Thursday, July 3, 2014

What's in a Name?

Like many prairie settlers of his generation, Isaac B. Werner had ancestral roots in Germany.  Although his surname was Werner, it was apparently pronounced Verner, judging from that spelling having been used occasionally in newspaper references to Isaac.  His signature employed his initials, but newspaper references used his given name of Isaac.  There were apparently some who called him Ike, as he quotes in his journal the words of an acquaintance who referred to him with that shortened version of his name.

We have no control over the names our parents choose to give us, and recent choices are sometimes quite unorthodox.  When the Social Security Administration revealed the most popular names given American babies in 2013, Noah and Sophia topped the lists.  However, the SSA also shared unusual names that were used, including the number of babies given those names.  On the girls' list, 63 babies were named Vanellope, with Happiness (8), Envie (7), and Rarity (7) apparently expressing the emotions of the parents.  Ransom, Sierraleone, and Snowy were each given to five little girls.  Boys were also given unusual names:  Jcelon (10), Tuf (8), Charger, Forever, Kyndle, Power, and Warrior each having been given to 7 little boys.  Sometimes vehicles seem to play a role in the naming, with 5 little boys named Subaru.  We recently met a young girl named Ramsy, who told us she was named after a truck.

Studies have been done on the impact a person's name may have on their character or their future success.  Of course, if a person is so unhappy with the name they were given, it can be legally changed later, but most people adapt to their unusual names. 

Sometimes our names are modified by others.  Laura becomes Lori; Sarah becomes Sally; Barbara becomes Barb; Charles becomes Charlie, Johnathan becomes Jack; and Nicholas becomes Nick,--names shortened, lengthened, and transmogrified by friends and family, with or without the concurrence of the person whose name is altered.  In the past the identity of women nearly disappeared, as for example when Miss Hillary Rodham married and became Mrs. William Clinton.  Those tracing their family's genealogy know how quickly the identity of female ancestors disappear because of that older tradition.  Today, women often retain their maiden names, whether as a middle name, a hyphenated combination of their maiden name and their husband's surname, or as the surname they retain for themselves.

Informally, I prefer to be called Lyn, but for official documents and publications I use my formal name, consisting of my given name, my maiden name, and my married name.  Uncle Sam and some businesses seem to disapprove, insisting on changing my maiden name to an initial, a modification I find irritating.  As an attorney, I had to prepare affidavits to clear title to land (and for other legal matters) when people took title in one version of their name but conveyed the land using a different version.  I want to be consistent about my informal and my formal name to avoid that problem!

Kansas Governor John Pierce St. John
Many governments around the world are inclined to tamper with the naming process.  Among the naming restrictions in several countries are:  prohibitions against using names that imply a title (such as Prince, Princess, King, Major, Sargent, and Knight), unisex names that do not make the gender of the person obvious, names of products or surnames as given names (such as Isaac's middle name of Beckley which was his mother's maiden name), shortened versions of a name (such as Tom rather than Thomas or Tomas), spellings that indicate ethnicity or a religion different from the national majority (such as banning Sarah, which is the Hebrew spelling but authorizing Sara, which is the Arabic spelling).  Some countries oppose names from nature, which would present a problem for several American celebrity babies, such as Apple (Gwyneth Paltrow), Sage Moonblood (Sylvester Stallone), Bear (both Kate Winslet and Alicia Silverstone's sons), and Birdie and Cricket (Marc Silverstein's daughters).  The daughter of Bristol Palin's ex, Levi Johnston, was given the name Breeze Beretta, combining nature and weaponry, while Kanye West and Kim Kardashian named their daughter North West!  (Maybe their next child will be named three-one-five, the compass point for northwest, or maybe they will choose South West for their second child!)   The United States concerns itself more with name changes for concealment of identity or deception than with creative choices by parents.

The city of St. John, KS (Isaac Werner's former County Seat) had been struggling for years, trying to end the practice of the United States Post Office changing their name to Saint John.  St. John was named after Kansas governor John Pierce St. John who served in office from 1879 to 1883.  The official name of the city was never Saint, and the use of "St." is not an abbreviation of that word!  Because of the USPS misuse of the city's name, the error had been picked up by others, such as businesses and schools that did not know the origin of the name.  You might think it would be easy to simply let the USPS know of their error in order to get the practice stopped; yet, that had not been the case.  However, an online petition succeeded quickly when other efforts over the years had failed.  One week after the petition was started, the U.S. Postal Service agreed to change the name in its data base, the only omission being the period after St., because the data base does not include periods.  Bravo to the internet, where voices were apparently heard after the sounds of real human voices and letters had been ignored. 

As it turns out, "What's in a Name?" is not an easy question to answer.  I hope some of you will add a comment to this blog, sharing unusual names among your family and acquaintances.  If you are a grandparent adjusting to an unusual name given your grandchild, maybe you will take comfort after reading this blog that your descendant isn't named Moonblood or Beretta!

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