Think: Our Name(s)
on the fluid nature of who we are
There are a couple of stories about the surname of William Faulkner, the storied author of American Literature. One is that when he joined a Canadian reservist unit during World War II, he added a “u” to his birth name of “Falkner.” Maybe he thought it would look better on a gravestone? Maybe, since he wasn’t qualified to join the U.S. Army due to his height, he thought adding the “u” would add British cache to his application? It didn’t matter, in any event, as Faulkner was back home in Mississippi before he could see any action.
The second story credits the addition of the “u” to a misprint on the title page of his first book, and the famous author’s apocryphal response was reported as “Either way suits me.”
I’m not sure what to make of this addition and subtraction. I know people who add “u” to words like “color” or “glamor” and “favorite” even though they’re not British. I do know there’s something to the notion that “either way” can suit a person. That bit reveals something worth arguing about: of all the labels that have been given to us, which one are we? Can we be all of them?
In November of 2008, when our kid was in kindergarten, we adopted our first puppy. Born in a rescue during the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, our first puppy and his littermates were all named after American gold medalists. We had intended on a pup with black coloring but by the time we arrived at the adoption event, someone else had adopted him.
“Here’s Phelps, though,” said one of the rescue workers, heaving a soft brown puppy into Adrian’s arms.
“Oh,” said Adrian, holding the pup so that my kid and I could see him better. “Oh. Well. Well, okay, then.”
We adopted “Phelps” immediately, of course.
Though we loved watching his namesake dominate in the pool and respected the one-syllable ease of “Phelps,” that name wasn’t quite right. The entire drive home, all three of us spun out options:
Diesel. Fred. Hammy. Cupcake. Turbo. Pablo.
“Stop. Yes. There it is,” I said. “Pablo.”
Pablo was our kid’s idea, after a character on a cartoon called The Backyardigans. I barely remembered the show—all kid’s shows are a kind of blur during those years of erratic sleep—but I knew it suited our new pet.
As our puppy grew up, he amassed more names. Pabby. Pab-Low. Pab-Slow. Pabbenheimer. Pablerino. PAW-blo. Mr. Brown. Mr. Brownstone. Old Man. Old Man River. Harry Brownback. Charlie Winterbeard. Barney Muddypaws.
Maybe we are a family that loves nicknames.
Or maybe, more precisely: we show love through nicknames.
Recently, our kid told us that they didn’t want to use feminine pronouns anymore. That they preferred to be called “they” and to be addressed as “Till” or “Tilly” instead of “Matilda.”
While this is a straightforward instruction, it’s not as easy as it appears.
To give some context: As a teacher on the first day of a term, I would go through the roster of names to take attendance. I would always mention that students should let me know if they preferred another name than what was officially listed. Occasionally, a student would qualify the name I’d just pronounced, explaining something like “Call me Rob, not Robert,” etc. That is easy to do if you’ve just met someone; the ink hasn’t dried yet to make the memory.
I had known my child as Matilda before they drew breath. The little bracelet the nurse circled around my wrist before I went into the operating room matched the one they intended to put on my baby, once born. Adrian and I had gone over possibilities for months, and Matilda was the only one we could agree on. We had already filed for a social security number under that name, Matilda. Matilda. A whole name full of nicknames and possibilities, some we never used (Maddie, Mattie) and some we occasionally used (Maude, Milly) and some (Matilly, Little) that only I used.
A friend of mine once explained that a way to retrain your brain to use the “they/them” singular for a nonbinary or bigender person is to think of the person containing multiple genders. Multitudes. This advice has really worked for me (thanks, Rachel), because rerouting our brain pathways is no small task; it’s good to honor the reality that what we name things is not incidental.
It also makes me think about what sticks and falls away. Which names feel proper and right for us to use and which do not.
We’re all a fossil record of the names we’ve been given, for good or ill, whether we answer to them or not.
