The Things We Call Ourselves

Monday, March 29, 2010

We're called things from the time we're born. Some of us are called thing before we're born. Your name is the part of you that can exist before you're legally alive, and it's what remains after you're dead. And, for a while at least, it's something we have absolutely no control over.

It's the first indication of parental dominance over their kids. All of the parents' hopes and wishes for their munchkin to be are tied up in that short (or long depending on your culture) string of letters that's somehow supposed to encompass someone's entire being.

There have been studies done on the benefit of certain names and damage done by others. (Did you know it can be potentially damaging to a kid's psyche if you name him Brandon Allen Davis? Or helpful to one if you name her Gloria Odessa Davis? The BAD and GOD come through as a subconscious tag of their self image... so say those people who are supposed to know everything.)

It's the same process a writer goes through to determine what to call his/her characters. Only writers are ahead of the game. Mom and Dad don't know what the little squirming pink or blue blanket will be. A writer has the whole life beginning to end to work with at once.

You can be original, though naming your kid for fruit is taking things a bit far. (I could tell you a funny story about a (real) boy named Fruit Stand, but it might be a little long... okay, I'll tack it onto the end) They can be unique takes on common names, like Jorja for Georgia. They can be feminized male (Leslie) names or masculine female names (Meryl). You can name someone in honor of someone else, and saddle them with the baggage that comes along with that distinction. You can have the 2,376nd Jennifer in 4th grade.


Then there are nicknames.

Everything from the embarrassing: It may have been ten years since you sat in chocolate pudding, but the resulting taunt lasted until high school...

To the celebratory: Some get to relive their moment of glory for their rest of their lives.

To the just plain weird: I knew a guy called Parrot because he looked like Ross Perot, and the person who observed this couldn't pronounce Perot correctly.

And then there are those names where you wonder if Mom was still on her delivery room meds when she filled out the forms.

(yes, these are real people)

Crystal Chantal Leer, Dusty Rhodes, Rusty Pipes, Avery Penny Counts, Huy Nguyen ("We Win", who totally blew the full effect by refusing to change his middle name from Manh to Will ;-))

(And the decidedly unreal Helen Zass ... say it fast)

No matter how the name is chosen, names are a key component of identity.

It's interesting that in current local culture, most people keep the legal name they're given at birth. In times past, and still in some places around the world, it's tradition for a kid to choose his/her own name when they reach the accepted threshold for adulthood. (Not quite the same as a Confirmation name - at least I never knew anyone who started using that as their legal name.)

Of course, those of who claim to be writers or actors or whatever can cling to the right of pseudonym either to punch up our given names, set ourselves apart, or correct some less than stellar logic on our parents' parts.

In my case, I started with Josina and dropped the "a" to make it sound more androgynous. (Believe it or not, some people out there don't like girl type people playing in their sandboxes.) The "L" is for my legal 1st name. And, personally, I like the way the two flow together. (And it's "Joe' sin", for those of you who have asked.)

So, how much thought do you put into your names? Pen names or character names? Was it an easy choice or a difficult one? Was there a particular inspiration, or did it just sound "right" to you? Was your intent to bolster your character or highlight his/her flaws?

(Wow, my posts are random the last few days. I think my brain is in "idea mode" so it's tossing out all kinds of things both interesting and confuddling.)


Okay, so for those of you who care, here's the story of the boy called Fruit Stand:

1st day of school, the kids are given name tags, and this particular child's tag read "Fruit Stand". This particular school got a lot of hippie children, so it sadly wasn't the strangest name they'd ever seen. Even sadder was the effect this weird name seemed to have on the kid - he barely even acknowledged it.

At the end of the day, when it was time to go home, the teachers asked each kid which was their bus stop so they could put them on the right bus. Again, Fruit Stand didn't answer when they spoke to him. So the teacher flipped over his tag where the parents were supposed to write in the correct stop.

It said Stephen.

2 Chiming In:

JustineDell said...

Hilarious story! I have one of those names where there were 5 (yes 5) of me in my 7th grade english class. It was ridiculous. I have the most common name of my birth year. Couldn't my parents have been more original? LoL. And, you probably guessed...my real name is not Justine.

Terry Towery said...

I've always HATED "Terry." Always. Terry Lee. Yuck.

Anyway, interesting post, Josin. I've thought about blogging on the subject myself -- and still might once a proper amount of time has elapsed so that you won't accuse me of swiping your idea. :)

I really can't say for sure where my characters' names came from. Some of them just came to me, fully formed. Others, I debated and changed several times until they "felt right."

For Jordan, one of my MCs, I had orginally called him something quite different (Jason, I think), but my then 11-year-old looked at me over dinner one night and said "You ought to name him Jordan. I like that name."

And bingo. I did. And he was right. I like the name, too.

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