What’s in a Name?

Cushman Sisters as Romeo and Juliet

Charlotte Cushman as Romeo, with Sarah Cushman as Juliet.

“[T]hat which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”

So Juliet says to Romeo, exhorting him to deny the name of Montague. “O be some other name!”

But while Romeo is willing enough to throw aside his name for the length of that romantic scene with Juliet, he doesn’t stop being a Montague. Trust Shakespeare to give us a great line for dismissing the importance of names in a play in which the names and heritage of the main characters underlie the core tragedy. If the Montagues and Capulets did not have so much invested in their names and their hatred, their children would have survived.

Which is to say, names are complicated matters.

I have a basic rule when it comes to names, one that also applies to titles and pronouns: Call people what they want to be called. It’s an easy rule to follow, for the most part. Sometimes you have to ask or be corrected if you err, but once you know, you just do it.

I picked this up as a kid, when it was not uncommon for people to make fun of another child by calling them a name they hated. Sometimes it was their actual name; other times it was a cruel joke.

I’ve known a lot of people named Deborah in my life. Some dislike being called anything but Deborah, while others prefer Deb or Debi or Debbie. Same with names like Elizabeth and Katherine.

And one of my favorite memories of my Clarion West class was that in a group of 17 people, we had three Roberts. This was not a problem for us, since they all went by different variations on the name (Robert, Rob, and Bob), but it did cause problems for the teachers who came in each week, because they had to learn who was which.

I also have a lot of friends who always shorten other people’s names, not to be rude, just because it’s the way they talk.

Personally, I don’t mind what people do with my name. I usually introduce myself as Nancy, but I use my middle name in my byline to make it stand out a little more. I’m OK if people call me Nancy Jane, or Nan, or Nance, or N.J. The only thing that ever hurts my feelings is when someone calls me by another person’s name–I get called Linda a lot, perhaps because it was also a common name of my generation.

I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when some people adopted hippie names, feminists pushed for the use of “Ms.”, and some African Americans decided they no longer wanted to be called by names tied to slavery. Those were changes dictated by an underlying culture that needed to shift.

It’s fashionable to laugh at the hippie ideas, but those changes were important in their rejection of certain assumptions of U.S. culture. And some people change their names because, unlike Romeo, they want to reject their family, often with good reason.

These days the name issue, as well as the pronoun and honorific issue, often comes up with respect to trans people. The name change is very key for many trans people, and the backlash against them based on their name is also very real.

When you knew someone before they transitioned, you do have to make a small shift to remember the new name, but that’s not a difficult task. Refusing to do so is rude and unnecessary.

The refusal is also a political act by people who consider it their job to police who others are and what they should be called. These are the same kind of people who insist on calling a married woman by her husband’s name even if she doesn’t use it or who laugh at African American names because they don’t fit into their white ideas.

This is not to say that people who transition their gender aren’t making a political statement as well as a personal one. They are. Name changes often have some element of the political about them.

But even if you disagree with the politics behind some name changes–and if you do you might want to study the issue more deeply–refusing to call someone by their chosen name is rude. Period. Names matter.



What’s in a Name? — 16 Comments

  1. In the newspapers, when you read about a kid who suddenly moves from South Dakota to Kabul to join ISIS, he always changes his name first, from Joey to Ahmed or something.
    I realized only the other day, when someone asked me, that I have a Chinese name. So do my brother and sister. My brother can tell you his, but neither my sister nor I can remember ours. We never use them, have never been fluent in Chinese, and can’t write the language. If you shouted my Chinese name at me in the street I would not recognize it. I have it written down somewhere, and hope I can find it. But it’s not my name in the sense that my English name is.

    • It would be cool to have another name like that, one that isn’t available for most of the people you’re around.

      My first and middle name both come from ancestors, which I like even though if I’d been picking I might have chosen different ones.

  2. About 12 years ago I dropped my husband’s last name and reverted to my birth name. It was not easy to get all the documents in line and endless paperwork done. But I had reasons, both personal and professional. Hubby and I are still married.

    My neighbors have never accepted this _insult_ to my husband. It was not a rejection of him, but rather an affirmation of who I have become. I feel insulted when they refuse to acknowledge my choice. But then most of them don’t think a woman has a place out in the world unless she’s walking 3 paces behind her husband’s left shoulder.

    • I do think your neighbors’ reactions get at why women’s names, in particular, are still such an important issue. A name that describes you as belonging to someone else defines who you are in ways that limit your life.

