I find the rituals and traditions around names in different cultures fascinating. I have two countries and as a result two very different cultures concerning names.
In the Czech Republic, where I live and where my children were named, there is a deeply ingrained tradition governing first names. Each day of the calendar year is associated with a different first name and thus each person has a “name day.”
In the days before Facebook, it was assumed that most of your friends and acquaintances wouldn’t know your birthday, so people gave you small gifts on your name day instead. Birthdays were primarily a family affair or something for small children.
It sounds nice. But there is always a catch to seemingly quaint cultural rituals. In order to keep this system functional, there is a very limited number of names one can give to one’s child. You see, over time many of the names on the calendar went out of style (Bonifac, for instance) but a day (May 14, in that case) still belongs to that name because of historical honor and tradition. In actual fact there are scarcely two dozen reasonably possible modern names in the calendar for each gender.
And if you think kids have to endure names like Suzy G. and Suzy H. in classrooms in the English speaking world, you should see the Czech classrooms where six little girls are named Eliška and five little boys are named Honza.
In the United States on the other hand, the current trend is toward the most creative names possible. Often a celebrity will name their child some mixed up combo that sounds catchy and the next few years will see hordes of little Kiaras and Blazes emerging from maternity wards.
When I was a kid it was mostly only hippies who engaged in this creative art of naming children. Each sub-culture had their standbys, often no more diverse than the Czechs. And one could tell a lot about a person’s background by their name, and that most definitely included us flowery-named hippie kids.
But now half the kids in America have names that would have indicated hippie parents a generation ago and some kids have truly bizarre names, such as little Abcde, who had an unfortunate encounter with airline personnel last year.
I’ll admit that I err on the side of freedom and creativity in the Great Name Debate. Sure, I got teased for my name as a kid. (Hint: I was called “air-head” a lot.) But that was definitely the least of my bullying worries, even though my name was distinctly strange for the conservative, small-town milieu of the 1980s. My name was not the biggest problem by a long shot. My clothes, my disability, my family, my homemade lunch, my glasses, my opinions, my big mouth, my grades… in short, everything else was a much bigger problem.
So, I proffer my own criteria for a good baby name—it should have a story.
That simple. It is great if that story is that you are named after Great Aunt Elizabeth who traveled the world and helped people. It’s fine if you are named John, because a whole string of your ancestors were. It’s also fine if you’re named Michael because none of your ancestors were and your parents were rebellious and loved a hard rock singer named Mike-something. But a name should have a story—good, bad or ugly,
Stories are important. And if that story hurts, you should be allowed to choose a new name and a new story.
My given name is Arie Anna Meadowlark. No kidding. Arie was for an old lady in the Foxfire books which my parents liked. Anna was my undercover, fool-the-muggles (i.e. non-hippies, no we didn’t really have muggles back then but might as well have) name. And Meadowlark was my mandatory family nature name, reflecting the mountain meadows around the place where I was born.
I love this. I don’t go around touting Meadowlark as my name in all contexts, and I have spent my entire life either correcting people’s pronunciation of “Arie” or more recently explaining abashedly that I answer to about six different variants with no hard feelings. Complicated names can be a bit irritating, but the fact of having a story makes up for it.
Do I like the story my parents laid on me this way? Well, I’ve never actually read the Foxfire books. I never really used Anna as my name on job applications as envisioned by my parents. And Meadowlark doesn’t fit on the vast majority of bureaucratic forms the world over, leaving me with many complicated discussions in far flung offices with grumpy officials. But yeah, I like that my name has a story and I don’t mind the one I got.
My children’s names have stories. They each mean something. And moreover they each had to be fought for because in the Czech system neither of them fit neatly enough into the calendar. I had to appeal, pay heavy fees and go head to head with the national linguist and name czar of the Czech Republic to get only mildly creative names that sound both vaguely Czech and moderately American, while being meaningful to their Romani heritage.
In case I didn’t have enough name troubles, now that I am setting out on another trans-Atlantic voyage with my children after three years on one continent, I find myself assembling the papers to prove that they are in fact my children, given that we don’t have the same last name.
I am very much still married to their father. But back when I was 24 and making the decision about what to put on my marriage certificate, I was two things a lot more than I was a wife. I was a feminist and a journalist.
The feminist in me was outraged by the injustice that women are supposed to change their names and carry around documentation proving they have a right to their birth certificate and educational qualifications for the rest of their lives while men don’t have to. I also thought my family history and pride was every bit as important as his.
I magnanimously offered him my last name, which frankly would have been a more practical option, since Blažková (the ový ending is mandatory for women in Czech) is not an easy last name to be saddled with in the English speaking world, whereas Farnam would have been fine for a man in Czechia or America. But of course, he refused.
In the end, it was my journalism and writing career that made changing my name most difficult. Certainly, plenty of writers use pen names but it is more of a hassle than most people think. I did not want to change my name just as I was earning “a name for myself” as an international stringer. And I didn’t even want to clue colleagues in to the fact that I was married or even a woman on some long-distance jobs. There were (and still are) reasons, especially in a profession like international journalism to keep these details to one’s self.
So, I kept my name, which means that when I go through customs with my kids, we’ll each have different last names from the American perspective, because Czech male and female last names are different, so not even my kids entirely share a last name. My son is a Blažek and my daughter is a Blažková.
And again, I don’t entirely mind. There are some prickly practical issues with all of this naming confusion. But they also give us a story. If a person who did not know us looked at our names, there would be many mysteries but also some things that would give clues about who we truly are—a cross-cultural, bilingual, nature-loving family. And that is how it should be. Our names give clues to our souls.
Plenty of people today change their names, either officially or unofficially to take on a particular image. I find that this happens a lot in Pagan circles and in activism. Pagans take on spiritual or magical names which are all designed to be mystical, powerful and glorious. In the end, they fall into highly predictable patterns and give any experienced person some insight into which tradition the owner of the name might belong to and what their interests are.
The same goes with activist or artist names. They tell a chosen story, something we want to portray about ourselves. Just as my family’s names hint at things crucial to our identities, the names chosen for a particular path offer clues to the soul.
Although I am very active both as a Pagan and as an activist, I have never even really been tempted to choose a magical, spiritual or activist name. I’ve been asked why not on quite a few occasions. Maybe it is that I feel my name already has a story. It already has power through that story.
If people either don’t know or don’t care for the story their given name tells, then that might be a good reason to choose a new one. Like the affirmations of new age psychology (which does work surprisingly well on most people, like it or not) a new name with a new story can really change a person’s life.
I won’t ever make fun of anyone’s name. I don’t care how corny or contrived it may sound. If you chose it, you had reasons. If you didn’t choose it, you certainly shouldn’t be mocked for it.
I know many people will point out some extraordinarily silly examples of modern names to try to tempt me to laughter. My conviction still stands. Those strange names particularly have a story, even if it is just a story about immature and unprepared parents. Stories matter and their people matter. I honor names, their stories and their people.