Cattle, sheep, swine, asses, mules, and goats, along with chickens, geese, and turkeys, all agreed enthusiastically to give their names back to the people to whom–as they put it–they belonged.
—Ursula LeGuin, “She Unnames Them”
“Is it An-DYE-zik or An-DUH-zik?” Tessa asks Joe. It’s the first day of English Composition; it’s the ‘getting to know you’ session.
“Oh, it don’t matter,” says Joe, ducking his head, long dark bang shading his eyes. “People say both. Just, whatever is easiest for you.”
She is a little startled, but doesn’t pursue it in front of 22 other people. She moves on to the next student; class rolls along swimmingly.
But driving home, she thinks, a little fiercely, “It DOES matter. Names ARE important.”
Tessa considers the laziness and lack of respect displayed by those who can’t be bothered to get names right. Her own last name is not that hard–Tigler–but she has been called, in government offices, doctors’ waiting rooms, and bureaus of motor vehicles, Tigner and Tigger and Tingler. She has quietly, firmly, corrected officially important people who shrugged, uncaring.
Their shrugs were saying, “Whatever. I’m too busy to get it right.”
Their shrugs were saying, “You’re not important enough to me to bother.”
Misnaming is UN-naming, she thinks, and she talks to her student in her head.
“Joe,” she says, “how I say your name matters.”
She thinks about all the care and thought parents put into selecting a child’s name, that label that will probably serve, in one shape or form, from babyhood to, God willing, old age. The parents roll names around like nuggets in a sieve, poking and eyeballing them, testing and biting them .
“Pearl?” one says, hopefully, and the other ponders. Finally, “No,” she says slowly, noting that ‘Pearl’ would always make her think of her aunt, sharp-tongued and grasping.
Pretty, but…long and hard to spell.
They roll it around; they toss it back and forth. It works, they think; it fits with them, and it fits with who they hope and think this baby is going to be. It slides nicely, too, into the surname they’ve agreed that baby will bear.
And so the baby is named, but life and people immediately begin hammering, shaping, molding that name. Fitting name to perceived personality. Anna Bo Banana, a young uncle croons, leaning over the chubby infant grinning in her cradle. Who is, henceforth, within her family, Anna Bo or Anna Banana, or Anna Anna Bo Banna.
(And a Michael, say, depending on his silly sweetness, or his rough and tumble-ness, might become a Mikey or a Mick. Or he could be a solemn, quiet, watching baby and stay, just simply, Michael.)
Toddlerhood, with its time to explore, brings new naming opportunities. Anna, whose flair for the dramatic grows and flourishes, morphs from Bo Banana to Baby Diva. The careening Michael’s now known as Crashing Boy. They go to preschools where sudden best friends mold names around sound-shaping tongues; any number of variations result. And the child might hear a nickname repeated so often she becomes convinced that THAT is her new, real name.
“Annie Banannie,” the child replies, thoughtlessly automatic, to an august visitor who inquires.
The name thats sticks, Tessa thinks to herself, is telling. The chosen name reveals.
Oh, and then, she thinks, wincing a little, then comes real school. The things that packs of children, or what one careless teacher, can do to a given name! So woe to the Pat who’s kind of fat, or to the tiny, bespectacled boy with a weighty ‘the fourth’ attached to his moniker.
You run funny? Lisp? Wet your pants in kindergarten? We have a name for you, my dear–and that name will, probably, long outlast your unfortunate and temporary developmental deficit.
When she was teaching middle school, Tessa’d had, in separate years, students known as ‘Pants’ and ‘Squishy,’ based on sad events from years before. She’d known TEACHERS who joined in the fun, who called those children by those painful nicknames.
She had, angrily and pointedly, always used their given names–and insisted the students in her classes do the same.
Dignity was important to Tessa.
High school and college, she thinks…social standing, isolation, developing identity, new environments. Naming experiences.
The chance, sometimes, to recreate your own name: I am Anne, not Anna.
Her friend becomes Liz now–no longer a girlish Betsy.
You can call me Mitch, says Mikey to the guys in the dorm.
There is the business-like, militaristic experience of being called by a surname.
So… “Tigler!” sneers the bored and lordly college professor ticking names from his list, meaning, “I can’t be bothered with first names! You’ll come and you’ll go, one of an endless flow of faceless students. You are not that interesting.”
Tessa (who’d never experienced a military life) imagines, too, a drill sergeant roaring, “TIGLER!” and she sees her young self bolting to attempt, say, an obstacle course. And she hears that roaring as this: “You are the representative of a long line of Tiglers, and that family’s honor and dignity now rest solely on how well you perform.”
Oh my, Tessa thinks. Oh Lordie, Lordie. What obligations names bring forth. What the living of life does to a name.
And, of course, it’s all more fraught, maybe, she considers, for women. Miss? Ms???? If she marries, does she keep her birth name? Does she adopt her partner’s? What does it mean if, once a Tigler, she now becomes a Smith? Un-named; re-named: is she now a different person entirely?
She COULD keep her birth name.
She could hyphenate.
He could hyphenate, too, but naming rites are different, aren’t they, for a man?
And then, there are the children–if parents have different surnames, what of them? Is a family just as nuclear if members carry different names?
Tessa pulls into the driveway, debating with herself.
Inside, a memory nags and yips, and she digs an old anthology of essays about women and religion from her shelf. She flips to “She Unnames Them,” by Ursula LeGuin. She reads, again, about how Adam exerted his control by naming all the animals. But while he sleeps, Eve tells the animals it’s up to them: they can return the names if they like. After some discussion, they all decide to do that. The animals find their names limiting and demeaning, and they gladly give them up.
And Eve does too, the essay tells Tessa, leaving her name on the table by the door and slipping away, as Adam slumbers on, blissfully unaware that all his handiwork has been been unraveled.
An interesting, challenging essay, Tessa thinks, about one way that power can be misused.
Limiting, dignifying, designating, denigrating, elevating, explicating, defining: she ponders the act of naming.
After class on Wednesday she nabs Joe on his way out, points to his name on the class list, says commandingly, “Say that for me.”
“An-DUH-zik,” he blurts.
In that instant Joe names himself for Tessa, forever. Or at least for the duration of the course.