What brought me here today:
Names have always been important to me. My first name is Katherine and my nickname is Katie. Beyond a brief flirtation with the name Kate in around the fourth grade, I’ve always felt as though my name(s) all fit me rather well. I like my names quite a bit. As a freshman in art school, I decided to go by Katherine. Not because I wanted to be a different person. But because when my instructors saw the name Katherine on their class roster, they assumed that I probably was called Kathy.
I’ve never hated the name Kathy. In fact, I had quite a classmates in school named Kathy. However I was most assuredly not a Kathy. Nope. Wrong. Does not fit me at all. It occured to me in my freshman painting class to just tell the instructor, Dick Nicholson, that I preferred to be called Katherine. I knew I could wear the name Katherine. It fit. And it was just easier than reminding instructors over and over to call me Katie.
I still have friends from my art school days who call me Katherine. They’re an extremely small group.
When I was a little girl, I took great delight in naming the litters of kittens and puppies of our family pets. I was the same when it came to naming my dolls and toys as well. Even at a young age names held some kind of enigmatic power for me. There is a power to looking at a thing and then to give it a name. Not just any name; the right name. Most important, that it was the name it was meant to have. It was almost as if I were attempting to pull the name from some hidden other world. No small feat for a little kid.
Like any other family, we all had nicknames for one another. Some were liked. There were those that were horrifically embarrassing as well. The types of names that you don’t accidentally blurt out in front of non-family members. Family nicknames can invoke all kinds of complicated emotions. Reminding you of who you were long ago. Perhaps even solidifying how far you have traveled since the point you were given that nickname.
And no. I won’t tell you any of mine, or any that I gave my siblings. That would just be rude.
I think what I was not understanding as a little girl carefully naming a litter of kittens, is that names hold power. A sibling accidentally calling me a pet name he had for me as a little kid in front of my new adult friends sliced me in two with white hot embarrassment. In a single utternence I wasn’t a twenty-something art student. I’d turned into a babbling, soggy-diapered toddler with a sticky face. That was not the me who I wanted people around me to see.
Many of us can remember calculating exactly how much potential trouble we were about to be in by how our parental figure said our name. Was it your nickname? First name only? First and middle names? Your entire name, spewed in staccato with each silable getting louder than the previous? Yeah. Your name was being weilded against you like a hammer, so that you knew exactly how much trouble you were actually going to be in by the time that parental unit was standing in front of you.
As an artist, it’s important to assign names to the individual pieces of artwork I create. Yet I always have difficulty doing so. Probably because the idea of getting the correct name is so important to me. I worry that the names I might choose are either too cheeky, common, or absurdly artistic. When I find myself getting mentally axel-wrapped about it, my husband is a great help to get me focused and back in the right direction.
Naming the individual dolls that I create is a much easier task for me. Remember, I’ve been doing this since I was at least four years old. Early on, the names of the dolls would just come to me while working on them. Then I began to jot down names that I heard and liked. Mostly on post it notes. Then the post its would be added to a small notebook of names. When I need a name, I just browse the notebook. Once a name is chosen, I cross it off the list. My goal is to never use the exact same name twice.
This method is more or less what I continue using. I have a post it note on the right hand corner of my desktop. While I work, I have something playing on my laptop, mostly for background noise. When I hear a name I like I write it down. Sometimes, especially when I’m listening to certain genres of television or movies, I simply write down every single name I hear. It’s a bit of a game for me.
Last week, I found myself mulling over names that had a male and female version. Like Nicolas and Nicole, or Daniel and Daniella. I began to have some fun coming up with as many of these types of names as I could recall. Oliver and Olivia. Leon and Leona. Gabriel and Gabriella. Justin and Justine. Joseph and Josephina. Ernest. Ernestine. You get the picture.
