What’s in a name?

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I recently attended a seminar facilitated by a Turkish woman named Elçin. She began her introduction by saying, “In Turkish, Elçin translates literally to bouquet of flowers,” and the accuracy of that name meaning struck me. This woman stood there at 9am on a Friday morning with an on-point, pastel patterned outfit, cute shoes, and great makeup to match. Even more telling was her personality: bright, energized, happy, funny, carrying the depth of the whole bouquet rather than a single stem. The alignment was undoubtedly spiritual.

At the beginning of the school year, I often use a name icebreaker with my new students. I hate icebreakers, but I do like information, so I ask people to introduce themselves and tell the story behind their name. This icebreaker usually takes twice as long as I anticipate because people have stories and stories about their name and where they come from. Some are as simple as the name translation, while others pay homage to their parents’ favorite actor or represent larger family traditions. My favorites, however, are stories in which their names are unplanned or are a result of unexpected events or surprises. You could say that those names were written in the stars.

We see how social media loves to typecast names with these arbitrary name graphics like, “Top 10 Names of Fuckboys” or “If She Has One Of These Names, She’s A Psychopath,” prompting massive trolling and tagging and people agreeing or disagreeing and whatever. Even if there is a huge window of subjectivity in our interpretation of names, there’s no denying our interest in them. How many times have my friends and I discussed the names of our unborn children? Even in my freshman year dorm room we took turns sharing and critiquing the names we chose. The names we want for our children are revealing of what we want for them, perhaps planting the seed of their spiritual journey.

And then we have last names. Though many traditional heterosexual couples will assume the female partner will take the male partner’s last name, other couples may have more of a negotiation. I happen to love a hyphenated last name. I find them so sophisticated and complex, which makes me (rationally or nah) assume more depth of a person with a hyphenated last name. A queer dude like me is going to undoubtedly hyphenate when I get married. My beautiful multicultural children are going to have wonderful long names between first, middle, and two last names, and I like that. I want people to know their story: Their very intentional first two names and the symbolism of having two fathers, joined in a partnership via a hyphen.

While I do believe we can easily place people into name patterns just because we know other people with that same name, I also believe our names are spiritual in nature. Our names often show up before we do; people learn our story through the very first identifier they know about us (aka: name). So do we adapt to our names because we accept them? Do we see the socialized patterns of people with our names and adapt to them? The people close to me know that I find tension with my own name. Because of my multiracial identity, I have a Spanish name, but due to my light-skinned Spanish ancestry and very light-skinned Irish ancestry, people think my name is a mistake. “But wait,” they say, “Usually people named Juan are like, you know, Spanish or something?”

Triggering microaggression aside, my name tells a story much deeper than my own. My father and grandfather both have my same name; it’s a very traditional name in Spain, and the practice of continuing a family name is common in Spanish families. (My sister is named Ana, and there are about 1 million of those in our family as well). The irony for me is that I turned out to be anything but traditional. I find cosmic humor in the fact that (1) my name is steeped in a culture I wasn’t raised in (my parents only spoke English to my siblings and me, unlike the rest of my cousins), so it’s hard to fully own it, and (2) that I’m a crusader for innovation and independence, but my exact name belongs to two family members and countless others in a different country. (Luckily, I like those people, so I ain’t that mad.) To me, the spiritual significance is that my name predicated the pattern of what my life would be: being born into tradition and understanding myself, in time, as a being who requires change and irreverence to status quo.

What story does your name tell? How has your name and identity, in some cases, long preceded your existence? What will your name mean in the future as you identify with different causes, careers, or people?

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