Your name: is it a gift or a burden?


Imagine this: you are about to meet two strangers.  The only thing you know is that they are called Fleur and Oliver.  Pause…. Think… what do you imagine they might be like?

Our names create impressions, imparting information to others in ways we may not even be aware of.  At the simplest level, they give away our gender (usually) and often indicate our nationality or ethnicity.  An American study: “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” found that our names can make a difference to what we achieve: College applicants with names perceived as “black” are more likely to be rejected than those with more traditional names; and less likely to be called for interview when applying for jobs.

The most popular names for girls and boys in the UK are Lily, Emily, Isabella, Sophia and Olivia; and Oliver, Jack, Harry, Charlie and James.  All classical names, easy to say and spell.  An article in Psychology Today,  points out that our brains are more receptive to names that are familiar, and easy to pronounce; we are neurologically a bit lazy it seems, preferring to hear the name Smith than Colqhoun.

Looking at the top hundred  most popular names, there appears to be a trend for uniqueness, either adaptations of foreign names, or newly created ones, such as Kai, Eli, Kayden, Jaden, and Logan or  Orla, Alyssa, Skye, Lila and Maya.  There is also a revival in names that were popular a century ago, Ruby, Pearl, Esme and Violet. It’s quite common for parents to regret, in later life, their naming of  their children, particularly if they called them after a popular film star or singer, or had made up something. It seems that names can become a burden…

As someone with a name very unusual in Britain,  as a child I wished I had been called Susie, because of the relentless teasing at school: “Voula, Voula, skinny as a ruler” being one example. (If only that was as true today as it was then).  Now I like having a unique name, I consider it a gift; and I am used to having to explain where it comes from and what it means: it’s short for Paraskevi, my full name, which is Greek for Friday.  I gave unusual names to my own children: my son, Thibault, has a traditional French name meaning leader of the bold; and my daughter, Melanthe is named after one of Penelope’s maids in the Odyssey: her Greek name means honey flower or dark flower. As children, they wanted to be called Tom and Lucy, but now they see their unique names as gifts, too.  Plus it makes it very easy to get web domain names, and email addresses!

Authors commonly pay great attention to naming their characters, using the meanings and sounds of names to convey something about personality.   Honor Sinclair, the fictional character of my novels Honor’s Shadow and Honor’s Ghost,  has two sisters, Faith and Constance.  In a scene in Honor’s Ghost, her father, a widower, comments:

“Every month I have Sunday lunch with one of my virtues, then one week off for good behaviour.”  He clearly found this terribly amusing for some reason, as he would guffaw with laughter.   It may be a joke for him, thought Honor, but it’s a nightmare for us, trying to live up to those names.  Constance is the only one who has really succeeded, at least up till now. I wish they’d called me Hope.  I can do hope without even thinking about it.  Though as my therapist pointed out, when I told her that, it’s hopelessness that I can’t bear, that I turn away from.”

So Honor found her name a burden, feeling she couldn’t live up to it. Yet she herself called her children Celestine, Eden and Thea: “Why wouldn’t you give them names as heavenly as they are?”

Is your name a gift, or a burden? What name would you have chosen for yourself?

10 thoughts on “Your name: is it a gift or a burden?

  1. I wish I had read this article before I changed my full Greek name from Katerina Papadimitriou to Kate Papas (pen name for the Anglophones).
    As far as I know,”Aikaterini” -the integral name- doesn’t mean anything particular. I only know that Saint Aikaterini was an aristocrat and intellectual young lady (which actually is some consolation!)
    Anyway, I was very happy to “meet” a compatriot on the Internet -and you know what? I chose to read your article thanks to your name! It smelled Greece!!!

  2. How nice Kate! Thanks for your comment, and for reading! My Greek maiden name is Tsoflias, so I really understand why you changed yours! Voula

  3. I’m an inbetweener, my name isn’t really unusual, especially not now but when I was a child it was. My parents were asked why they gave me a ‘funny name’ and I spent a childhood being called, Cleo or Zoë (oddly I have a friend called Zoë who was mistakenly called Chloë a lot) or odder miss hearings (I was a quiet child too) such as ‘Lorry’ or ‘clorey’ .

    I was actually quite disappointed when Chloë became one of the top ten girl’s names a few years ago, I liked having an unusual (ish) name! Though on the plus side more people can now spell my name even though they usually mess up the diaeresis and just put it on any old letter, though my phone company have sent me many letters addressed to ‘Colie’. It is an odd change though, going from a name hardly anyone knew to a ‘popular’ one. I have noticed a lot more Chloës around, people yelling out ‘Chloë’ in the street which hardly ever happened when I was a child, in fact there was mutual parental amazement when I met another Chloë in my dance class as a child. Now Chloës are all over the place, hell we even have a Kardashian (even if she does use a K). I suppose ‘mixed feelings’ sums it up.

    But popularity aside I do love the name, the meaning behind it, my parents chose it as I was born in spring, it’s poetic, the history of it. As a result of my name ‘Daphnis and Chloë’ has become a favourite book. Sadly I’ve never met a Daphnis though!

  4. I heard this today: How would you pronounce the name Le-a? No, not Leah. “The dash don’t be silent it’s pronounced Ledasha!” True story!!!

  5. I don’t know if my name is a burden or not. People think it’s too feminine-sounding. But I’ve made a discovery way back late in the 80’s when I stumbled upon Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale’ and found out that Florisel or Florizel is the Prince of Bohemia. To avoid too much fuss about the name I was able to I get by with a little help from Sly when II started using “Rocky” as my nick as a HS freshie. .

  6. Florisel is a lovely name – but it does sound more like a girls name…. So you chose a very male alternative!

  7. Interesting article, Voula. My name has definitely made an effect on me. Like the character in the book, Pollyanna, who was always happy and used to play the “glad game”. I’ve spent my life hating that name and its expectation that I could never be sad. That’s what everybody expected, mentioning the character. But ironically I became a psychotherapist, and clients get in touch with me considering that i’m a very optimistic and easy going person that is going to help them. Only then I started to realize that maybe I became a therapist because of all this expectation surrounding my name.

    1. What an interesting story Poliana! Is there a story behind your parents’ choice of your name and its unusual spelling?

      1. Actually there is. They had lost their 8 year old daughter ( my sister) one year before. I’ve always felt they expected me to help their grief by giving me that name.
        Well, writing about it makes me see how it has indeed affected me on my choice to become a psychologist.

  8. That is so poignant Poliana. As you say, your choices have been guided by your name and its reasons. I’m sure many of us have echoes of this. Now I’m wondering if you have children and what you named them! Thank you so much for sharing such a profound story.

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