Tuesday, July 1, 2008

On What's in a Name

From our ancestors come our names, but from our virtues our honors. ~Proverb

ROBERTA: I was standing in line at Southwest Airlines a couple of weeks ago. With the new SW procedures, you have to cram into the holding tank according to the section letter on your ticket. And you’ve received your section letter because you logged onto your computer exactly 24 hours in advance of the flight to get it. If you care about where you sit on a plane, it’s an obsessive’s nightmare. Anyway, I digress. I was in line and a woman tapped me on the back.

Le crap, I thought, she thinks I’ve pushed in ahead of her. Instead she showed me the name on her ticket: Roberta Gilbert.

“You don’t meet too many of us,” she said. I laughed and asked her if she’d grown into the name.

“Finally,” she said.

“What was your nickname?” I asked.

“Bert or Bertie,” she said, shaking her head grimly.

“Did your father want a son?”

“I was the sixth child,” she explained. “And three of them were already boys!”

Which got me thinking about my name—Roberta Ann. I was the second child of four, following my sister by 11 months. I was definitely supposed to be the son, named after my dad, Charles Robert. Then my brother came along and could have absorbed his legacy quite nicely. Though the other name my parents considered was Priscilla…so in the end I feel lucky. (No offense to any Priscilla’s out there!)

It’s not been an easy name to carry—half female, half male, closely tied to my father, but not exactly, as it’s his MIDDLE name: he goes by Bob, not Charlie. People often need me to spell it: “Robert with an ‘a’,” I tell them, dreading the move to my last name.

Next week I’ll be visiting my dad, who’s in an assisted living facility, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But I can picture exactly how his face will light up when he sees me. “This is my daughter, Roberta,” he’ll boast to anyone who enters the room. And I’ll be grateful for the connection of our common names.

How about you guys? Where did your names come from and how do you feel about them?

RO: I was named after my father's two sisters Rose and Mary, which is, I suppose better than being named after any of his six brothers which could have made me Lou Bob or worse, Ben Ludovico. My sister got the cool name, she was Paula, named after my mother's brother.

I hated my name growing up - there weren't any other Rosemarys - except for Rosemary Clooney or Rosemary Kennedy. And neither of them made a hot role model when I was sixteen. I've gotten over it though.

HANK: Yes, okay, fine. I know this is just a sneaky way to get me to tell.

My name is Harriet Ann. Apparently there was a great uncle Harry, who was not in good shape when I was born. So Mom decided to give him a gift, and told him she and my Dad were naming me Harriet. In his honor. Mom tells me--and maybe this is one of those possibly-apocryphal family stories we were talking about last week--that his response was "Oh, that poor girl."

He was so right. When all the cool girls are Debbie or Linda, you don't want Harriet. (As in Ozzie and.) So, until college, I was always called Ann or Annie. When I go home to Indianapolis, I still instantly answer to Ann. Here in Boston, if someone says "Ann" I don't connect at all. (I now think Harriet is kind of hip and competent, and wouldn't mind being her.)

To make things worse, Mom and Dad had decided on Alexandra, a perfectly wonderful name, until the Uncle Harry thing came up. And then, Mom told me, she had decided I didn't look like an Alexandra. I was ONE DAY OLD, for gosh sake.

To make things better, my Dad was the music critic at the Chicago Daily News back then, and he was pushing to name me Harmony. Yikes. But, in the funny way the world has, perhaps little Harmony still would have turned out to be Hank.

ROBERTA: Ro, actually Rosemary is the perfect name for a master gardener and the author of PUSHING UP DAISIES! And Hank, you dodged a bullet with "Harmony." But we'll start calling you Harriet whenever you're ready--just give us the word!

Name stories, anyone?


  1. I was almost Susan. My mother was very impressed by a set of twins she had known while growing up, named Susan and Sheila. After delivery (knocked out by some good drugs, I'm told--this was the 50's), she said "Susan?" and apparently I ignored her. When she said "Sheila," I responded, and here I am.

    What is sad/funny about this is that my father was born of Irish parents, and it never crossed my mother's mind that Sheila was an Irish name (any wonder the marriage didn't last?). And when she told one of my father's aunts (the only family member she would talk to), Aunt Julia said, oh, you've given her my name. In Irish, Sheila and Julia are one and the same.

    Now if only the rest of the world could learn to spell Sheila. Yes, I know, there's nothing logical about the spelling, but that's the way it is.

  2. I'm with you on the old-fashioned name business. Nobody else was named Edith except my great-aunt and other blue-haired ladies her age. I still have only ever met one person even remotely my age named Edith.

    The four kids in my family went by nicknames: line us up, Barbie-Jannie-Edie-Davey. People thought my name particularly apt because it's "cute" (arghh) and because I was always the youngest, youngest-looking, and smallest in my class. (And then there were the times, only when she was upset with me, that my mother would call me Editha, which I absolutely hated.)

