What’s in a Name?

My name is Tanja and I am 50 years old. But although my name appears on this column, as well as on the column I write for the sister paper to this, I have lost count of the mail that comes addressing me as Tania or Tanya. Or just Tan… in the way people have of using just the first syllable of anyone’s name, on the premise that this is a sign of friendship, or at least acquaintanceship.

Some people call me Toni, some Tanj, some Antonia, and some use my initial(s). Behind my back (or so they think!) some call me names unsuitable for public use, for one reason or another. Of course being 50 has nothing to do with what people call me – but is a reminder that my name in one that was very popular half a century ago.

In fact, at one point there were four of us going by that name in the same class at school – right at the same time when one of the serialised stories in Bunty was called the Four Marys, and we had (the four) Little Women for English Literature. Some time later, it became fashionable to add Lee or Ann to names, and later still, there were variations on the Shirley, Sheryl, Cheryl, Sharon, Carmine, Charlene and Charmaine themes. Parents who have ‘plans’ for their children will give them something fancy and memorable… or unique… such that when they walk up to the podium to gush their Thank You speeches, journalists will probably misspell them.

Concurrently there was also the penchant for selecting names from popular television series – I still remember how many boys called Dylan mispronounced their name because “that is the way they said it on television”. Some parents, finding nothing they absolutely concur upon from books with names like 8,000 Names for Baby, take a syllable from one name, and one from another –which sometimes does not even work well for a house, let alone a human being. Some children, because of a lack of foresight on the part of their parents, become a laughing stock.

Much has been written about how names make us what we are – and how people with the same name share certain characteristics. Seeing that this is held to be true also for people who share the same zodiac or Chinese astrological sign, the same element, birthstone, favourite colour, birth date, eye colour, shape of fingernails/ears/toes/face/eyebrows, and other similarities, there could be a zillion-to-one chance that somewhere in the universe, my clone is waiting to embrace me.

Some people hate their names to the extent of changing them – Mary sive Geraldine style. Others give them a spelling, or a pronunciation, different from the norm, in order to make them less ordinary. Some use a second name as well, when they introduce themselves, or a middle initial when they sign. This could inadvertently give rise to many jokes when only initials are used, if they spell out something like SIN, or CUR, or PIG. Some people prefer to go by nicknames, and some, rarely (like MacGyver) prefer to be called by their surnames.

Looking at the Parish newsletter and comparing the names of the people colloquially known as “hatched, matched, and dispatched” will give an idea of how name trends change in each generation. Proud grandparents calling radio stations to dedicate songs to their children’s children sometimes have to admit they do not even remember what their names are.

My friend Leona keeps getting told she must be called after Leona Lewis – which is not even possible, seeing that she is older. People who are not aware of the singer, on the other hand, may call her Sonia, Leonie, or Fiona. “I hate it” she says vehemently.

Some parents combine a traditional name with a trendy one, giving their children an interesting start to life – and, unless such a name belongs to a celebrity, there is less chance that there will be another girl with the exact same combination within a radius of twenty kilometres.

Writers, of course, have a head start in this – especially if they write in different genres and have a penname for each one so as not to disappoint their fandom. Thus they get to choose name suited to the purpose – and to their alter egos.

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