    • I took my spouse’s last name for all of approximately six months. I could never get used to it—it just didn’t reflect me as, well, me—with all of my complicated heritage. Luckily, I had never got around to changing any of my documents. But to this day, decades later, there are still people—close family members—even, who persist in addressing me as Mrs. . For the record, my insistence on maintaining my own personal identity has never been an issue for “Mr. Zena.” Go figure.

      But I had a terrible time as a child of European immigrants who gave their offspring weird foreign names, growing up in a homogenous, largely rural community. I was called all manner of horrible things through the years, and my name eventually became a badge of honour for me—which is why I kept it, in defiance.

      Ironically, the old “what the hell kind of name is that?!” comments have given way to “that’s such a cool name!”—even though I now have to contend with the inevitable “warrior princess” jokes. I always just laugh and remind them that I wore it first (and besides, that *other* princess spells it wrong!).

      So yeah, getting people’s names right is a bit of a cause for me.

      • I always try to learn to pronounce and spell names that are outside my usual frame of reference. I can’t say I always do it well and I certainly have to practice, but I think it’s worth the effort. Besides, there are lots of really cool names out there.

  3. I took hubby’s last name – officially – but he jokes that I’m less his “mrs” than he has become “Mr Alexander” which is furiously funny because that’s the name I write under and not anything like my maiden name or anything else that has legal roots. But it’s so much WHO I AM that it’s kind of hard for either of us to think of me as anything other than that…

    • Yeah, my husband has accepted that at conventions, he’s Mr. Brennan. Not the name on his badge, and Brennan isn’t my legal name, but . . . yeah, from the perspective of the social dynamics there, he’s defined by his connection to me.

  4. I deliberately took my husband’s name. I knew I was going to write novels, and ‘C’ gets you beside Cherryh and Clarke. ‘W’ tends to be on the lower shelves, down near Wyndham and Zelazny.

  5. In my grade 7 class there were 5 Susans, thus I became either Sue (or Hutch). My second cousin/best friend took back her maiden name when she divorced her first husband, and then never changed it when she married her second husband. When my first cousin Sherri married, she changed her last name to her husband’s. One of the other cousin’s husbands remarked to the groom — and everyone in the family laughed knowingly — “It doesn’t matter what your last name is, or that she adopted your name, you will always be ‘the guy who married the Hutchings girl’.”

  6. I have kept my maiden name into my third marriage. Mostly because I am too lazy to deal with all the paperwork, partially because I was already a young and promising poet and translator when I met my first husband, and I must admit some of it was pure pride.

    However, when I was born, my parents had a total eclipse of their brains and named me Katre Liis. That would be Catherine Eliza. I hated the Catherine part so much I stopped answering to it at the mature age of 3, and mangled the Eliza part into something like Liz, and insisted I am Liz. Grandma Liz loved it, of course, and as she was the Grand Force Majeure of our family everyone actually went along.

    So I ended up being Liz for family, friends, book covers, reviews, event posters, and even enemies. And that dumb Catherine Eliza still pays taxes and tags along on my ID. Because changing it would mean paperwork, and because convincing bureaucrats that CE and Liz are both me can be fun.

    Nomen est omen. Now, approaching 50, I look into the mirror and what do I see but Grandma Liz.

      • I see my grandmother in my face, too. Though we don’t share any names–when I was young, she told us how much she loathed and hated her name: her three sisters all got pretty names (Helen, Ione, Miriam) but she was stuck with Bertha Mathilda.

        So out of respect for this powerful force in the family, there were no Berthas or Mathildas.

        • Sometimes the best thing is to break the chain of dreadful names! My grandmother liked Jane. I’m not sure she really loved being Omega (usually shortened to Mega), but her grandfather named her that and she adored him, so she never once said so. (I have to admit, when I’ve thought about which family name I might have preferred, it never occurred to me to pick Omega.)

  7. I joke sometimes that when my father said, “Don’t call me Shirley,” he meant it. But he was born in 1931 and my grandmother insisted on naming him after his father — who was born in Kentucky and was named Shirley. My father used his middle name: Chester.

    I was born Deborah, and so many Deborahs I have met near my age! As a child I felt very normal with that name and wanted so much to change it! (As well as my cursive Ds fell into the awful range and I wanted a name I could write more easily.) I wanted Rachel, just as my father wanted to change his name. After my grandparents had died, he could have changed his name, but he said to me that he’d lived with his name so long that he figured he could go on with it for a few more years. And here I am, a year younger than he was when he died, and twelve years after my mother’s death at 75 — and I guess I can live with Deborah June for a few more years.