I wrote a while back about my decision to start going by Carla Baudrons. Today I’m going to write some more about names and identity–
- Why we choose the names we do,
- Who is allowed to name things,
- Where does the authority to name things comes from,
- How we subconsciously live up to the names we have, and
- What circumstances befit accepting, giving, or changing a name.
In many, many cultures, throughout recorded history, people have given specific names to their children. There are a handful of reasons people choose to name their offspring certain things. Usually, they fall into these four categories:
- Family – Culture, clanship– “to honor the past”,
- Legacy – Aspiration, imbuement– “to honor the future,”
- Affiliation – Affinity, adopted clanship– “to fit in,” and
- Distinction – Individuation– “to stand out.”
I was named “Carla” partially in honor of my great uncle Carl (Family), and also just because my parents liked the name (affinity– Affiliation). As far as I know, my middle name (Marie) was chosen because it sounded good with “Carla,” so that would have been for reasons of affinity also. As a brief aside: I don’t know if my parents looked up the meaning of “Carla” or “Marie” before I was named, and I kind of doubt they did, otherwise maybe they would’ve thought twice– if they even cared about the meanings of names. Some people don’t.
“Carla” is simply the feminine version of “Carl,” which originally meant “a serf, common man, or man of low birth,” in Old Norse back in the 1300s, but nowadays it’s basically understood to mean “masculine.” “Marie” is the French spelling of “Mary” which probably dates back to a few similar Ancient Hebrew words meaning “bitter” and “rebellious.” My last name was originally “Reeve,” which is my dad’s last name, and his family’s. It’s is a fun one. A “reeve” in Old English was a “steward to the king.” It’s the word we get “sheriff” from, which was originally “shire-reeve.” Isn’t that great? Anyway, it’s also some form of knot used in sailing, as well as a female sandpiper, but I’m not sure why, and those meanings came along much later. Regardless, the surname “Reeve” was obviously a trade, which was originally the reason for tacking it onto your other name[s]: for distinction, as well as (eventually) for clanship (little bit of Family, little bit of Affiliation).
My married name is “Bryant,” which probably originated from an old Celtic word meaning “hill.” It was probably used to differentiate Joe-Schmoe [who lives on the] Hill, from Joe-Schmoe [who lives in the] Valley. There were a lot of Joe-Schmoes back then. So: Distinction, and eventually Family. I chose to change my last name to Adam’s to graft myself into his clan (Affiliation), as well as to set myself apart from my own family (Distinction). I then chose “Baudrons” to set myself apart from anyone (more Distinction). So now you know all about my name.
There are so many reasons we choose, throughout our lives, to reassess our identities, but we rarely consider raising a completely new banner of identification. Man, wouldn’t it be awesome if our homes had family crest banners waving outside our front doors like [I think] castles used to? Man, I want to design my own “Baudrons” coat of arms now..
Anyway, I remember naming my first cat, Leslie– a gray short-haired little ball of love– by poring over a teal paperback baby name book in my parents’ bathroom. I was very, very careful. I ended up naming her Leslie because– according to the baby name book– it meant “gray fortress.” And I thought that was the most beautiful thing I’d ever read. And she was gray. So there was definitely some affinity in there, but also I wanted to imbue Leslie with the strength and safety of a fortress, because if I couldn’t be strong and safe, at least I could hope that my cat/best friend would be. So a little aspirational intention (Legacy) there too.
My first boyfriend decided after he graduated high school to change his name from Benjamin Innes James to Benjamin Pentameter Innes. Innes was his mom’s maiden/current last name, and he wanted to be associated with her family instead of his dad’s, and when I asked why he chose “Pentameter,” I’ll never forget, he just said, “Nobody else has it.” So his reasons were Family and Individuation.
Ryan and Rose, some friends of mine, named their firstborn “Ransom” after the character in C. S. Lewis’ The Space Trilogy. That would be a reason which was based not only in affinity/Affiliation (for the book and character), but also with a hope to instill some of the character’s qualities into their kiddo growing up, and probably to offer them some Distinction from other kids too (what a kick-ass name!).
A lot of women who choose to change their last names to their husbands’ also change their maiden name to their middle name, which, I assume goes to Middle Name Heaven or Middle Name Hell, depending on how interesting it was. My mommo (typo, but–!) did this, and I guess her discard “Ruth” hung out in Middle Name Purgatory until littlest sibling Havilah Ruth Reeve came along and saved it from the eternal drift! Hooray, Ruth lives on!
Who is Allowed to Name Things and Where Does That Authority Come From?
