Tuesday, December 13, 2011

You're Naming Your Kid WHAT?!!

My all-time favorite among unfortunate given names is Stringfellow Barr. Yes, yes, I know he was the founder of St. John's College and quite obviously a gentleman and a scholar. Even so, I'm compelled to imagine the circumstances in which his naming took place.

Perhaps it went something like this:

Prospective Mother
(to Prospective Father):  My dear, what do you think we ought to name our dear, wee boy? I'm rather partial to Twinetot.

Prospective Father: That's a bit of a sissy name, don't you think? What about Fiberfeller?

Prospective Mother: If you're looking for a more manly-sounding name, how about Ropebloke?

Prospective Father:   Ropebloke?  Sounds rather working class, I should think.

Prospective Mother:  Well, there's always Stringfellow, I suppose.

Prospective Father:   Stringfellow! Now that's a damn fine name. A damn fine name, indeed.

Big Jim Hogg, governor of the great state of Texas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, named his only daughter, Ima. The poor girl managed to rise above the suffering caused by this act of blatant cruelty and became a noted philanthropist. When signing a document, however, she trained herself to write in an illegible scrawl.

Names like Joy, Grace, and Spike carry the potential for being gross misnomers. What if Joy grows up to suffer from severe clinical depression, Grace turns out large and clumsy, and Spike develops into a geeky botanist?

Hippie names such as Sunshine, Dharma, Rainbow, Krishna and Skye are a potential obstacle in the path of conservative aspirations. For instance, as an evangelical Christian pastor, the Reverend Dharma Krishna Jones is unlikely to attract a large flock, and how many Republicans would vote for Rainbow Smith as a candidate for public office?

Some names set people up for ridicule:  Fanny, for a girl, for example, or Galen, for a boy.

Then there are the unpronounceable names. If you were a boy born in Madagascar, you name might be Andrianatmpokoindrindra.  However, one needn't look further than America's linguistic Mother Country for a list of names which the average American finds daunting. St. John, for example, when used as a first name is pronounced SIN-jin, Siobhan is pronounced ShivAWN and Niamh is pronounced Neev.

Among the above list, I count my own name, Bronwen, pronounced BRONwen (short o, short e). You see, my father's family was Welsh, not a particularly prestigious ethnicity in Britain but apparently rather exotic here in America. My sister fared somewhat better having been given the name Gwendolyn (shortened to Gwen) and also the middle name of Margaret. My middle name, on the other hand, is Powell, leaving me no alternative except the diminutive Bronnie.

To say I detested my name is putting it mildly. Perhaps if Id been an extroverted, easy-going sort of a child, I would have felt differently. I might even have felt differently if I hadn't been born during an era when everyone was named Sally, or Suzy or Jane. The truth is, I was excruciatingly shy and when the classroom teacher, while taking the role, called out "BRON-son?" or "BROWN-wyn?" I  whispered "Here" amidst a cacophony of giggles. The diminutive, Bronnie, was almost as much a subject for ridicule. People either pronounced it Bonnie, or, more often, Brownie. One or two people even said Baloney (I swear, I'm not kidding). Anyhow, by third grade I stopped trying to correct them.

My hands- down favorite misconstruction of my name came to me in a letter addressed to Bro. Nwyn. Presumably the sender thought I was in residence at a monastery.

Unlike naming practices in other cultures, Americans are largely indifferent to the actual meaning of a given name so long as it sounds good. For example, a well-educated couple I know named their daughter Mallory which derives from the French word malheureux, meaning unhappy. Would the name, Brendan, have achieved such popularity, I wonder, if people understood that its meaning, in Irish Gaelic, is smelly hair?

I was informed by my father that I was named for a Welsh princess -- which is total bullshit! Actually, the word, bron, in Welsh, means hill or breast and the word, wen, means white. So, if I wanted to go by the translation, I might invite everyone to call me Whitetit or Fairbooby.

Here's a ray of sunshine, though, at the end of the long, dark nomenclature of my hapless life. My name actually derives from the Mabinogian name, Branwen, which translates to White Raven. The fact that the goddess, Branwen, ends up dying of sorrow doesn't entirely diminish my happiness in this discovery.

You can call me White Raven if you want, or Bronwyn (spelled with a y instead of an e), but, actually, for more than a decade now, I've mostly been called "B".  Anyhow, those are your three options. If you call me anything else, I'll probably hit you.

I think there should be a Naming Police, possibly a division or sub-division of the Department of Social Services. Whenever names such as Stringfellow or Moonmaiden appear on a birth certificate, the Naming Police should rush in and threaten to arrest the parents for child abuse.

I must admit, the image of my eminently dignified parents being threatened with jail on my account gives me a certain perverse pleasure. To avoid the awkward publicity, they surely would have renamed me Maryann or Susan. I'm sure, if they had, my life would have been quite different.


  1. Wonderful, B! You made me snort with laughter on a night I really needed to!

    My mom was going to name me "Margerene" after her best friend, Marjorie, and herself, Irene. On the day I was born, mom's other friend who worked at the hospital thought it would be funny to put "Oleo Branch" on my baby bracelet.

    My dad quickly changed my name to "Jennifer". I weigh 223 as a Jennifer. Can you imagine what I'd weigh if my name was Oleo?

  2. I could have sworn that was Country Kitchen Gretchen. (Fanny, my ass!)

  3. We love our B. Zoe says "B Almos" at least every week. Maybe that is a new fourth name?