Visit theallusionist.org/name-therapy to hear this episode and read more about the topic.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, try to lure language down into the drains.
It’s Name Season here at the Allusionist. over the next few episodes we’re going to be exploring names, because people have a lot of feelings and opinions about their names, and it’s been really fascinating to hear yours since the episode a few weeks ago about noun names. I’ve been thinking about mine, too. Helen: it’s alright, I don’t have a great attachment to it but I don’t mind it, I wish it had more consonants though. Zaltzman - well, the Zs are a treat. BUT, people see them, and they panic about how to pronounce it, or they’ll correct them to S even when I’m spelling it out for them. Still, I love being at the end of the alphabet.
Also, there’s a mission for you to contribute to a future episode if you like, I’ll tell you more at the end.
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The Allusionist 2018 live tour of the US and Canada has begun! Thanks to Chicago for giving us an excellent start to the tour. Next stops: Austin! DC! Philly! Brooklyn! Boston! Toronto! Seattle! Portland! Vancouver! Los Angeles! Seattle is almost sold out, I reckon because it’s the night of the midterms and people want to soothe their souls for a while. But the other dates will soothe your soul for a little while, too. All dates for the tour and other events I’m doing are listed at theallusionist.org/events. Come along, escape hell for approximately 70 minutes.
And now, escape hell for some minutes: on with the show.
DUANA TAHA: The way people say my name incorrectly has become different over the years. I used to get a lot of DW-ana... Misreadings like Diana and Deanna and Dee-ann and that kind of thing. But now I get a lot more Dwar-na. I say Du-anna, which is sort of a wide flat A that I think only my European parents really actually can pronounce. "Hi, I'm Duana, nice to meet you. And people say "Oh hi Dw-arna, how are you?”
HZ: Now I’m feeling the pressure to say her name right. This is Duana Taha.
DUANA TAHA: My name is Duana Taha. I am by day a television screenwriter but also write a column on namess and the dilemmas they're in on Laineygossip.com and wrote a book called The Name Therapist a couple of years ago about the dilemmas that people have with their names well into their adult lives. And as I wrote the column it was very clear to me - something that I guess I had known but not really articulated - that people's issues with the names they choose for their children but even their own names are almost never resolved. People don't talk about them. It's the word that you use the most often and the soonest to describe yourself, and yet nobody's really ever talked about "well it kind of makes me feel like this."
HZ: Duana’s been thinking about names pretty much ever since she became aware of having one. Her first name Duana was chosen to reflect her mother’s Irish heritage; her last name Taha is from her Egyptian father. Altogether hers is an uncommon name and, growing up in Canada in the 80s and 90s, that really informed her identity.
DUANA TAHA: Definitely that's the childhood wound part of it. At a time when there were five Jennifers in my first grade class, there were no stickers with my names on them or hairbrushes or mugs or whatever else. And it made me feel a little bit - this is a minute version of this problem - but it made me feel a little bit invisible. And so I started trying to do more research into: where is my name? What is it? What does it come from? Why do I have a name that doesn't land anywhere else? And the short answer is my immigrant parents wanted to split the difference and give me a Gaelic name. And I guess my dad took it for granted when my mum chose "this Gaelic name Duana" that it was a name that people knew and worked with and understood. Turned out not to be so true.
HZ: Are there lots of Duanas in Ireland?
DUANA TAHA: There aren’t! This was my mum as a kid telling me "There are lots of Duanas in Ireland. You'll meet them all the time." And of course when we went back there people would say to me "Your name is what?” There aren’t. It’s a very old name. But it is a real name, it's not an honorific for Duane. For whatever reason I think my name causes people problems because because it's close to being something they understand and yet far away from being something they understand. Wouldn't it be easier if I were just Joanna? Should I just give up this whole charade and just give in to people? That's sort of the attitude often that I encountered, that it was needlessly complicated.
HZ: And that's your fault because of course you gave it to yourself aged nought.
DUANA TAHA: Obviously.
