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.

How about…Anna?

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.


10 thoughts on “Nomenclature

  1. ” What obligations names bring forth. What the living of life does to a name. ”

    I was born Catherine Anne Cartwright Stratton; my mother gave all of us two middle names. She fantasized that we were related to British royalty. My family calls me Kitsy. Down through the years, men have conspicuously dropped the ‘t’ when calling my name. My sisters and close friends called me Kitten. I’ll take it.

    My first government job was in the state forecast office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When transferring to a career-ladder opportunity, the forecasters suggested I go by my ‘given’ name of Catherine; “They’ll take you more seriously,” they said. No, they didn’t.

    The Office of Personnel Management complained that my name was “non-standard” and “irregular” so they hyphenated my second middle name and my surname; Cartwright-Stratton, which is not my last name. Unfortunately, the ‘standardized’ ID and insurance cards don’t have room for my whole name, so I have cards that give my last name as “Cartwright-S,” which is totally worthless and incorrect as a last name and causes all kinds of trouble with hospitals and doctor’s offices…particularly when one is in a hurry to be admitted to the ER.

    1. I had a student named Kissandra, Kitsy, who struggled with the nickname ‘Kissy’… I like the idea of two middle names! And Kitten seems like a very fond name…I would take it, too… And oh my: what officialdom did to your name! Thanks for this lovely response; there is much to explore in the realm of naming!

      1. BTW, I went to school with a girl named Female Jones…I kid you not. She pronounced it like Femmalee and said her mother believed the doctor named her baby for her.

  2. You’ve hit on something profound, here, Pam–the kind of subject we could all spend a long time meditating upon, not just a moment or two.

    I believe children should be given their own, separate, individual names, not an ancestor’s name. The giving of an ancestor’s name *could be* a way to honor someone who had lived before us, but too often, it’s simply a monument to someone’s ego. Giving a child her or his own distinctive name helps establish that child’s unique existence in the world and does not burden that child with the accomplishments or failures or personality of someone that the child could not possibly have known. Rather, it should suggest something of the personality that, as parents, we *hope* the child will develop, and it says to the child, “The name we have given you is our first gift to you, for you to use as you will.” The North American Indians have it right, I think: they wait awhile, until the child begins to develop traits, before they bestow a name. But whether we do it their way or our way, you are correct: the pronunciation of our names is vital, as is the quality of the lives we bring to that name. I am *not* the grandfather for whom I was named. I am not my father, despite the fact that I bear his name and carry his voice and bearing inside me every day that I live. I am different–and, in many ways, better–than either of them. I can also be worse than they are, but when that happens, it is my fault, not theirs.

    Human memory has enough trouble spanning the generations without the trouble of dealing with different people with the same name. It’s a terrible mistake in judgment to think that the son and the father are the same person; or that mother and daughter *must* be completely alike. We are not. Life is hard enough to deal with without the burden of a name no one can make sense of, or a name whose legacy properly belonged to someone else. Let us have done with the business of glorifying the past or our egos through the naming of our children. Let us instead proclaim that child’s uniqueness and then help him or her discover what it is.

    1. John, Cathy Cheng also reminds me of cultural implications in naming… It is such a complex enterprise. My Scottish relatives had strict rules of naming…they always named after family, but the one whose name was used had to be deceased… In big families, there might be two boys with the same first name. What does that do to identity, I wonder, especially if both were compared to the one for whom they were named…

      I thought about native Americans, too, when I was mulling naming. I think some groups have renaming times when children come of age. The name that suited you as a child is not necessarily the name you grow into, so I like that idea, too. (I once knew a 50-year old named Pebbles, who wasn’t happy with her parents’ Flintstones fixation…)

      I have also been reading a great deal about the autism community, and naming is a big deal among the disabled and other marginalized groups. They prefer, for many reasons, to use the adjective ‘autistic’ rather than be called a ‘person with autism.’ So many layers and wrinkles to naming; I hadn’t even thought about half of them before I wrote the post…

      Writing from my phone; please excuse typos!


  3. So many in my generation of American-born Chinese have an English first name, and Chinese-to-English transliterated middle and last names. I used to find it cumbersome and inconvenient, but now I claim it proudly. Catherine Chia-Yi (JYAH-ee) Cheng (not ChAng)! 🙂
    I agree with John, so much to consider here! What a thought-provoking post, thank you so much, Pam!

    1. Thanks, Cathy…the consideration of culture adds a whole layer of meaning to naming, doesn’t it? Especially when families emigrate…there’s identity and assimilation at odds, I think! I love your proud claiming…

  4. Once again, you have written my favorite post of the week. Just gorgeous. I wrote a piece once about my name and my kids’ names and where it all came from, etc. It was a lot of fun. You know that cats always have a secret name, of course, right? So my Kana has a lot of names, but there is one I don’t know. And, yes, my daughter calls her Kana Banana (though it’s pronounced differently than, say, Anna Banana). The first a in her name is more like an O in ostrich. And I call her Kana Bo Bana or Kana Bear. Pear’s name is Pear Blossom, but I usually call her Peartree. Mac was Monkeybunnyratowlpig. But I want to know their secret names. I have a secret name, too, you know.

    1. I love the idea of secret names! Do we always know our own, or is that a domain of only the most mindful? Can you share your secret name with, say, your spouse, or do you hold it close and tight in secret? Now I am thinking of our dog…a rescue pup who was called Greta Garbo because in the pound she wanted to be left alone. Maybe that is absolutely the wrong name…but I can hope she has the right one, like the cats, in secret….thanks, Luanne; your comments always compel!

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