What’s In a Name?
I recently was trying to find out the origins of a name (to decide whether or not to use it for a character who is slowly forming in my brain), and I ended up looking up my own name on the site. I discovered that there is a feast day in France on September 21st for Melissa. And there is an Edward Gorey (I love Edward Gorey!) book called Saint Melissa the Mottled. Melissa is the sorceress in “Orlando Furioso,” and lemon balm is also known as Melissa officinalis. My name pops up in Greek mythology — which is where it originated in the story of Zeus — and the original Melissa has been depicted in visual art and poetry.
Once, I was at a David Malouf reading with a man who really didn’t appreciate me. In fact, if we were being polite, we’d call him an asshole. (If we weren’t being polite, we could call him a whole host of other words.) After the reading, I went up to the desk to have my book signed, and when I told Mr. Malouf my name, he looked up, so excited, and said, “Melissa! The Queen Bee!” And we had a talk about the origins of my name. It was such a stark contrast, this stranger willing to get excited over my name and this boyfriend who wasn’t even excited about my actual being.
And while I like people to actually like me, I am willing to settle on people liking my name because I like it very much too.
A long time ago on a blog post, Delenn brought up this mind-blowing question. In Judaism, we only name children after someone who has died. She writes about her father-in-law who died 17 years earlier.
Certain things would have been different if he had lived. (He died at 51 of heart attack). For one thing–my son would not be named after him. And that brings a lot of questions concerning would my son be MY son or would he be a different version of my son with a different name?
Are we ourselves if we have a different name? I mean, would I have still grown up to have the same personality and have the same accomplishments and the same life experience if my name had been Jennifer or Anne or Emma? Or would the Jenniferization of myself transform me into a very different type of person? Do names matter; charting our fate? Could I still be the same person I am today with a completely different name?
I don’t know.
I feel rather Melissa-ish. In all the Melissa-ish meanings of that word. And I can pick up honeybees with my bare hands, and it doesn’t frighten me. Would I be able to pick up bees or allow them to land on me while I’m outside with no fear if my name was Cassandra?
Stacie sent a really interesting article into Prompt-ly about an Icelandic teenager who is fighting to be able to keep her name. Iceland has an approved list of names that parents can choose from when naming their baby (1,712 male names and 1,853 female names), and if the name you choose isn’t on that list, you can apply to have your name considered. But if the name is rejected, you are simply called “Stúlka” (which means girl, and I’m assuming there is a boy equivalent) on all official forms. This teenager is fighting to have the name she has been called for 15 years by friends and family — Blaer — to also be used on official forms and in business instead of being listed as the generic Stúlka.
I tried to imagine how I would feel if I couldn’t be called my name. If all my forms said “Girl Ford” and I was called back at the doctor’s office as “Girl” and my mail came addressed to “Girl.” While many other people usually share our name unless our parents invented it whole cloth, our names are something that make us unique, that set us apart from all the other people in the room.
In Margaret Atwood’s dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, removing the women’s names and making them the property of their Commanders (Of Fred and Of Warren, or in the book, Offred and Ofwarren) is one way the government takes away your individuality. And the way they women hold onto their individuality is not by fighting against the uniform but by whispering their original names, cot to cot, in the dark.
I am not bothered by nicknames — I introduce myself by my nickname (and sign off notes) more than my full name — but I am uneasy over the idea of someone removing my name from me, of not allowing me to be a Melissa anymore. Even when I’ve been called a nickname I haven’t particularly liked, I’ve always known that deep down, my name was still my name.
I tried to think about the inverse: what if I changed my name legally to Courtney, so my driver’s license and mail and medical records were all under the name I wanted — Courtney — but my friends and family all still called me Melissa, refusing to utilize this name I chose for myself?
And what about offensive names? And who determines offensiveness? I tried to imagine how I would feel if the twins had a classmate named Adolf Hitler Smith. Would I be able to interact with the Smith family? While I think the government can make a strong case against a name that is not suitable to be spoken over television or radio (such as Fuck Smith), we get into grey areas when we start determining what is an offensive name and what is a reasonable name. Especially when we cross cultures.
Anyway, I hope Blaer gets to keep her name, by which I mean that she gets it recognized by the government as an acceptable name.
How do you feel about your name? Does it define you, or do you define it? Meaning, do you think you’d be the same person even if you had a different name, or did your name shape you into the person you’ve become?