HZ: With those feelings of invisibility, the absence of mugs and hints with her name on, and the inconvenience of everyone getting it wrong, it took Duana a while to become happy about having an unusual name. For a brief period, she even tried to go by a name she saw as exciting and all-North American: Megan. When her parents found out:
DUANA TAHA: Oh, they laughed at me. They were not particularly sympathetic. They thought that I was lucky to not be named in the same vein as as everyone else. And certainly in those days, in the early 80s, there was a much narrower swathe of what was an an acceptable name. So you really were either in the pack or out of it. And they thought, why would you want to be like everybody else? As it happens, their birth names are, when boiled down, the most common names given: his first name, which he doesn't use, is Mohammed; and her first name, which she doesn't use, is Mary, and they were both called kind of by their middle names or variations therein. But I definitely think that is part of why they thought it was such a gift to have an unusual name.
HZ: When Duana’s younger sister was born, Duana made her feelings known when her parents were choosing the baby’s name.
DUANA TAHA: I definitely reacted poorly when I thought that they were looking for another Irish name in a similar vein. Our surname is Egyptian, so they wanted that same idea of an Irish name. And they told me they were debating ‘Shannon’. And at the time that was very much in vogue and I was livid at the idea that she wouldn't go through the same paths as as I would.
HZ: All the mugs she would have with her name on, so unfair.
DUANA TAHA: Just absolutely unfair. It's just scandalous. They wound up going with Sheena. And so her name Sheena is more popular than mine by a long shot, while still being somewhat uncommon if not unusual. Probably the sweet spot for a lot of parents, wanting a name that is easy and even more easily understood. It wound up in pop culture a little bit, so that made probably an easier road for it. She also happens to be an easier person than I ever was as a child. So do people accept the name a little bit more? Or was it less of a pain point for her so it was a non issue? These are these are the questions you can chase around a circle for a long time.
HZ: At the far end of the name usualness scale from Duana is her husband Michael. Michael was the most popular boys’ name in North America from 1961 to 2004. That’s a lot of Michaels.
DUANA TAHA: He had the opposite experience to me in that he had an extremely popular name and quite liked that - didn't mind that commonality. Right now, certainly, all the questions I get, every single person specifies "I don't want them to be one of several in a class." That said, they're looking for unique names that are still utterly in the respectable and acceptable Venn diagram, the continuum there. And then they get frustrated when there aren't that many names that fall into the window that they would find acceptable.
HZ: So just very broadly - it’s difficult because naming trends changed so much and there's a geographical variation as well, but just practically: people are looking for a name for a person. Where should they be looking on name trends? Should they be looking for something that is eg between a hundred and 500 in popularity, so people can spell it but there aren't ten of them in the same class, or what?
DUANA TAHA: So this is the difficulty with the name trends. Below the top 100 is definitely going to do better for you if you want something that is not in fairly popular use. What happens though, I would say, below call it 250, is that it's not that the names are more rare, it's that they're spelled more rarely. They are tabulated based on how many people are given a given name so Kelsey with an E Y might be at 199 and Kelsie with an I E is at 438, but it doesn't make it rarer. And the other thing is to listen to sounds. There are so many people who choose “Oh I love Ella but it's a bit popular, so I'm going to go with Elle or Elliott or Eleanor” etc. And they are essentially all going to sound very similar in a group. So I think definitely try and look at those trends and go against the grain if you can, which is to say right now - you spoke about not having a lot of consonants, and I feel like there are a lot of names that that sort of speak to that: Ellen and Ivy and Ella and so forth are popular young girls’ names. If you do pivot to something like Margaret or Calista, you're going to be going against the grain; but our ears start to like the sounds of things that we already hear, which is why those can sound a bit off brand at first. But say the name out loud a lot rather than read it, and find something that you feel like you want to be comfortable saying ad nauseum for the next hopefully 40-odd years.
HZ: Something you can scream across the playground.
DUANA TAHA: Absolutely. And that works as well whispered. But the biggest thing that I say the most often people is to remember that you're naming a person and not a baby. They're a baby for a very very very short time. And the name is going to go with them through their whole life. So that's why I tend to veer away from cute. Cute is great. Have a cute; but have something that is also not cute.
