In a recent conversation with a family friend about first names, she made a very poignant comment about hers; if she hadn’t changed her first name to what she currently goes by, she would have a very different view of herself. She was teased by other kids for her given name and she also really didn’t like it. It didn’t suit her; it wasn’t her. When she was old enough, she legally changed her name to a shortened version of her given name, and that’s who she is.
Since that conversation, I have been mulling over the concepts of naming, and name-calling and name claiming (Allen, 2009), and the significance of such ideas in the process of identity and agency. In Allen’s 2009 article, name-calling and name claiming are conceptualised from the perspective of newcomer youths attempting to establish and legitimize their identity and agency in Quebec’s francophone community. I’m extending Allen’s concepts into another area of identity and agency; the one of assigning or taking a personal name. I think similar issues of legitimacy of identity and agency can be seen in this area too. I’ve also read over some work of Karen Pennesi who studies onomastics, the study of names. (See related BILD entry: Diversity and Names: Designing for Belonging by Karen Pennesi)
Throughout one’s life, a person can have many names: a full name, pet name, hyphenated name, coined name, even an alias. There’s a surprising amount of truth and power in one’s name. It is linked to who we are and how we act in many ways. My name is Sumanthra and my childhood nickname is … well that’s for some people to know and for others to wish they knew. My parents gave me my nickname, and to this day the only person who calls me by my full name in my family is my husband. However, when others have taken the liberty to assign another “assumed” nickname to me such as “Sum” or “Suma”, I don’t respond and can’t respond because I have no link to those other names. These names are not me, nor do they represent me.
In my family, giving names has taken on a unique mix of Indian, Irish, German, and/or American names. For people with a hybrid identity, the ethno-cultural clash of identities and naming can be a difficult balance to strike. Most of my mixed-ethnic nieces and nephews have an Irish Gaelic first name and a Sanskrit second name. Before my daughter was born, I, like many other soon to be parents, reviewed numerous lists of baby names. I looked at names for their sound and for their meaning, but ultimately, I turned to my cultural traditions to give her a name. In Hinduism, the traditional ritual of Namkaran (Sanskrit ‘nam’ = name; ‘karan’ = create) is usually upheld. While, my family does not follow all of the customs associated with this ritual, one that we do follow is the consultation of the stars; Vedic astrology. A priest is consulted to find out sounds were produced on the day and at time a child was born. For my daughter, who does not have a Sanskrit or Tamil name by any means, some of the sounds produced for her on that day and at the time of her birth were De, Na, Pa, Pu. My husband chose her first name, and I used my traditions for her second name, Emily Narissa (Emily = hardworking, stubborn; Narissa = sea nymph, water sprite). Without really knowing who she will become, my daughter has already embodied the characterisations associated with her names. There must be something to naming that speaks to our identity. In many ways, I hope my daughter continues to lives up to characterisations of her names. However, I also don’t want her to feel the pressure of their meaning when fully embracing or claiming these associated characterisation.
The given name that is bestowed upon individuals when they’re a babe may not stick or speak true to who they are or the different selves they have; like my friend I mentioned above. For many years, Sumanthra was simply a name on paper. My very western nickname which replaced my “real” name in all aspects of my life speaks true to my identity. However, I took claim of my given name when I became an adult, and I sought out to give this silent identity a voice. To many colleagues and friends, Sumanthra is the only name they know me by. Claiming my given name gave me another sense of power and legitimacy that is separate from how my family knows me. It speaks to who I am in terms of educational and professional associations, and in terms of who I am as an adult. When I’m back in the company of family and friends from home, a different sense of who I am shines through with my nickname; another space, another reality, yet both a very intricately woven together to complete my whole me.
In case you’re wondering, Sumanthra, which is boy’s name and has a more common spelling of Sumantra, is Sanskrit for good advise.
Allen, D. (2007). Just who do you think I am? The name-calling and name-claiming of newcomer youth. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics/Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée, 10(2), 165-175.
Pennesi, K. (2016, May 8). Diversity and names: Designing for belonging. [Web log post]. Retrieved from: https://bildlida.wordpress.com/2016/05/08/diversity-and-names-designing-for-belonging-by-karen-penes/#more-880