Identity · Personal Experiences

What’s In A Name?

My stomach fluttered with nervous energy as I waited in line to order my grande white hot chocolate. When the time came I gave the desired drink order with well-practiced ease, but took a deep breath in as I awaited the barista’s inevitable question: What is the name for the order? For the first time in my entire history of going to Starbucks I didn’t talk myself out of giving a fake name. And to my delight I got a positive response of, “Oh, what a pretty name.” For a few short moments I was able to be the person I’ve always wanted to be – that is, someone with a different name.

Now, this is no uncommon thing for people to do at a Starbucks. You get all sorts of funny or outlandish stories regarding fake names given out, such as character names or the recent hullabaloo of people giving out the name of the current U.S. President. But for me, and for others who have been in my position, it’s about something more than just a little fun. It’s genuinely about identity.

In fact, I got this idea quite a while back from a forum of people discussing adult name changes. Someone suggested using Starbucks as a tool (just one of many, mind you) to help a person considering a name change, in that he or she can give the desired name when asked and then hear what it sounds like/feels like when called. Seeing as I have a short list of different names I would love to find the nerve to legally change to, I thought why not? Only, I chickened out far too many times prior to the experience described above.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I won’t be heading to the local courts Monday morning now that I’ve finally managed to give a fake name at Starbucks, but it was definitely an enjoyable moment of “what if” while it also gave me quite a bit to reflect on.

The biggest thing is that the name I gave was immediately deemed pretty by the barista. I can guarantee you that this has never, ever once happened to me with my real name and I’m not entirely sure it’s a common thing at all, really. Which is precisely one of the reasons I’m not sure I’d change my name to my most desired name if given the chance.

On the one hand I fully recognize that my desired name would probably be considered pretentious by others since it’s not common for women, to my knowledge, of my age group and since it would be a legal name change to said name, making it seem like I was trying to brand myself as something I’m not (in this case, elegant or pretty). On the other hand, I fully recognize that all of my desired names have been chosen to some extent because, thanks to ingrained social cues, they sound more elegant or pretty to my ears and I do long to have that sort of pride in my name – which in turn could mean I’m just inherently pretentious and that criticism is valid. (That’s not to say that I don’t consider a lot of names, some others deem plain, pretty because I do!)

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other would still smell as sweet.

But is it true? Artists change their names – even if not legally – on a regular basis so as to stand out or to be brand-able. Even writers face the daunting task of selecting pen names that will give them a boost in the market. Consider Potentilla, also known as Cinquefoil, which is part of the rose family. You don’t hear a lot of children with either of those names, but you do hear Rose. You don’t buy a dozen Potentilla for Valentine’s Day. You don’t stop and smell the cinquefoils. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do those things, for what it’s worth, but we generally accept that Rose is the pretty name of a pretty flower that we give to our lovely little girls.

The fact is, names seem to be quite powerful things once given. If they weren’t people wouldn’t have the need to care one way or another. We wouldn’t link names to gender for one thing, and for another we wouldn’t make rash judgments based on names. If the way society-at-large viewed names was as simply markers for people to know us formally by then a barista wouldn’t even make comment one way or another on the prettiness of a name nor would we be talking about the Oscar prospects of Meryl Streep rather of Mary Streep.

So, no, I don’t think it’s true. Should it be true? Probably. But be it given names, chosen names, nicknames or else, names are a big part of our society and culture. And we seem to make a very big deal about them in general beyond just how they roll off the tongue, how they’re spelled, etc.

We tell daughters they should automatically take the last name of their father and then husband later if they should marry a man. We tell sons they should take their father’s last name to pass along to his wife/children. In fact, in modern Western society, all of us are given names at birth 1. without any choice in the matter and 2. before anything is known about us and whether or not we do, we are at least expected to hold onto those names as an identity for the rest of our lives regardless of if they’re practical, professional, or otherwise. Consider that even in cases of adoption, parents often change their child’s name, further emphasizing the purpose of names as an identity given to us from our parents.

I’m not saying necessarily that this is a bad thing or that we should just call children by their social security numbers until they’re old enough to have some say in the matter. I’d go as far as to say I doubt most people even share my sort of fixation, or complex, on this matter. And those who do typically seem to have similar negative experiences with their name that stem from childhood. That said, it may be better if we weren’t so rigid with names.

The reason I haven’t changed my name legally is because I’ve met with resistance. I’ve met with the likes of: Wouldn’t that be weird? How do your parents feel about that? I’d hate it if my child changed his/her name after the time I put into picking it. I like your name, why don’t you? It’s just a name.

It’s just a name and yet we make such a big deal about it if someone decides it’s really just a name and thus changes it. It’s just a name and yet artists change their names so that we’ll notice them better. It’s just a name and yet one is considered plain, another is considered old-fashioned, and then some are considered trendy. It’s just a name and yet we say some are suited for biological males and others for biological females. Then, to muddy the waters further, we designate some as unisex even if we don’t actually reserve them for intersex children the way we try to reserve boy names for boys and girl names for girls (ignoring feminism-based trends of calling girls with traditionally male names like James, John, Mike, Pat, etc.).

It’s just a name and yet a barista at Starbucks was struck enough by one to offer me an undue compliment over it.

True, a name is not the end-all of an identity, and I would hazard that I have a lot of other identity issues to work through that wouldn’t be fixed by the superficial change of what I’m legally allowed to call myself, but I quite seriously question that we have no right to consider the role our name does play in our identity and in how that identity is received by other people. In a perfect world we could name a son Rebecca and a daughter Joseph and they would never have to face any kind of backlash or undue scrutiny regarding their character.We just don’t live in that perfect world yet.