Saturday, August 9, 2008

What's in a Name?

True story: I was at a rather lame event the other night, but was fortunate to meet a very nice woman named Jennifer. When I introduced myself, she complimented me on my name and asked if my parents were astronomers. Interesting response; more often I get asked whether my parents were into Tennessee Williams or a rather annoying Brando impersonation. This is one of the rare occasions where someone has intuited the celestial origins of my appellation (Stella is Italian for "star") which, as a matter of fact, is why I chose it.

She went on to tell me a great story about a guy she knew whose father WAS an amateur astronomer and who named him (wait for it!): Uranus Jupiter Apple. Can you imagine a better defense for patricide than that?!!! Of course we've heard the hideously precious names that celebrities come up with for naming their children: Apple, Pilot Inspektor, Moxie CrimeFighter, Dweezil, Moon Unit. (Hey, wouldn't it be cool if some day Jason Lee's son and Penn Jillette's daughter got married and then the wedding guests would be biting their lips trying not to laugh when the minister says, "Do you Pilot Inspektor Lee take Moxie CrimeFighter Jillette to be your lawful wedded wife?")

As bad as those names are, I still think Uranus Jupiter Apple is worse. Jennifer said they all called him "Bob." Understandable. She also said that "Bob" eventually married a woman named "Fanny" and that she often fantasized about calling them up and saying, "Hello Fanny! How's Uranus?" "You can't make this stuff up!," Jennifer said to me. Indeed you can't--recently a judge in New Zealand made a nine year old girl a ward of the court so that her name could be changed from "Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii." Unfortunately, that wise judge can do nothing for Pilot Inspecktor or Moxie CrimeFighter--much less poor Uranus Jupiter!--but it's definitely interesting how important and powerful a name can be.

There's a whole sector of the marketing industry dedicated to developing the perfect name for a new company or product. Viagra (sound like vital, vigorous, virile) and Verizon (sounds like horizon), Google (implies infinite possibilities) and Amazon (also implies vastness). Although some product/company names needed a bit more vetting. Anyone remember the workstation manufacturer WANG? That was a mistake. I used to work in an office which utilized those computers. We had an IT guy named Bill, who abruptly left the company for a better job. I needed to get some info off of Bill's workstation. I asked my co-worker Jeff if he had seen Bill's WANG. With as straight a face as he could muster he replied, "No. And I don't want to."

Personal names matter as well. I may not be the only person to attribute negative qualities to a name. A former boyfriend named Chris which was followed by another Chris, who in short order became my friend, roommate, fiance and then ex-fiance, tainted the name for me for many years. They were followed by a horrendous former manager with a Napoleon complex, a flaky inconsiderate roommate and a careless hairdresser. I've also had bad associations with people named John--but that name has been redeemed by my Capricorn buddy in Alaska and my friend from my former book club here in L.A.

A lot of people don't like their names. I had a co-worker who wishes her name was "Heather" rather than the classic "Elizabeth." My sister, however, at one point created a new name for herself by smashing her first and middle names together (Laurieanne) and adding "Elizabeth" as a new middle name. It was a bit of a mouthful. Now she just goes by the nickname "T." I legally changed my name and most people who meet me prefer "Stella" to the name given to me at birth. Even my brothers and sister have adapted to my new name quickly after calling me by the old one for so many years. My brother James was nicknamed "Jamie" as a child--which became a taunting reference to "Jamie Sommers," aka the Bionic Woman. So he goes by "Jim" or "J.T." So now we have Stella, J.T. and "T" in my family.

I thought my brother David was the only sibling who was at peace with his name. Not so. "Do you have any idea how many DAVIDS there are?" he asked me. This is true. I have probably known DOZENS and DOZENS of Davids. Not even counting high school or college, in addition to my brother there's been an ex-best friend, ex-cowriter, ex-boyfriend, ex-manager, ex-pen pal, business acquaintance, recruiter, current best friend and too many more to remember. I think the maxim "Everybody knows a Mike" should probably be changed to "Everybody knows a Dave." Or two. Or a dozen...

So whether it's a ubiquitous "Dave" or the offbeat "Meat Puppets," I'm not sure I buy into the whole "rose by any other name" theory. After all, who'd be thrilled to receive a dozen stinkweeds?


  1. Hmmm, interesting. I never liked my name growing up, but now I kind of like it. It's a Jewish tradition to name a baby after a deceased relative, and I was born a few months after my paternal grandmother died.

    Needless to say, I was always the only Esther in school. Then 10 years ago, I spent a year in Israel, and in one of my Hebrew classes, there was another Esther. It was vaguely unsettling. Whenever the teacher called out "Esther" I never knew whether she was referring to me. How do people named Mary and Elizabeth and Michael and David handle this? I was totally unprepared.

    Israelis would often ask me whether Esther was my real name, thinking that it was my Jewish name and I had another, secular, everyday one. I said Esther was my only name, but it is common for Jewish parents to give a child a second, Hebrew name and a regular, non-Hebrew name.

    This was around the time of Clinton's impeachment and when I mentioned the whole name thing to one woman, it was like a flash of understanding going off in her head. She said, "You mean, like Monica?" I said, "Exactly!" (Although I don't know if Monica had a Hebrew name, come to think of it).

    Anyway, that's my story!

  2. I love the name Esther. I'm drawn to classic, Biblical type names--Matthew, Sarah, etc. Unlike Tiffani or Britney, they never go out of style.

    My brother David (he of the popular name) says it usually works out that one David becomes Dave or that it's David T. and David K. That sort of thing.

  3. This reminds me of one of my favorite Kids In the Hall skits: