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what’s in a name?

November 2, 2009

One of my favorite quotes is from Milan Kundera:

“We don’t know when our name came into being or how some distant ancestor acquired it. We don’t understand our name at all; we don’t know its history, and yet we bear it with exalted fidelity. We merge with it, we like it, we are ridiculously proud of it, as if we had thought it up ourselves in a moment of brilliant inspiration.”

I love the quote because I do know all those things about Fiadhiglas, since I designed it myself. But it took much more than “a moment” of inspiration – I worked on it for months. The process went in all sorts of directions, but I remain exuberantly attached to the result.

Fiadhiglas is composed of Irish Gaelic roots, which does reflect my paternal heritage, but I began with Swahili, so things might’ve turned out very differently. 🙂 (And the spelling of Fiadhiglas confuses people. I’ve had people guess I was almost every sort of Eastern European, or Greek. Hearing it said makes the Celtic connection clearer, but the pronunciation is not intuitive phonetically.)

When I’ve picked pseudonyms for online or other personas, or something to sign works of art with, or email handles, they tend to be of Lithuanian derivation, which is my maternal heritage.

I try to find ways to honor both sides of my heritage in a balanced way.

I grew up having a love-hate relationship with my first name. It’s a feminine version of a man’s name, but I wasn’t named after anyone – my parents saw it in a name book and liked it. I doubt they even noticed it was a boy’s name + a girl’s diminutive ending, but that was certainly my main objection to it. A gazillion euphonious girls’ names in the world, but they had to pick this instead. They picked an unusual spelling, too, so no one else ever spelled it or pronounced it right. And it was long, so people always wanted to call me something shorter, and often that was the boy’s name (or some variation of it) that it was derived from! Oh, and the impertinent questions! “Were you named after your father?” “I bet your parents wanted a boy, didn’t they?” “Were you named after [Product with similar name]?” Becoming a feminist was perhaps inevitable with such a name.

When I legally changed my surname to Fiadhiglas, I could’ve changed my first name too, but I didn’t. (Well, I did modify the spelling a bit.) About three years ago, I decided that I needed to either wholeheartedly embrace my first name as is, or change it to something else altogether. I decided to keep it, and performed a rite metaphorically  “re-baptizing” myself with it, so that in essence, I gave it to myself, for my own reasons. And now I tell a different origination story about it – something that could’ve been true, and I grew up wishing was true. Something that fits better with being a feminist, and situates me as part of the distaff branch of my family tree. Now I say I was named after my mother’s great-aunt, who did indeed have the same name, but in Lithuanian. And like a lot of my favorite relatives (although I don’t recall ever meeting this one), she seemed to be a colorful, “larger than life” sort of person. Which was exactly what I wanted to grow up to be, so an ideal namesake.

And now both names reflect me as I am.


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