore Drugs in Baton Rouge and looking through one of those racks of personalized badges, you know, "Aaron to Xavier," and the only one with my name on it had that peculiar spelling, so right then I adopted it. I was Rickey until I became Rick, I think in junior high. For a year or two, my son Daniel (his friends call him Dan) took to signing all his class papers "Dan!" -- no last name, just an exclamation point -- to the bemusement of his teachers. I do think that changing or modifying one's name is a rite of passage. Of course there are plenty of Biblical references to this rite: Jehovah changing Abram to Abraham, Jesus changing Simon to Peter, the passage from Revelation: "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth [it]." I think it's safe to say that our relationship to our names has something to do with our relationship to eternity, or to God. After all, a name is an artifact, something added to you by an authority outside yourself, but it's also the only thing about a person that doesn't constantly change. Everything else is either superficial, like belongings, or temporary, like body cells and fluids, or evolving, like thoughts and affections. Your name is the one part of you that doesn't change unless you change it, or at least allow it to change. And it's the part of you that most genuinely survives death in the mortal world. A name is the icon by which someone is remembered, revered or maligned. So, maybe there is some real insight to be gained from how a person manipulates this icon in life. But, as Dad said, surely someone has written on this.


Al (of course) said...

My parents named me Alan. When I went to college everybody started calling me Al even though I introduced myself as Alan. I took on the name Al without much thought and grew to prefer that to Alan. My mom and some family members still call me Alan. My friends call me Al. I've tried to eradicate Alan from any form of identification because at this point it sounds odd to me. I got tired of paying for something with a credit card and having the clerk say "Thank you Alan." So now credit cards, checks, business cards, all say Al. Only driver's license and passport still say Alan. And I've had the experience of introducing myself as Al and for whatever reason, people calling me Alan -- always by older folks. The name Al (or Alan), while not what I would have chosen is now comfortable enough (but maybe sometimes a little short) and I really can't imagine changing it, though I do occasionally think (while waiting for the subway or something) about what I would change it to.

Ernesto said...

I was named Ernesto, but growing up in Southern Vermont, the "o" was a point of confusion for peers and teachers, and tension for me. Most people in my family called me "Ernie" anyway, and when I had to sign a paper in school I began consciously omitting the "o" to anglicize the name. It wasn’t until after high school that I reclaimed the o and became Ernesto again, and now most people who meet me call me that.

Even today, in this much more latinized version of America than the one I grew up in, store clerks and bureaucrats of all stripes still screw up their faces and say (seriously!), "What kind of name is that?" I spell it for them and tell them it's "Ernest with an o on the end." That seems to comfort them.

It's an interesting topic to ponder, the link between name and identity and changing a name as identity evolves. I agree entirely with your rite of passage conclusion. For me, my "real" name was long a source of shame and confusion, then somehow became one of the bricks at the core of my adult identity. I wouldn't know myself as anything else...