Then I started looking at names like Kevin, Derrick, Bernard, Stanley, and Matthew. I started adding female sounding endings to the names. Kevinetta, Derrika, Bernarditha, Stanella, and Matthewsia. I might have just left it all at that. Having some fun with names. Then I started listening to one of the many “murder shows” that are in my rotation for background noise and this whole exercise took on a completely different light.
Exit, stage left:
I was jotting down every female name that I heard while I was working. I wrote down the name Derika. I know that this young woman’s name was spelled this way because I actually put own what I was embroidering, and looked at the screen of my computer. I had one of my ‘murder shows” on and Derika was a young woman who had been murdered. She was an African American woman who was a photographer and university student. She wanted to go into journalism and use her photography skills.
I suddenly got incredibly uncomfortable with my little game of making male names into female names. My feelings of unease were due to a huge blind spot that I hadn’t known existed. Or perhaps, it was due to not exercising some of my public school teaching brain muscles for quite a while. I was stinging from what I could only think of as white privilage adjacent biases towards names.
I should confess that it I began to become a bit emotionally axel-wrapped while I attempted to make sense of my thoughts regarding this occurrence. There was a little more for me to unpack before I was done thinking this all over.
Small boy; big name:
As a public school art teacher, I’m familiar with lots of different types of names. Sometimes there were students in my art classes who had names that I had never heard before. Cuautéhmoc was one of the most unique. His parents gave him this name because they were proud of their heritage. I remember that Cuautéhmoc’s siblings all had names that were similar, in that they were culturally significant to Central American indigenous peoples.
Cuautéhmoc was an incredibly kind, sweet, and smart young man. He helped me practice how to say his name correctly, because he did not have any nickname. I needed to say his name correctly, because he mattered to me. As the teacher in a classroom, I had far more power over the child. I could have said, “No. I’m going to call you Moc. It’s easier for me.” But I didn’t. This was his name. Part of who is, and representative of where he came from. I could not deny Cuautéhmoc his name. I learned it, and called him by it. This added to the power of Cuautéhmoc’s name.
Perhaps I’m over thinking all of this. It wouldn’t be the first time, I assure you. It may be that my fascination with names has gone on so long that I just couldn’t quite see the entirety of the importance of a name from the stance of anyone except myself. It could also be because I’ve recently moved to a city in the United States in which African Americans are the majority. These facts might make me feel a bit more sensitively regarding the importance of names.
As I continued my attempts at creating female names out of ones that have always traditionally been a ‘male only’ type of name, I kept hitting on names that I knew could be a person’s real name. Specifically, an African American name that I might someday encounter. Jamessa, Marshalla, Jasonia, Johnissa, and Timothesella. These might be names that I would never have imagined had I not been jotting down names and playing around with them.
This made me feel so incredibly rotten. My little personal lark of playing around with names left me feeling as though I was making fun of the person I may someday meet named Jamessa. It’s precisely because I feel that names are so important that I was angry at myself.
I deciding to put away the names for a while and do some reading. There had been articles written about companies that routinely circular file (i.e., trash) CV’s of job seekers with names that sound “ethnic”. Researchers have created CV’s with almost identical experience and education, and only changed the names. Then these CV’s were sent to the company. Names like Marquis, De’Shaun, Shanell and Daneeka got far fewer call backs than names like Matthew, Brian, Michelle or Emma.
Sometimes just removing a letter from a name will get your CV more call backs. There were some interesting articles to read about the importance of names. This article was interesting. I had never heard of the implicit egotism-effect. In retrospect, implicit-egotism effect may explain a lot of the names I’ve chosen for the many dolls I’ve created.
So, now what?
There’s still a lot more for me to think and read about concerning my understanding of names. Not to mention my own bias regarding them. Finding something like this hiding under a rock in my head is not something I like very much. This doesn’t seem like a subject that I’m going to let go of anytime soon either. Because art is my therapy, I may need to create some pieces so that I can find a place inside my brain for my new understandings to live.
Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you again next Friday,