Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What really is in a name


Baby-naming is often a painstaking process, and the result of this decision is usually the basis for the first question asked about a newborn, "What's the baby's name?" The plethora of baby-naming books attests to the absorption with these choices. It seems amazingly important and touches levels of our psyche that remain unexplained. The central character of Ralph Ellison's magnificent "The Invisible Man" remains unnamed; as a black man in the world of the 1950s, he might as well be anonymous. It is as though he doesn't exist.

When I visited my daughter and son-in-law prior to the birth of their first child, the divulging of their little boy's name didn't come until he did, to forestall a lot of input from well-meaning relatives and friends and also to have an element of surprise; thankfully, we were all happy with the


Over the years I have noticed certain fads in the names attached to the hundreds of students who have passed through my classes, and have also shared with them some of the oddest names I have encountered. I well remember telling a class, seriously, that a wealthy Texas man with the last name of Hogg had chosen to name his daughters Ima and Ura, and another man was unfortunately burdened with the moniker "Joe Blow," a sad name meaning an anonymous everyday person. I don't understand why people give babies odd names. It seems either quite stupid that they seem not to think ahead about how initials or nicknames might sound 20 years down the line, or perhaps they have a warped sense of humor, thinking it is funny (certainly for them, not for their offspring) to saddle a kid with a name that will make him the object of jokes. Kids have enough to put up with.

My friends who grew up in the '50s mostly included a lot of boys with rather traditional names like Bill, John, Mike, Robert, Ronald, Larry and Charles. The girls were often Betty, Barbara, Susan, Carol, Donna, Sandra, Marlene, Darlene, Marilyn, Sharon, Nancy, Ruth, Louise, Diane, Kathy, Patricia, Jean or Sally—the ones that are closest in my memory. I recall singing "Sweet Sue" in a trio at the annual UCLA songfest and feeling so many of the girls in the audience would relate. There were also combination names like Mary Ellen, Sue Ellen, Mary Jane or Mary Jo.

My name came from my Swedish mother's nickname when she was young. Her name was Helen Johanson, and people often called her Helen Jo, so she decided to have me carry on that tradition with a little alteration, JoEllen. She also insisted that it be spelled with a capital E with no space before it, so that people would not call me Joleen (which they often do). It has been a lifetime ritual to explain the spelling. My dearest friend from high school and life also has a name that starts with "Jo", as does one of my daughters, so we get a kick out of all three answering to someone asking for "Jo."

My closest teaching friend at Santa Monica High was another young person (we were the youngest on the staff) whose name was Sue Ellen. She and I became known as the Bobbsey Twins because of our names and blond hair and brown eyes. We were often also asked if we came from the South, where double names were more common.

In the '60s and '70s, unusual names flourished along with loose and comfortable clothing, beards and beads. We knew many a Summer or Sunshine or Moon or Magic.

Nicknames, of course, are another topic. I was affectionately called Bitsy as a child because I was so tiny (actually skinny). In high school the boys I longed for felt it necessary to pay me homage only through the nicknames Twig, or Bones. When the Ink Spots sang "Dry Bones" at our school, the audience pointed at me. I feared that I would grow up to weigh 350 pounds, work in a diner and wear a nametag with "Bitsy" on it. The irony was not happily anticipated. To this day, there are a few people left in my life who call me Bitsy, even though I am no longer teeny-weeny, and it still seems a sign of affection.

I do not think a "rose by any other name would smell as sweet" because we place so many connotations on labels. Thank God my parents gave me a name I have always loved.

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