On Choosing a Name

The other day at a social work event I met a woman named Emily West. It freaked me out a little, because when I was a kid that was the name I had wanted for myself. And here she was, in the flesh, a woman with my imaginary ideal name.

I’m not sure why I wanted that to be my name. Probably because I had a tricky last name that nobody can pronounce and I went by my initials, which required even more explaining. What’s odd is that I did actually get to choose my name, sort of. After six years of explaining my hard-to-spell and initials to people, I resolved that since I was starting at a new school the next year, I would change my name to something much more grown-up and dignified and that didn’t require an explanation. I ended up choosing a shortening of my middle name that in the long run required even more explaining than my first name, but I successfully chose and changed my name. Then, when I got married, I took my husband’s name largely to get rid of that last name that nobody could pronounce (but don’t tell him that). Looking back on it, I was given the option several times to change my name to Emily West if I had really wanted to. Once I turned 18, or even when I got married, I could have easily changed my name to Emily West, but while the fantasy was fun, it never occurred to me to actually go so far as to change my name to something that far off my original given name.

But it made me wonder, why not?

I have learned over the years this desire to change one’s name, and in fact acting upon the desire, is not all that uncommon. Both my mom and dad went from being “Suzie” and “Joey” to Susan and Joseph (not their real names) once they graduated high school. But I also know lots of other cases with significant name and identity changing. One of my friends got rid of her middle name when she turned 18 because it rhymed with a somewhat vulgar body part. I’ve known a Guinevere who went by Jen and a Jennifer that went by Gwen. I know another woman who at 40 decided to ask her friends and family, including her children, to start calling her a brand new name, not even vaguely related to her any of her legal names. A friend of mine changed his last name to his mother’s maiden name after she divorced his father. A couple I adore got married recently and he took her last name. Some name changes are more successful than others: another friend tried the same stunt I pulled, but apparently it only stuck for a year.

So why do we have this desire to change our names? In some cases it’s a matter of identity, or a source of embarrassment. In contrast, why are we so tied to the names we’re given? Is it a sense of heritage or link to the past, we like the sound of our name, or is it just because that’s what we were told our name was, so why question it?

There are lots of cultures where a person receives a new name once they reach adulthood, so the idea of being given or choosing a new name isn’t that unheard of, but it still seems odd to a lot of people. Authors have often gone by pen names (Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, and Louisa May Alcott at one point). And now, with online profiles and personas and log-ins, we can change our names or give ourselves a new identity as often as we want. How does that play into our desire to change our names, our identity? If “Jane Smith” is already chosen as a user name, does Jane decide to go with something similar like “J-Smith” or does she go with a completely new identity and become “Zandra Daylily?”

For the purposes of this blog, for example, I chose to remain anonymous. And I didn’t choose “Jane Smith” or “Sacagawea” or “Isis” or some other pseudonym, I deliberately wanted to remain nameless, to be relatable to every woman. to not have a specific identity (although I suspect that will emerge as this blog develops).

What has your experience been with choosing your name? Do you go by a nickname that you chose? Did you adjust your name when transitioning into a new role, or change it entirely? For those married folks, why did you choose to keep your name or take a new one? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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