Something I like to think about: all the silent, lost names that pile up in animal shelters and pet rescues. Within the animal itself. When we met Jelly, his foster family called him “Georgie.” I can still picture “GEORGIE” written in black Sharpie on the Ziplock baggie containing his paperwork and tags. Prior even to the foster family, Jelly had been with the family that had surrendered him; it wasn’t clear if they were the ones responsible for the name. Before the surrendering family, Jelly had been a stray. It’s possible that when he was born, Jelly had been identified by something else, too; I’m imagining the people involved might have given him a name, just to keep track of one puppy from the next. So, Jelly already may have racked up a decent roster of potential names before he even turned one year old. The backstory was that he was a stray in Chelsea, Oklahoma, and somehow made his way up to Minnesota, through some pipeline of goodwill and luck, to that first family that had found him unacceptable and gave him back. I like to imagine more names accumulating on that long journey north, as well, no doubt laced with curse words, considering how difficult it was to integrate him into our life.
Sometimes I wonder, if in the murk of Pablo’s dementia-addled brain, he has memories of being called “Phelps.” Technically, Pablo isn’t called anything anymore; he’s deaf as a post.
A sad fact many dog owners might know: dogs don’t have any sense of identity associated with the name they’re called. Instead, a dog’s name functions only as a specific command, directed at them. For dogs, their name means nothing more than “pay attention, listen, come.”
I remember when I first read this fact in a book on dog behavior, that I looked up and read it out loud to my family. The crestfallen look on my kid’s face! That the name they’d picked for our beloved pup wasn’t shot through with endearment or affection or pride, only stern obligations.
Adrian’s mother hates nicknames. But she’s specific about it. She only objects to the nicknames people use on her own children.
“I gave you all perfectly good names,” she explains, referring to her four sons.
My mother-in-law herself has several nicknames, given to her by her husband, friends and family. She answers to all of these names happily, so her nickname dislike appears to only apply to those people she birthed and was tasked to label.
I understand this aversion; picking a name for a child not yet born is not easy. It’s a weird, singular experience, involving deep consideration, over long periods of time. But I also think it doesn’t truly make sense to slap a label on a new being just at the moment it emerges into life, either. Giving someone a name creates a kind of prophesy the child works toward or against. Why fuss with the odds? Why not wait until there is more data on what this new being is about?
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe and other First Nation tribes have naming practices that are done over time and are aligned with personal traits, birth order and accomplishments: given name, spirit name, secret name, gifted name. Catholics also sometimes receive an additional name, after a Saint or other Hero of the Faith, upon baptism and confirmation. Our public and professional lives are rife with honorifics and titles and labels of distinction that are meant to indicate our talents and capacities.
But, generally, in contemporary American life, nicknames tend to come from a less dignified source. To wit, they’re spat upon you by some dickhead in your school who thought it’d be funny if you were called Hairy Carrie or the Mes-Lesbian or some other cleverly demeaning mash-up.
My husband always said he never had nicknames that weren’t nasty until he married into my life. Then he was blessed by several nicknames, which came from friends and my nephews, who couldn’t pronounce his name when they were little: Uncle Alien, A-Bomb, Ya-Ya, A-nin.
Among my friends, nicknames tended to teasingly refer to inside jokes, usually about unfortunate, stupid things that happened at parties. One of my pals had the poor luck of throwing up spaghetti in front of us after becoming too intoxicated and forever we embarrassed her with the label of “Noodles.”
In that vein, my sister has always called me “Lynn” because she enjoys evoking my disgust with the gross prevalence of this middle name for women in my generation. Some of my high school friends took to that, too, adding variations: Lynn-O, Lynnie, Lynnbomb, etc.
While I dislike my middle name on its face, there’s something cool about having a double identity. When people who know me professionally hear someone in my life call me “Lynn” it always throws them—and me as well. Being called “Lynn” is a reminder that I am lots of different things to different people. It makes my life seem richer. Like I’ve traveled to all these faraway, fantastic realms and been called something new by all the enchanting people I met there.
like what I make?