HZ: I asked you on the Allusionist Facebook whether you had any problems with your names. And wow, did you ever. Thankfully, Duana is here to deliver some name therapy.
HZ: Elizabeth says she found out at 16 that she'd been named after one of her father's ex-girlfriends and she changed her name.
DUANA TAHA: Oh interesting. Wow. I hear that more often than you might expect, that there are people who were named for past paramours or "Well I just really liked the name." And often you'll find - I talk about people who have stealth first names, people who you walk around your whole life calling them Helen, for example, and then you find out that in fact their first name is actually Marietta or something.
HZ: I’ve had a number of people, they're all male, who talk about being named after male relatives.One of them is William Jr and he says, “Junior means you’re always the lesser one. Couldn’t they have put more effort in?” Bart says, “I have a number at the end of my name, I'm the third. And while I love my late grandfather and deeply disliked my late uncle, I never really liked the fact I was not given a name of my own. I'd love to find a way over it.”
DUANA TAHA: I really feel for them, because this is a practice that I've never really loved, the idea that if you name someone an honorific name; and there are pockets of people who are really really into that and some who aren't. But I'm always kind of fascinated by the people who don't see you might be imbuing either the pressure to be like that person - usually they are admired in some way - or the implication that you are like that person, if they're less desirable than maybe you think. Especially if you find out something late in the game, as Elizabeth did with her birth name, that can be really uncomfortable to live with.
And as you were reading the portion from William, I was thinking about “Junior means you're always the lesser” and I thought, what about when you are not the junior anymore? Do you change your whole name and your image to being a senior? Especially given there are some people who use the name junior or the name nicknames. This is one of those absurdities of language that I learned late in the game, the idea that a junior is junior or the second is always the second - but the names or nicknames Trip and Trey, and names like that, are meant to stand in for being the third. Chip is meant to be like ‘chip off the old block’, and Skip if you were a if you were named after grandfather but there was no intervening generation, it skipped a generation. But beyond that, I would say you don't owe your name anything and you don't owe the honour of carrying around somebody else's name anything. It's a more easily said than done thing to do, but if you so choose, try going by your middle name sometimes in low pressure situations, float it at the coffee shop, see what happens. See if it gives you a sense of self that is less encumbered by everyone that you've sort of been named in line with, and definitely feel like it's your own name. This is the thing: your own name is yours, and so it is yours to modify or play around with as you like, and definitely you should feel entitled to do so, even if it did cause some pearl-clutching.
HZ: You are still an entire person.
DUANA TAHA: You're still an entire person. Yes. I get quite evangelical - but this is the unexpected pressure of a name that belongs to somebody else, is that it does follow a child who becomes an adult around and maybe impedes them feeling like they're not a whole person.
HZ: My family background is Jewish by ethnicity and you don't name people after living relatives. It's very insulting to do that, which I think is quite practical as well. But my grandfather was deliberately named after a living relative as a kind of trolling to that relative.
DUANA TAHA: Like a snub?
HZ: What a weird thing to have attached to you from birth, that that was your use.
DUANA TAHA: Yeah, that's epic, to be used almost as revenge, and to know that, is amazing.
HZ: I think it's interesting seeing how critical some people are of their parents decisions and not not necessarily unfairly. Laura, on the one hand, says, “My middle name is the city where I was conceived. I think I'm over it.” And then Kenton, which is his middle name, he goes by it, says, “My mom told me that she found my first name Ronald in a book of names. I always felt like that was phoning it in.”
DUANA TAHA: I'm interested in the whole scenario there, because I think most people don't have a lot of names at their disposal. I think that name books, and now the websites Baby Name Wizard and Nameberry, are huge huge name resources. I think a lot of people, when they think about it, call to mind a handful of friends and colleagues whose names they wouldn't choose for various reasons, and another handful of names from from books or television which have been either used or vetoed by a partner or so forth. So they don't have a lot more. I'm not sure I think it's phoning it in to read a book. Although it sounds like what Kenton is saying about Ronald is that there's no specialness to it, there's no story. He wanted there to be a reason and a method behind choosing Ronald over the other 10,000 names in the book. As for the city of conception thing: that's the exact opposite. That is absolutely a name with a story. The fact that it's not the story Laura prefers... but nobody can say that they didn't think about it, that it wasn't thoughtful. And they also put ‘Laura’ in front, so that she had plausible deniability.
