Names

When I was in sixth grade, I decided that I hated the way that folks where I grew up pronounced my first name (think three syllables), so I convinced everyone to call me by a shortened nickname version (think first initial). This was a fine solution, until I discovered at some point in college that I really liked my actual first name and wanted to use it, but could not convince anyone to drop the nickname.

It took moving across the country, to a place where no one knew me, to make the switch. My first name and I got a fresh start — for the most part. Most of my family still uses the nickname, as do some old friends. They’re mostly forgiven, as people who knew me before 1991 were grandfathered in, so to speak.

Every so often, though, I’ll run across someone who didn’t know me then, but who now knows someone who did. And every so often, one of these people will decide to pick up the nickname, whether innocently or not, whether out of a genuine attempt to be friendly or a condescending familiarity.

Honestly, I do not care why they do it. What I’m mostly interested in here is my own reaction, which is frequently anxious, and often furious.

Part of the deal is that it triggers the same response as when someone gets my name wrong, usually mistaking either my first or last name for the slightly more common variants thereof. It happens to everyone sometimes. It’s an honest mistake. But I’m left weirdly saddened by the sense that I am not vivid enough to be remembered properly, or important enough to warrant correctness, and I never know how to issue a correction that isn’t either overly defensive or fruitlessly unheard. And when it happens more than once, or far enough into knowing someone that they ought to know better, all of that is intensified.

It’s got me wondering a bit about names and attachments, about the relationship between what someone calls you and what you feel yourself to be. Being called by that old nickname today inevitably puts me back in that desk where, on the first day of sixth grade, I made the spur of the moment decision to ask to be called something else, something that might be gotten a little less wrong. The difficulty I had shaking that casual decision to use a diminutive — and the visceral response I have when the wrong person tries to adopt it now — suggest the deep consequences of names, the degree to which they embed themselves wherever it is that identity lies.

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