    I went by Max for a year in Japan while living with a beau who was in the Navy, and I was always delighted when sailors would say, "Is that short for Maxine?" and I could bewilder them by saying, "No, it's short for Maxwell."

    When I finally decided in my late twenties that I wanted to be called Edith, it was a bear getting rid of Edie. People LOVE nicknames and they are dangerous - you can't ever let one take hold. It will spread like crabgrass and then it's all over. It took years and a move from grad school in Indiana (Bloomington, Hank, where my G-G-G grandfather founded IU!) to Boston to effect the change.

    Of course, I'm still Edie to family and childhood friends in southern Califoria, but that's OK.

    I'd love a blog topic some time on how you name the characters in your books. I think it's tricky: names can't sound too much alike or readers get confused; you want names to be evocative or meaningful somehow as well as fitting with the age and culture; and so on!

  3. I *was* born Susan, to Scots parents on a military base in Panama, where it became Susana pretty quickly -- and my grandmother, who would spontaneously burst into song now and again, would sing "Oh, Susannah" to me.

    But when I was 40, I changed my legal name to something else, a Gaelic word significant to my mother and to me. It's a pretty-sounding word with a happy meaning, though the spelling is impossible for Americans, being Gaelic. Most people mispronounce it on sight, but it's privately meaningful, and that makes the small hassle worthwhile.

    I use Susannah for writing and broadcast, however, because of the problems with the Gaelic name and in honor of my grandmother, who died two years ago.

    Funny story: last April, while I was teaching a weekend seminar with a California writer, he mentioned to me that he preferred my Gaelic name and thought I should use it for the coming book. But when he said my name, he badly mispronounced it (as most people do on sight), and so in an odd way he affirmed my decision to use Susannah instead. So far, no one has ever mispronounced that.

    But I have to wonder if I'm one of the few writers whose given name at birth is now her pseudonym.

  4. How would you like to be Flossie? Yep, my dead mom, God rest her soul, named me after his sister. Until I was in kindergarten mom called me Flossie Marilyn. I got teased a lot and mom dropped the Flossie and I've been Marilyn ever since, except in doctor's offices, DMV, social security, etc. Grrr,

  5. Oh my gosh--this is so fascinating!

    Edie--I mean, Edith.It's cool now, like Harriet. Luckily, everything in the world comes around again. (I saw culottes in the store the other day, but that's another blog.) Next time we see each other ,we have to chat. Founded IU? That must be a great story. ANd I love your naming characters idea--loook for it in my next week o'blogs! That'll be July 14.

    FLossie. That's adorable, so retro! Wasn't there a book about Flossie and Freddie? The Something Twins? Not Bobbsey, right, they were...ah. I've completely forgotten. Nan and Bert?

    Sheila--I promise you sometimes the misspellings are typos. I once wrote a note to you on line, and spelled your name Shelia, a typo of course, and worried about it for days.
    Thank you for the opty to aplogize.

    And Susannah, you wrote your whole entry without revealing the name. And thanks, now I'm singing Oh Susannah in my brain.

  6. wonderful stories-yes those were the Bobbsey twins Hank! Susannah, aren't you going to tell us the Gaelic???


  7. I never had a nickname (love that idea that nicknames "spread like crabgrass" -- thanks Edith/Maxwriter). People have always assumed that Hallie IS a nickname. It isn't. My mother was a feminist long before its time, and she bestowed upon each of her four daughters a name that would so individual that it could survive a changing surname (Her name was Phoebe)...she didn't anticipate that we'd stick with our maiden names.

    Hence: Nora, Delia, Hallie...and with my younger sister Amy she blew it. That name, the youngest of the March sister, has since become quite popular.

    I hated hated hated my name growing up...but now I rather like it. Back in {the year I was born} it ranked 995 among names given to girls; iin 2000 it ranked 297. A very cool web site to check out your YOUR name is the Social Security Administration's Popular Baby Names site www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames

  8. I've always been fine with "Mary Ellen" which sometimes gets shortened to just "Mary". When I was a baby, though, I apparently was pretty colicky. So after days or weeks of hearing me scream, I became, instead of Mary Ellen, "Yellin' Mary."

    Glad it didn't last.

  9. Hank, the popular girls were Debbies? I didn't know that. LOL. Of course, I was named after actress Debbie Reynolds. You don't see Debbie's in the younger generation.

  10. There are still some Debbie's around ; - )
    I named my now 18 year old Debbie. she loves her name.

    I liked my name. Unless I was with my two sisters at the time. Because our parents thought it would be fun to rhyme our names.

    Say that three times. Very fast. Over the loudspeaker at school because you're being called out of class by your parents early.