HZ: That’s true. It doesn't have these sexual connotations for her. Presumably. Betsy says, “I was named after the title character in Understood Betsy, a children's book that was popular in my mother's 1920s childhood. Little did she know that I would be cursed in my 1950s childhood by the popularity of the Betsy Wetsy Doll. The doll came with a tiny bottle and diaper. You put water in the bottle and inserted the tip into doll's mouth, and yes, the water emerged from the other end into the diaper. You can imagine the playground torments.”
DUANA TAHA: Oh Betsy. I feel you. Because one of the things that people say often to me is, “I don't want my child to be made fun of on the playground for their name.” And I kind of experienced that, in the sense that I had an unusual name that didn't seem to fit in. My philosophy on playground taunting is that we are lucky enough to live in a more diverse society where we hear about more names all the time that are less and less likely to be taunted just because they are unusual. Playground taunting is a thing of the past where names are concerned. The exception is with situations like Betsy Wetsy and Betsy, or whatever the next scandal may be associated with a particular name - I remember really feeling for girls and women named Monica in the late 90s and 2000s era. And those are things you can't guard against; the popularity of the Betsy Wetsy doll is not something that somebody can anticipate. I got an email from a woman the other day who is upset because her daughter's name that she carefully chose is now a dating app, and that there might be perceptions about that.
HZ: She called her daughter Grindr?
DUANA TAHA: Haha! So yeah, that one is is hard to avoid. That's a case where if Betsy had a full name, if she was actually Bettina or Elizabeth or so forth, I would maybe maybe see if she could steer things that way for bit. That said I'd also say that Betsy is one of those names we were talking about a little earlier that's probably just about ripe for a comeback.
HZ: She could go by Bet if she didn't want to be Betsy; she could just lop off the end.
DUANA TAHA: Absolutely, yeah; Bet, or Bee, that kind of thing. But yeah, I feel that, because that's totally unanticipatable.
HZ: This one is from Paul Forte. He says, “I like my given name, but I have an unusual aversion to being addressed by it. I think it's because when my closest friends and family speak directly to me, using the pronoun you, or you use nicknames. So when someone actually calls me Paul, it usually proceed something serious or indicates I'm in trouble. Similar to how some people feel when a parent calls them by their full name. I've read that hearing one's being spoken aloud can release endorphins or trigger other feel good reactions in our brains but it seems to do the exact opposite for me.” Interesting.
DUANA TAHA: It sounds as though Paul Forte doesn't necessarily identify with his name that much, or doesn't associate with being Paul as opposed to being a “you” or “honey” or “bud” or whatever is being used in his family, that he doesn't have a lot of associations with that, which is really interesting. And I think that's very familiar for a lot of people who for one reason or another just don't have a big link to their first names. And again, that can be the Jennifers who are Jens, or the people who you meet who are very clear about “I am Ali and not Alison. And yes it's derived from Alison but please don't call me Alison. That's not my name,” who have some sort of negative association with that. But I guess the question is, if you want fix that, how do you do that? And I guess it seems like some sort of very specific ASMR therapy, just hearing very exciting or comforting renditions of ‘Paul. Paul.’ I'm sure somewhere somebody has a service where they can record your name being spoken in dulcet tones for you if you wanted them.
HZ: Actually that's kind of brilliant. Maybe I could do that as a sideline, just reading people’s names until they’re happy with them.
DUANA TAHA: Yeah, there’s a business opportunity to be had there.
HZ: This I found interesting from Polly. She says: “I was originally supposed to be named Christine but instead was named the last minute ‘Polly’. I was an unhappy child and youth and have harboured the feeling that if I had been named Christine, my life would have been different and I would have been different. But I also had the idea that I wouldn't have been as creative; I would have been popular not spending my time in my workroom, et cetera. Are our names our destiny?”
