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names, revisited

April 28, 2012

[[I first wrote about my names in my 11/2/09 post, what’s in a name?]]

Next month I’ll celebrate the 20th anniversary of changing my names. I completely let go of my surname, replacing it with something of my own design. I dropped one letter of my middle name. I kept the pronunciation of my first name, but I tweaked the spelling: swapped one vowel for a different one; doubled a consonant.

Upon hearing my first name pronounced, many people tell me they’ve never heard it before, and they think it’s pretty. Which might be gratifying if I liked it better. Instead, I’ve spent the last almost-20 years trying to decide if I should change it as well.

Much of my current social contact is online, and online I go by Laiima. On the rare occasions when I’m meeting someone in person who might become a friend, I’m not sure how to name myself. Just ‘Laiima’ or ‘Laiima G.’ are multilayered meaningful names I’ve picked for myself, which have accumulated 6 years of online history, but I don’t think they are multifaceted enough.

Laima, spelled with 1 ‘i’ or 2, is the name of the Baltic goddess of weaving (as well as pregnancy, childbirth, marriage, major life events; and of fate and luck). I picked the name because of the connection to weaving, but I was pleased to learn the goddess Laima is an analog to one of the Fates, or Norns, because I’ve been fascinated by them since I was child. But Laima’s connections to pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood have never had, nor ever will have, any echo in my life. And because of those connections, Laima seems to me to be a deity for women, who is herself female. There’s nothing ambiguous or uncertain about her; there is no wiggle room. If I had had any awareness that the handle I so casually picked would represent my online persona for 6+ years, I would’ve been a lot more thoughtful. Creating ‘Fiadhiglas’ required maybe 100 hours, over 6 months or so, of researching possible meanings, trying out combinations, experimenting with pronunciations. I wanted something that not only fit where I was in my life then, but that could grow with me; a name I would not outgrow easily if at all. And I remain just as deeply satisfied with it as I was 20 years ago, even though my life circumstances have changed significantly since then, and I have undergone five or six radical transformations. In contrast, I picked ‘Laima’ fairly quickly, just to have something so I could start commenting on other people’s blogs.

So when I meet new people that I might want to be friends with, ‘Laiima’ doesn’t really fit anymore, but my legal first name is even worse.

My legal first name is a male name, X, plus a female diminutive ending, in this case, ‘-ine’. Other female variations of the name include X+’-a’ and X+’-ina’. [An example: Paul / Pauline / Paula / Paulina.] Often when I pronounce it for people, they will say it back as X+ ‘-ina’. Even when I correct them by specifically saying, “No, there is not an ‘a’ at the end”, they continue to add it in. I guess to some people, all female names have to have an ‘a’ at the end.

Neither my father nor either of my grandfathers was named X. I have no uncles first-named X. Out of 25 first cousins (half of which are male), only one is named X. I do have two uncles and one cousin with X as their middle name (and they all have the same first name). Neither of my parents had a very good friend nor mentor named X.

So I think I can take my mother’s word for it that she and my father found the name in a baby name book, fell in love with it, and named me that.

My parents gave all four of their children unusual names. But despite two daughters and two sons to pick names for — eight names in all — only my middle name is unabashedly female, and not derived from a male name. And my middle name was my mother’s middle name, as well as her mother’s middle name.

  • My first name is male-derived.
  • My sister’s first name has the same pronunciation as a male name, but is spelled completely differently.
  • (My father originally wanted to name my sister a different male-derived name, more like mine: X+’-a’, in this case, but my mother vetoed it.)
  • My sister’s middle name is supposedly a girl’s name, also male-derived, but her spelling was made famous by a notorious (male) dictator. There is a much more common female variation of the male name with a different diminutive ending: ‘-ia’.
  • Both of my brothers’ first and middle names were of course male.

Not one of us even has an ambiguously-gendered name.

For people who were willing to buck tradition by looking in a baby name book (rather than picking a saint’s name, or naming us after relatives or friends), I’ve never been able to figure out why my parents didn’t find any pretty girls’ names to fall in love with. Or names that would be suitable for anyone: Julian, Marion, Evelyn, Angel, Lynn or Lin, Lee, Kelly, Kerry or Cary or Cory, Kennedy, Kim or Kimberly.

Although maybe I do have some idea. My mother is of Lithuanian descent, and even though it was her grandparents that emigrated from Europe, and her parents wanted to become Americanized as soon as possible, they retained the patriarchal mindset. My mother’s parents’ first child was a daughter, my aunt. I have no idea how she got along with either of her parents because I never asked them or her. But I do know that when my mother was born, the second child, her father valued her to the extent that he raised her to be ‘the son I never had’. So not only was she a tomboy, she was male-identified. Her best friend when she was young was a boy. She never got along with her mother. And she grew up hearing from her father that girls were worthless, but she was special, because she wasn’t quite a girl. And that could have, sort of, worked. Except that, when my mother was seven, my grandmother had her third and last child, a son. And suddenly my mother was just a girl after all. I think her emotional development stopped right then, maybe even regressed a bit. The irony, to me, was that as far as I ever saw, my uncle had zero interest in being a dutiful son. My mother continued to worship the ground her father walked on, while he ignored her in favor of a son who wouldn’t give him the time of day. But that’s the patriarchy for you.

Growing up, I identified with my own father insofar as he liked to read a lot, and he aspired to being an intellectual. I was called a tomboy, and my best friend was a boy, but I was not male-identified. I wasn’t really female-identified either.  I admired the energy and the exploits of my male cousins, and I wanted to be like them, but more because I wanted to have adventures than because of their gender. Even as my aunts and uncles were exasperated with their sons’ behaviors, their freedoms were not curtailed excessively. I never heard of them being remonstrated with, “you’re the older brother; you have to set a good example.” But I got the “older sister” version all the time. My parents told me I was a disappointment, and that I disgraced our family name. For doing far far less than my boy cousins did. I know boy cousins that experimented with drugs, and at least one became an addict. Out of wedlock pregnancies; a hasty marriage and divorce. There were whispers of trouble with the law, but I never heard details. It was a scandal when one of the oldest boy cousins was in college for seven years, took all sorts of classes, and then graduated with a double major. I seemed to be the only one who thought it was cool that he got out of college what he wanted to.

A name is not destiny — I don’t believe in destiny — but if I’d grown up with a name that wasn’t a constant reminder that (in my parents’ opinions) boys matter, and girls can only aspire to being not-as-good-as-even-a-jerky-boy, who knows what might have worked out differently?

I would like to remix my first name, so that it is not obviously derived from a boy’s name. That might seem unlikely, but someone once asked me if I was named after a particular organism, that the sound of my name and the current spelling evoke. So if I changed the spelling again, to get still closer to that organism, or something else, there’s no reason that the result would be either a boy’s or a girl’s name.

I have also considered just dropping my first name, and going only by my last name. Which is hard to spell and pronounce (correctly), and doesn’t seem to really lend itself to nicknames. But there are no gendered issues with it.

What do you think?

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