    Sounds like a foreign language.

    I use Magnolia Lee (Lee is my middle name) sometimes when I write.

    My father would call me 'fingers McGee' what?????

    He passed away June 24th this year and I'd give anything to hear him say my name again.

  11. I'm Margaret (nicknamed Peg--no way I can lie about my age. Peg is just too 1950s!). I was named by Father Kelly, the priest who baptized me and my twin. Neither of us was supposed to live (she didn't). My mother was still unconscious from the anesthesia, my dad didn't have a clue since we were seven weeks early so the priest picked out names -- Margaret and Mary.

    Peg C.

  12. Roberta,
    Just so you know, this is a big name in my father's family. His older brother was Robert. He was William Robert,and he had a sister named Roberta who died in the flu epidemic of 1918. Also, my brother went out with a Roberta for a long time. So I THINK its a great name.

    I was named for my Polish grandmother, whose last name was Janiec. My mother reversed the last two letters, also because there was someone named Janice Lance in her nursing school who was apparently very cool.

    But there were three Janices in every class I had in elementery school so I shortened it to Jan. My brothers still call me Janice and when I scold myself, I always go with Janice.

  13. Hi all--Elizabeth Lyon here. I'm doing this comment as a test 1, 2, 3, to make sure I am coming through Roger.

  14. I was supposed to be named after my mother's mother, Lupeangela, but fate intervened and I was born on my father's mother's birthday. My mother, a proper Italian daughter-in-law couldn't ignore that, so I was named Catherine. A name I like.

    Of course, at thirteen I decided Cathy was cuter so that's what I called myself until I was thirty-nine and decided I needed a mature name, so back to Catherine.


  15. And just in case you didn't hear, Elizabeth Lyon will be our guest tomorrow to talk about her fabulous book, MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER. She will be standing by to answer your questions so come back and ask away!

  16. Jan, I can't think of you as Janice. That's such a different person.

    Susannah--is that--like Cay-ley? Or Sellidah?

    Yes, Catherine is a perfect name. ELizabeth, too.

    Deb--yes, all the cool girls were Debbie. Debbie Snively, head cheerleader.
    Debbie Hightshue, smartest girl in the class and still cool. I'm sure htere were more. (How's the book doing? Hope you sell piles of them..)

    Magnolia! Welcome!

    Peg C--so what did your Mom say when she found out?

    And Elizabeth Lyon--can't wait to chat tomorrow...your was one of the very first how-to books I ever read! But you can't get away without telling us your name story!

  17. And a special shout out to "Yellin' Mary"--who's newest book is out TODAY! Click on her REAL name (Mary Ellen Hughes) in the comments for all the fabulous info...

  18. KAY-lee --or in Scotland, with more of a dipthong--

  19. Well, Hank. Interesting!

    Lori comes from Lorraine, which my family still calls me. Actually, anyone who knew me before my Air Force days (1976) calls me Lorraine. My husband started calling me Lori in the Air Force so from then on, everyone else that I met did too. I went from being Lt. Lorraine Gansecki, to Lt. Lori Gansecki, to Lt. Lori Avocato to Captain Lori Avocato in a matter of months! One would think I'd have schizophrenic tendancies! Don't even go there, Roberta!

  20. Aren't you all glad we weren't born now - otherwise we could have names like Apple or whatever that actor Jason Lee named his kid... Pilot Inspecktor?
    See, could be worse..

    Lupeangela is beautiful...and you might have been Lupe like the gorgeous old film star Lupe Velez...but Catherine is regal.

  21. *Coming out of lurkdom for this one*

    I had five names before I was five days old. Having arrived 7 weeks early and in the middle of a blizzard, things were a little muddled. And it was 1969....

    My first name was January Joy - my hippie flower-child mother's pick. Thankfully, Dad overruled it the next day, but his suggestion (feminizing his name) was just as bad: Harriet Lenore. That lasted only a few hours before it was tossed out by both grandmothers.

    Then, my dad's sister suggested Barbara Ann, which lasted two days, until my mom's brother (bless his heart) wouldn't stop singing "Bar-bar-bar...Barbara Ann" to me.

    The next choice was a combination of two aunts' names: Judith Shirley. That lasted only short while before several other aunts, on both sides, expressed their displeasure.

    Finally, my "forever name" was offered by my dad - Jennifer Yvonne. By that time, the nurses had torn up so many forms, they suggested my mom use a pencil till she was really sure the name would last.

    It wasn't till I was a couple years old - and used to the name - that my mom found out he'd given me the names of two of his former girlfriends.

  22. I love the Jennifer Yvonne story! It reminded me of a former colleague who told me that his name was Baby Boy for a month because his parents couldn't decide what to name him. I remember the story but have totally forgotten his name.