Okay, so, we’re cool with people naming their kids, and pet owners naming their pets. We’re fine with bosses giving their employees titles, and we’re fine with universities and colleges handing out “letters” and doctorates to whomever they see fit. Have you ever noticed though, that society only allows “the cool kids” bestow nick names on their peers? Ever tried to give yourself a nick name? I did. In middle school. It didn’t stick, and my sisters laughed at me. Guess what it was? “Cat.” Yup. There’s a theme in my life and it is called “Ahead of Her Time.” And also “Cats.” This is what my hip-as-hell signature looked like:
Yeahh. 😎 Anyway, ever since I was a kid, I thought that it wasn’t quite fair, and also didn’t quite make sense that we weren’t allowed to pick our own names. It seemed pretty wrong to me that my parents, who didn’t even know me, were the ones who got to slap a label on my head, and I just had to deal with it. I’ve since come to understand and accept that life isn’t fair, and anyone who says differently is selling something. But actually, it does make sense to a point. True– no one’s parents know them when they name them, but the act of naming someone for the first time is essentially instilling identity into them. And the more that identity is reinforced, especially during someone’s formative years, the more they’re going to go with that flow the rest of their lives. Like any neural pathway. I guess it’s, like, science or something.
I’m addicted to true crime entertainment, I’m sorry if that offends your sensibilities, reader, but it’s just a fact. And I can tell you that a lot of the really bad guys out there were called horrible names by one or both of their parents (not to mention the other stuff they went through).
When I was super-young, I assumed that adults– especially my parents– had the authority to tell me who I was.
Growing up, I assumed that because someone was “cool” (or at least cooler than me), that automatically gave them the power to give me identity.
As a young adult, I was suddenly desirable, and my innocent, naive little soul revolved around these guys I dated. They absolutely wrote my definition, probably because (at least in the beginning) it was the closest to the truth I’d been given. When they gave me affirmation, I was in heaven, I felt like myself, the world was my oyster! But when it was bad, that meant that I was bad.
An ex-friend of mine used to say, “If they can give it, they can take it away.” It’s a hard lesson to learn!!! So much easier to say than to apply to one’s life. But it’s true: adults, parents, family, bosses, cool kids, and romantic partners only have the power that we give them– to assign value, define, shame, or encourage. And if it doesn’t line up with how Mister Rogers sees you, then just don’t believe it.
These days, however, I find that I’m the one calling myself invalidating, repressive names. Why do I believe myself? GOOD QUESTION, CARLA.
Anyway, it’s all a damn shame. Because– wait, let me start a new paragraph for effect:
LOVE is the only state from which we should accept our sense of self worth. And wouldn’t it be nice if all parents loved their children all the time.. but, they can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to. What I think they should be doing is teaching their kids not to believe everything even they say about them, but only to absorb their self-worth and identity when it’s presented to them in Love. And if you’re unsure what “Love” means, join the club. But also, do some meditating and watch Truly, Madly, Deeply. It will change your life. So: Who gets to name a thing, and why? Love, because Love is Love and there is no other, to paraphrase the Good Book. Next:
How we subconsciously live up to the names we have.
Language is an interesting thing. I’ve always been fascinated by it, really enjoyed thinking about it, listening to different accents, looking up etymologies, looking at alphabets from around the world, etc. It’s funny how my interests are mainly things I struggle with.. I have the worst recall in the world so I can’t tell a story for shit, I stumble and stutter all over myself in conversation, I suffer from depression and anxiety so my love of social events and community engagement usually freezes and flees before it has a chance to come out.. and on top of all of that, I’m allergic to cats. It’s not fair. But language is integral to all of our lives, every single human on the planet (to varying degrees, obviously). We all depend on it and use it every day for so many things.
The reason I’m bringing language up, is that I think maybe we forget sometimes that names are part of our language, and giving people names with specific sounds, meanings, symbols, and history is not arbitrary and may in fact effect their lives in a much greater way than we think. In talking about this over the years, I’ve heard from a lot of people, “Nah– a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!” And my favorite, “I think we should be focused on our true identity, AKA what’s inside. Namaste.” I will here respond to both of these arguments, once and for all, because every time they come up, I get so flustered, my smart, smart brain isn’t able to string the right sentences together to express my thoughts. So annoying.
Okay, so a rose by any other name would still be–– get ready–– a flower. If my friend Rose, on the other hand, had been named something else, could very well be a completely different person today. Her first name is Evelyn, but as far as I know, she’s always gone by Rose: beautiful, self-protected, soft, sharp, fragile, fragrant, resilient, and sexy. Man, I really didn’t expect that example to fit so well! That is totally Rose! And she’s also really come into her first name too throughout the years I’ve known her: motherly, lacy, smart, old-fashioned, and poetic. What a catch. I had the privilege of being a bridesmaid at her wedding.
So go with me for a minute. First, imagine my friend Rose. She’s the one on the left, being the adult.