DUANA TAHA: Sort of implicit in your question is the idea that Christine might have been much more social, much more able to fit in in her childhood and youth. And I'm sure there are a million stories of Christines who both did and didn’t.
HZ: I don't know whether I’d associate Christine with being an extrovert - just Polly seeing her flipside self.
DUANA TAHA: For me, that sort of golden child name when I was growing up, that idea that I was just named this, everything would be kind of a sunny California surf movie, was Megan. That to me meant just the ultimate in fitting in and sliding by. But I think it's not that Polly is intrinsically obviously a name that doesn't fit; it’s that knowing about your name, knowing about the bait and switch, essentially made you kind of self contemplating self reflective, which combined with the personality that you already had it makes you maybe a bit more interior and a bit more reflective of who you are, which leads to the creativity.
HZ: This is one from George, who says, “My birth name is Andrew. So many people named their children Andrew in 1972: there were six in my junior school class alone. I changed my name legally. My parents had originally called me Andrew as they're married on St. Andrew’s Day. Was there any way I could have made the kick in the teeth of telling them I hated it and was permanently changing it any easier?”
DUANA TAHA: I just want to point out how this is why I love this topic: because the questions are never just about names, they're about family and feelings and the pressures that we that we carry around. I think the sell of that is the most truthful part: that I don't love being one of several. It's not that the name itself is so undesirable, it's that I am one of many, and I really would prefer not to be. This is the thing that's hard, is that 99% of the time, parents or guardians or people who name us put a lot of time and effort into it. And so they do feel a sense of ownership over the name, even though it actually has nothing to do with them. So definitely being sensitive to the idea that “the name you chose was chosen with love but it doesn't work for me in the way that I need it to” is the way to approach that for sure. And I also wouldn't get wrapped into conversations about how your new name is better. Don’t justify the name. Just explain the reasons why you need a little space from your birth name at this time. Adults who don't feel comfortable with their names for any reason should feel entitled to investigate it and dissect why and do what they want to, whether that's change it or take it to therapy or journal about it: to change the narrative, I guess. Because I think it's a big cross to bear if you don't like the name that you are introduced by.
HZ: I have a mission for you, if you have changed your name, and you’d be willing to talk about it in a future episode of the show. Would you record yourself answering the following two questions:
1. Why did you change your name?
2. Why did you choose the name you chose?
Record yourself - phone voice memo is fine, no need to hire a full studio. As this is for public consumption, you only need to use as much of your current or former names as you’re comfortable with me airing. Then email your recording to email@example.com.
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The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts in the interland, and Radiotopian founding member 99% Invisible is in the midst of a special miniseries, Articles of Interest. It’s about clothes - why jeans are blue, why children’s clothes are bright, why women’s clothes rarely have pockets, the story of plaid, the story of punk, of Hawaiian shirts - what we wear and why it matters. And it is helmed by Avery Trufelman, podcast wonderkid and our Dickens Fair adventurer, so you know you’re going to love it. You can find Articles of Interest at articlesofinterest.club, and on the 99% Invisible feed, and all the Radiotopia shows are at radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia exists thanks to you splendid listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
gynarchy, noun: rule by women or a woman.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with music by Martin Austwick. Thanks to Shelley Scarrow. Duana Taha is a writer - see her work on the upcoming season of Slasher: Solstice on Netflix, as well as the web series Upstairs Amy and Emerald Code. Read her book The Name Therapist: How Growing Up With My Odd Name Taught Me Everything You Need To Know About Yours. She writes a regular column about names at laineygossip.com, and she and Lainey Lui host a podcast Show Your Work, which has a new season starting October 15th.
Come to see the Allusionist live show in the US and Canada in October and November 2018 - listings are at theallusionist.org/events. Find allusionistshow on Facebook and Twitter, and on the show’s website you’ll find lots of things to read related to each episode, the full dictionary entry for the word of the day, transcripts, and some new merch - got a couple of new Tshirt designs for sale, one with a very pretty typewriter design, the other is a Winterval-themed riff on the festive sweater with a ton of detail on it. Political correctness gone mad! See those and all things Allusional at theallusionist.org.