What’s in a Name?

Not long ago, I was chatting with some friends about names, and the topic is back on my mind. It’s really interesting to me to think about names as a label that get attached to a person long before they develop a suitable label. Most likely, that’s why there are naming traditions in families: it’s just easier to call a child after a relative who had that name before. It honors the person a child is named for, and it can also have a hand in shaping the kind of person the child becomes, but you can’t just look at a baby and say, “That one looks like a Brunhilda.” Or a Ralph. Or pretty much anything else. Nope. “We’re naming her after her great-great grandmother on her father’s side.” And there you go. Nothing to do with any innate quality in the child. It’s just kind of random.

And then sometimes there’s a story. My parents named me Robert Paul, but that wasn’t my mom’s first choice. She wanted me to be a John, Jr. My father, on the other hand, hated his name because of its bathroom connotations. Apparently he was famous for responding to people who announced they were going to the John, “Well, I hope you wipe your Mary while you’re in there.” He told my mom that if she insisted on calling me John, Jr., he’d refer to me as Little Toilet.

So they named me after Robert Wilde, my mom’s father, and Paul Martin, my dad’s father. Both of them died before I was born, and neither of them were really talked about much when I was little, so I have zero associations with either of them. Maybe that’s why my name never really felt like it fit. Other people don’t seem to have this issue. Tims and Julies and even Heathers really seem to just kind of go with what names they were given and don’t appear to think twice about it. Must be nice.

I’ve really never associated well with my name. My family always called me Robby, which I pretty much despised. It was so bad that I once tried to sneakily change my name to Rocky. When I met new friends, that’s who I’d tell them I was. Most likely Balboa was in my mind when I came up with that one. Anyway, my mom dashed that almost instantly, and I was back to Robby. But I never was a Bob or a Robert. (Well, I take that back. When I lived in Germany or among Germans, they used to call me Robert – with the German pronunciation – because “Rob” was weird for them.)

Among some of my friends, because they know other Robs, presumably, I’m “RobMartin.” Just one word. For a few others, they occasionally call me “Robert Martin” (pronounced RAW-butt MAH-tin) after the character in Jane Austin’s Emma. (He is not a gentleman, so Emma doesn’t fall for him, but her little sister eventually does. Things end fairly well for him in the novel. Yay, Robert Martin!)

But in any case, names ARE labels that get attached to us, for good or for ill. I always kind of liked how some cultures normalize taking on a new name -maybe a chosen one, maybe one related to one’s character – once they reach a certain age. But even there, I’m not quite sure what mine would be. Complains-a-Lot? Tubby Belly? Facial Hair Guy? Mr. Neurotic? I dunno.

In college, one of my friends told me that Lopaka was the Hawai’ian pronunciation of Robert, so she called me that for a while. It never stuck long-term, but I didn’t mind it. In Irish, the equivalent of Robert is Roibeárd (pronounced Ruh-BARD). Looks cool; sounds weird. In both cases, it stems from Proto-High German and means something like “Bright Fame.” Not sure what that’s supposed to mean. The Hebrew version of that is זֹהַר (Zohar). Pastor Zohar? Maybe. Apparently Boris is a Bulgarian relative of “Bob.” I kind of like Boris actually. Pastor Boris has a certain sinister Hollywood creep film kind of ring to it.

What about you? If your parents hadn’t given you the name you currently have, what would you choose for yourself? Why that? Interesting to think about.