When Your Name is Wrong


There’s an adorable little girl in Big Brother’s class at school named Christine*. At least, that’s the name on her birth certificate. But if you ask her, she’ll tell you her name is Lani*.

I had a chat with her Mum last week. “That’s an unusual nickname,” I commented.

“It’s not a nickname,” the mum said. “When she was two, she told us we’d named her wrong and her name is really Lani. It’s the only name she’ll answer to. So if she stills feels that way when she’s ten, we’ll change it officially.”

That got me thinking. It would be easy to sit back and be judgmental about the situation, thinking the child was bring willful or stubborn and should have been put in her place, but is that fair? If the girl had asked to be called Chris instead of Christine, would anyone be surprised? Probably not.

And why shouldn’t she have a name that she feels is “hers”?

It reminds me of a stand-up comic I heard many, many years ago.

“Sometimes I wonder whether Paul really is my name, or if my parents just made it up.”

Really, as parents, that’s what we do. We make up names for our children. And then we hope those names suit their burgeoning personalities. If you’re like me, you want to give your child a name as a gift, trying to pass on personality traits and good wishes along with a moniker. But what happens if we get it wrong?

My name is Jo.

I introduce myself to people as Jo, I sign my name as Jo. Jo is my name.

But people often ask me what Jo is short for. And I find myself thinking, “If I wanted to be known by my paper-name, don’t you think that’s how I would have introduced myself?”

Because that’s how I think of it: my paper-name.

I don’t answer to it, not because I’m being rude or stubborn, but because it doesn’t feel like you’re talking to me.

Calling me by my paper-name is no different to calling me Sarah or Fran or Barbara. They’re not my names either.

It’s not that my paper-name isn’t pleasant, or pretty, or lovely for other people. It’s just not my name.

My name is Jo and Big Brother’s classmate’s name is Lani.

No matter what our birth certificates may say.

Have you ever wished you had a different name? Have you done anything about it?

* Names have been changed to respect the privacy of this family.


Filed under Opinion

21 responses to “When Your Name is Wrong

  1. Very interesting question.

    Of course Lani should be Lani if that’s her name. To force her to be Christine would just make her upset (and then she’d become Lani anyway as soon as she was old enough).

    I’ve never wanted a different name for personal use, but I have always known I wanted to write (and play music and whatever else) under another name. It has always felt very egotistical to create art under my real name. Like Lani, this is a gut feeling, not because of any theory, and I’m not making any judgment about what other people do. This is what’s right for me.

    And, perhaps related, my fiction is full of people who have changed their names, for a variety of reasons.

    • That’s a really interesting perspective, the idea of it feeling egotistical to create art under your real name. I’ve heard of many reasons people take pseudonyms, but that’s a new one on me. Congratulations on always following your gut feeling.

  2. Fixed names from birth are very much a feature of national government. Many small scale societies had some variation of child name (e.g. Japanese numbering them in order of birth) which was replaced with an adult name as part of a rite of passage into adulthood.

    I have several names, including the one I use as a identifier in the political/financial arena, the one I use for most of my online social presence/writing, and the one for the gestalt of all of me that I use only in private religious/magical acts.

    • I really like the concept of child names and adult names. I hadn’t thought about names being related to rites of passage for quite a while, so thank you for reminding me of it. I also like the old tradition of renaming a grievously sick or injured person so Death wouldn’t be able to find them.

      • There are still vestiges of child vs adult nomenclature in modern society: for example, it would be normal and acceptable for a stranger to call the eight-year-old me David or even Dave (even against my wishes), but is still (thankfully) unusual for strangers not to call me Mr Higgins; we also often shorten children’s names or give them nicknames.

      • Ah, proof you’re not an Aussie. Nicknames are the norm over here, and anyone not comfortable with their name being shortened (or lengthened in the case of one-syllable names) is liable to be thought to be a bit of a snob. I knew one person (adult) for years before learning that Davo was actually short for Christopher Davis. Blame the laid-back Aussie culture.

  3. Bec

    Just please (pretty please) do yourself a favour and give the right name to your travel agent! “John” who is really “Bruce” and now has to pay $225 to name change his ticket!!! (I know you’re feelin me Eberhardt!)

  4. Hi Jo! I can relate to this story. My parents originally named me Martine, a beautiful French name to go with my last name. But alas, they paid attention to my dad’s boss (!) and changed it to Miriam, thinking I would be called Martini, or Tina and be laughed at. Now I am burdened with Miriam. Thankfully, my nickname has always been Mimi, so I always use that. When I was around 40 my mother gave me “permission” to change my name back to Martine, but I still have not done it. I have used this experience as a lesson of sorts for accepting myself.
    As for Lani. Since she is so young, I suspect that might have been her name in her previous life – if you believe in reincarnation!

