What’s in a name?


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

A thing is that thing no matter its name.  It smells, looks and acts just as it would if any other moniker had been applied to it.  But is the same true of people?  Do names change who we are in some imperceptible way?  Or, even if not who we are, then how we are perceived and perceive ourselves?

I’ve been thinking about names, my name specifically, and wrestling with these questions for about a month now.  It all started when I was sitting at my Granny’s kitchen table with her, my dad and Munchkin.  She was looking for her birth certificate (she needed it for some government form or another) when she pulled out a certificate and laid it on the table.

I glanced at it and was immediately confused.  But Granny continued talking.  Surely she’s going to explain why she just pulled out some random person’s birth certificate and put it on the table, I thought.  She kept talking.  Ok, seriously, does no one else see that this is NOT her birth certificate?  And who in the world is Beatrice?

“That’s mine”, she says abruptly.


“That’s my birth certificate.”

Neither the first nor the last name were what I, or anyone else that I knew of, had ever known her as.  Her middle name was completely missing.  But, indeed, it was hers.

The early 30’s weren’t what you would call paperwork intensive, particularly for poor people of color.  So when it came time for Granny to enroll in school, a neighbor girl, all of 8 or 10 herself, took 5yo Granny down the road and enrolled her under the only name she had ever known her by: Sara.  And from that day until this one, we have all known Granny by that alias.  High school and college diplomas, marriage certificates, divorce decrees and government pensions all bear the family pet name that 2 little girls inadvertently made official so many decades earlier.

Of course, Granny is still who she always was.  She’s still the matriarch of our family and Munchkin still doesn’t really believe that she’s his PopPop’s mom.  But just for a moment it occurred to me that somehow she was different, her story was different, and thus our family was different, because of her strange re-naming.

It was only a few days later, with Granny’s re-naming still fresh on my mind, that I started thinking about my own strange naming story.

I heard my mom’s version most often because I lived with her growing up.  My parents couldn’t agree on a name.  So, being who she was, my mom filled out and signed the birth certificate when my dad wasn’t in the room.  She named me Siobhan, an Irish name, after character Siobhan Ryan on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope.  But my mom, for a reason that she has never fully explained, chose not to use the Irish pronunciation.  She pronounced my name as su-BON and was quick to correct anyone who failed to say it “correctly”.

Despite my mother’s claims that he wanted to name me Angelica or something similar, my dad also claims credit for choosing my name.  Or perhaps he just introduced Ryan’s Hope to my mom and claims credit on that basis.  In any case, he did not agree with my mom’s alternative pronunciation, insisting that my name was the Irish pronunciation of  shi-VAWN.

[Sidenote: Personally, I think that they were both scrambling for a girl name. When the entire (and I mean ENTIRE) family is hoping for a boy, not much time and effort goes into choosing a name for a girl.]

I can’t stress enough how incredibly weird, confusing and stressful it is when your parents don’t agree on something as basic as your name. [The divorce was inevitable, right?]  No matter what you do, you’re disagreeing with one or the other.  Or, even worse, your parent is disagreeing with you about the pronunciation of your own name when you introduce yourself in public.  You can imagine the strange looks.

I was so distressed that my mother bought me a book sometime in the pre-internet dark ages, to prove to me that my name was “real”.

irish names


I found the passage for “Siobhan” and memorized it.  “No, it’s real.  It’s in a book.”, became a standard [sad!] refrain of mine.

Family situations aren’t much better.  There are at least 6 pronunciations of my name throughout the two sides of my family.  And don’t even get me started on my in-laws.  I’ve learned to answer to anything remotely close to what either parent intended including Si-VAWN, Si-BEE-un, Shi-BON, Bonnie, Vonnie, and, my favorite, Vonnie-boo.

My name is routinely butchered.  I have been corrected on its pronunciation by complete strangers.  I have felt, even if unnecessarily so, that I must defend my name – it’s origin, it’s pronunciation and/or it’s legitimacy (I’m black, my mom’s black, and my name is hard to pronounce.  Put it together.) –  for what feels like every day of my life.  It is, when I am honest about it, a sore spot in my personal story.

Well, I have decided that I am no longer content to be named.  Inspired by a Granny who made her nick name official at age 5 and made up her own middle name, I have decided to name myself.  I am Siobhan, pronounced shi-VAWN, an Irish name from the Anglo-Norman which can be traced back to the Hebrew name Joan, meaning “God is gracious”.

Admittedly, I’m a little old to be “re-naming” myself.  I’ve introduced myself for over 30 years using a different pronunciation.  In fact, this whole endeavor may be even more strange than just having two names.  But it feels good to finally take control of my moniker.  Strange looks notwithstanding, I feel empowered each time I say Shi-von, knowing that it was chosen, not given.

So if you’re confused, just try to smile and go with it and call me whatever comes to mind.  If all else fails, I answer to Bonnie and Mrs. Nelson as well.  And yes, I still say my name the “wrong way” everyday, so please don’t fret if you do too.  If Juliet is right, I’ll still smell as sweet.


One response »

  1. You’re never too old to establish who you are. Like I said on Facebook, my family isn’t known for going by our birth names. There are also two cousins who go by their middle names or shortened versions of their middle names. And I periodically add an ‘e’ to the end of my middle name since that’s how my mom always spelled it (even though I don’t like the damn name). Birth certificate be damned. LOL

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