Okay, so now imagine that her parents named her Jesus Christ. Imagine the skin she would’ve had to develop!– first to bear up under it, then to explain it to her peers and horrified adults, then to hide behind a contrived nick name, and then either to grow into it, change it, or attempt to redefine it for herself and her immediate world. What I’m saying is that it would obviously have fundamentally changed the trajectory of her life, thereby changing her identity.
We’re all connected by language, and every word we say means something. I’m sure you’re familiar with the completely untrue phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It ought to be, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may break my spirit.” -Wise Words by Carla B.
My point is that words, titles, names– they all carry deep, complex, even paradoxical meanings, whether we want them to or not, and we’re all connected by them, so I think it makes perfect sense that we should pay close attention to them, choose and receive them carefully, and be open and willing to deal with the consequences.
To the people who say, “We should be focusing on our ‘true’ identity, values, and character instead of words,” I say bluntly: As a social species, we can’t separate words from meaning. Of course, we should be working on our values, and not so focused on the words that we call them. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, shall we? Just because we ought to focus on our inner life doesn’t mean we should neglect the way we present ourselves to our human family.
So what circumstances befit accepting, giving, or changing a name?
Again, we should only accept a name if the spirit in which it was given was Love, same for giving one– to someone else or yourself.
That being reiterated, there are so many reasons I can think of to take, give, or change a name. Let me give a few examples:
For those of you who aren’t Trekkies, there’s this beautiful story in The Next Generation where a Borg thing crashes and kills most of the Borg on board, except for one, who is pretty close to death. (The Borg is a collective who assimilates all species they encounter in order to absorb the benefits of that race.) None of the Borg are aware of themselves– only the collective “hive mind.” They’re connected to each other by super-cool technology grafted onto (and into) their bodies– some of which was destroyed or disabled in the crash of this particular Borg ship, disconnecting the surviving Borg from the collective. Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge (best name ever?) develops a sympathy, even compassion (some might even say Love?) for this maimed, selfless bag of bones and bolts. And he offers him the name Hugh. And Hugh takes it. This is a very good naming situation. Here are some clips:
Another example would be this one. There’s a transcript on the site, if you don’t have time to listen to it.
Here’s an interesting one that I’ve thought about a lot over the years– not this particular story, but the idea of it. Patty Hearst was kidnapped when she was nineteen, brainwashed, and renamed Tania by a terrorist organization called the Symbionese Liberation Army. Not going into detail on this one because I don’t know a lot about it, but my point is the SLA forced “Tania” on her, brutally, making her disown her family and her name. Lots of cults do this, in one way or another. I can’t imagine what it must be like to emerge from that and be called your old name.
Oh my god speaking OF:
This is Jean Luc Picard in the new Star Trek series “Picard.” I guess I should say SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen it or The Next Generation. Stop reading now, whip you up a tasty quarantini and watch them both. You’ve got time! Anyway, JL was assimilated by the aforementioned Borg, but he was special, and got a real name given to him by Queen Torso: Locutus. Fortunately, it worked out that he was able to escape the Borg, but he still has all the horrific memories of that time. So when an XB (ex-Borg) recognizes him in the new series and calls him “Locutus,” his poor heart skips a beat. The trauma. Can you even.
So these are all pretty severe occasions when a name change is a pretty big deal. But I’ve got another one for you:
Oh that’s right. I’m bringing Kathy Bates into this. Or should I say, TOWANDA!!!! Another spoiler. If you haven’t seen “Fried Green Tomatoes” yet, GOOOOOOO WAAAATCH IT!!!!!! I need to watch it again myself.
Yes. This is the part of the post where I get to talk about giving yourself a new name because you need a new identity. “Towanda” to Mrs. Couch means, “Empowered, feisty, and adventurous.” It’s all the things that she wants to be. Just saying it fills her with meaning. Of course she should take it. Why wouldn’t she?
Bob Dylan– born Robert Zimmerman– said, “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.” He started introducing himself as Bob Dylan in the late 50s and legally changed his name in 1962. Here is one of my favorite pictures of him.
Okay, so just a few things I’m sure one should think about before taking the plunge:
- You’re starting a new clan– a clan of you. That’s big; think about it for as long a time as you can,
- What will the name stand for? Write things down, make sure it’s clear to you, but most importantly– it’s got to RING true,
- Think about cultural references and your new name in the broader context of your human family– a hastily-chosen name could have unintended associations, and
- Remember that most people won’t take you seriously, so you should probably just move and start a new life somewhere completely different.
I’m probably going to be changing my last name when we make our next big move. It won’t be Baudrons. That name is wonderful, for sure, but it’s not “bigger than me.” There’s nothing there to “live up to,” except for the sheer bravery it takes to use it (lord, people do not know how to say it). I’m thinking really strongly about one name in particular, but I’m not going to share it yet. We’ll see if it sticks.