    • Martine is such a beautiful name, Mimi. It’s sad to hear your parents changed their minds based on your Dad’s boss, of all people, but at least you’ve always had a nickname you’ve been comfortable with.

      I don’t generally put a lot of thought into reincarnation, but that was my first thought when I heard Lani’s story. I can’t imagine any other explanation.

  5. And the other side–my name is Kay. It is not and never has been Katherine (or any variation thereof). Some self important jerk issued my first driver’s license to Kay (Only) etc etc. My late husband had the same trouble: His name was Jack. Not John, not Jackson, just Jack. And people actually argue with you about a name that sounds like it’s short for something else, which I’m sure you’ve run into, Jo.

    • I have run into that, Kay, so I empathise. I actually didn’t know Kay was a common nickname for Katherine, having only ever come across it as a stand-alone name. Oh, and I hope that self-important jerk got his self-important comeuppance at some point in time.

  6. Depending on who I’m speaking with or what the matter is I will call myself Kim or Kimberly, but for some reason all my friends call me Kimmie (with an ie). I’m 43 years old and I’m Kimmie. I (well we) purposely gave Noah a name that could not be shortened because I didn’t want Jonathan to become John or Johnny and I didn’t want Michael to be Mike. I wanted his name to hold true to his name. Also, I call all of the children and some of my friends by their first and middle names. Noah James, Wyatt James (our dad was James), Austin Daniel, Joseph Edward and so on. It’s just what I do. I feel like why give a child a first and middle name if it’s never going to be used? I think that just makes me more original to the children though. Noah will never be the child who knows he’s in trouble when he hears Noah James; It’s the way I say, “NOah!” that tells me. Also, Beth is Beth, after “Little Women.” Not Elizabeth. And Joe’s best friend is Dick Joseph Forbes, or as his mom calls him, “Dickie Joe.” They’re rednecks. We love him.

    • Kimmie! What an awesome name. Now you’ve revealed your real life persona, I shall be sure to use this name as often as possible. 🙂 And Beth is such a beautiful name.

      Interestingly, both of our boys have names that can’t be easily shortened, although they’ve both got their share of nicknames. That wasn’t so much by design, though, as by luck.

  7. I changed my last name to that of my step-dad’s (who was really my Dad, if you know what I mean) when I was 18. I’m ok with someone changing their name if they don’t feel it suits them. But, I know someone who has changed her first name at least 3 times in her adult life. It’s a little weird.

  8. It’s funny… I’ve always been proud of my birth name – my full birth name, but I can’t give you a reason why that would be so. It just feels like me. Now… I don’t demand that people use my middle name… I don’t even demand that people use my full first name. I’ll answer to “Steve” or “Steve-o” or whatever nicknames good friends might give me. But I will always introduce myself as “Stephen”.

    On the other hand, I have recently stopped using the generational suffix on my name (i.e. “Junior”) except in my signature. I’ve been convinced by others that it looks less professional and possibly even a little juvenile. Since those aren’t ways that I see myself, I’ve stopped using it (but not before I claimed my twitter handle, which it seems I can’t change now).

    It’s also funny: I kind of resent that other people have my name. Not that I have a common name, but that my name is common. It’s neither my parents’ fault nor the fault of those other people who have the same name as me. But I prefer to pretend that those other people don’t exist, or at least that they’re actually named something else entirely.

    • I have to admit, I’m a bit envious of people who feel comfortable in their own name. It must be such a wonderful thing to have a strong sense of “me” attached to the names you grew up with.

      I completely understand what you mean about resenting that other people have the same name. In my head, every other Jo out there is spelled differently to my Jo. I don’t know how their versions of the name are spelled, but if I listen really, really carefully, I’m sure I can hear the difference in pronunciation.

      • Yeah… for me it’s not even about other people with the name “Stephen”. It’s about the troublesome fact that far, far, far too many of those Stephens have the same last name as me too (I discount my dad from that envy, of course, since I’m named for him, and I’m comfortable with that). And an appalling number of people who share my first and last names also have the temerity to use the same middle name as me. There oughta be a law, i tell ya’.

      • There really should. I’m fortunate to have an unusual surname — and my pre-married surname was also unusual. So I’ve not ever met someone with the same surname as me (except relations), let alone someone with the same first name as well. I sympathise.

      • (The facts mentioned above are a big part of why I clung to my generational suffix for as along as I did… it was one of the few things that differentiated my name from the Legion of Stephen A. Watkinses out there. Like I said… I still sign my name out full that way.)

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