  23. If some nurse hadn't screwed up the birth certificate, I would have been Patty-Jean. Thank God for that nurse. But the mistake meant I was officially Patricia like my mother. I decided I'd had enough of Patty by high school, but that resulted in two Pats -- which caused problems when boys called and asked for "Pat."

    I thought it would be easier with my children. But my husband and I couldn't agree for No. 1 son -- John or David. So we decided to wait and see which name he looked like. You guessed it -- neither. Hence, John David (since shortened by him to JD). Since my kids have hyphenated a last name, that caused problems with all official forms with little boxes for the names.

    With No. 2, we could decide on the first name, Daniel, but not the second. So it took days of nagging from the nurses to finally reach a decision. He goes by Dan, so I guess we could have saved ourselves all that angst, too.

  24. If some nurse hadn't screwed up the birth certificate, I would have been Patty-Jean. Thank God for that nurse. But the mistake meant I was officially Patricia like my mother. I decided I'd had enough of Patty by high school, but that resulted in two Pats -- which caused problems when boys called and asked for "Pat."

    I thought it would be easier with my children. But my husband and I couldn't agree for No. 1 son -- John or David. So we decided to wait and see which name he looked like. You guessed it -- neither. Hence, John David (since shortened by him to JD). Since my kids have a hyphenated last name, that caused problems with all official forms with little boxes for the names.

    With No. 2, we could agree on the first name, Daniel, but not the second. So it took days of nagging from the nurses to finally reach a decision. He goes by Dan, so I guess we could have saved ourselves all that angst, too.

  25. No real story attached to my given name, Maureen, but my nickname, Mo, isn't used by everyone who knows me. Family and college friends call me Mo, but after so many years being "Maureen" in the working world, I forget to introduce myself by nickname. Now that I've reverted to Mo for my mystery writing name, I sound like an idiot when I introduce myself and can't seem to remember what my name is.

    Now get this: My mom's name is Edna and my dad is Edward. My mother's sister was Eleanor and her husband is Elmer. My mom and my aunt called each other "Sis."

  26. Well, as you see, I have one of those post-war names. All the girls in my classes were named Debbie, Cathy, or Linda. I used to wait until the teacher called out my last name before I answered "here" because I always thought she was talking to one of the five or six other Lindas in the room!

    As you see, Mom got creative with the spelling. Two years ago, I found out that my birth certificate had the common spelling: Linda. In order to get a driver's license in my new state of residence, I had to get my birth certificate corrected. Luckily, Mom is still alive, so I called in a notary and did the paperwork, and Hay Viola! six weeks later I had a brand new birth certificate, with my correctly spelled name. The way my name has been spelled through school, college, military service, marriage, motherhood, everything.

    Of course, the new birth certificate had my mother's name misspelled.

    Mom has no explanation as to why she named me what she did. She had planned all along to name me Nancy Elizabeth, which I would have loved. I loathe the name Lynda. I could see myself as a Topaz or yes, Nan.

    And may I say I really love reading this blog, though I don't comment usually.

  27. Oops! Forgot I'm on someone else's computer. Louisa will be very surprised to find she has commented here.

  28. Pat, my younger son's name is also John David. His father's name is John, so it was a way to distinguish them, and Johnny didn't seem to work when he was an infant. He also goes by JD (or Johnny D at the camp where he is a counselor in summers) and his last name is Hutchison-Maxwell. Maybe we should introduce our young men with the long names!

    Edith Maxwell

  29. Edith, that is so funny....
    We always told everyone he was named after the Texas A&M football star John David Crow -- which meant nothing to our new neighbors when we moved to NH. They probably don't even know where Texas is... never mind College Station...

  30. I shudder at the first names I almost got: Frances and Paula. Why I disliked them I can't quite say, but did you ever notice how many women's first names and women writers' surnames are derived from men's names?

    My mother had an art minor, though, and considered the "look" of the letters in naming me, so I got Carole to go with Nelson, with the e, l, and o repeating. Marrying a Douglas repeated the o and l, and gave me a byline that some people thought was too, too "writerly" to be real. Also too long to put really huge on a book cover back in the days when they still did that, or even on anthology covers. :))

    Carole with an e could have been inspired by actress Carole Lombard. She used Carol Lombard until a film cast listing erroneously added the e to Carol and she liked it enough to keep. She died tragically during WWII, so many today don't know of her.

    I have a hard time keeping the "e" on the end of Carole, but it's worth it, and I am so thankful not to have been confused with Francis the talking mule from the fifties films.

    I did end up with Frances for a middle name. During one romantic period in high school I put it down as "Francesca."

    When looking for a first agent to query years later, I went through the Literary Marketplace listings tagging great movie star names: Sonora Raven or Heywood Frost.

    I ended up with, you guessed it: Frances Schwartz.