Caryn Gootkin looks at the contribution our names make to our identity and issues a warning to those careless enough to mess with hers.
Our given names are an integral part of our identity. Whether chosen because of a famous namesake, in tribute to or memory of a loved one or just because our parents liked that name more than others, our name is how we are introduced to the world. And, unless we dislike it enough to brave the vagaries of Home Affairs administration, it’s ours for life.
According to Wikipedia, the parents of two actresses, a figure skater, wrestler and a blind mathematician/computer scientist all agreed with mine and named their daughters Caryn. Regrettably, the most famous Caryn of us all chose a stage name she obviously felt better suited her roles. You will always be Caryn Elaine Johnson to me, Whoopi. (Incidentally, the wrestler uses the stage name Muffy. I am not sure which I find more offensive.)
Famous Caryns aside, I love my name. (I didn’t always. But then I think all girls go through a stage of wishing their name was cooler or had an ‘i’ in it that they could draw a big circle on top of.) So, if you want to interact with me or get my attention, either out loud or in writing, then please, do me a favour‒ say and spell my name correctly. C-A-R-Y-N. The first syllable is pronounced as in ‘cat’ and the second rhymes with ‘bin’. (‘kærən’ according to the International Phonetic Alphabet)
My name is part of who I am
I was born into a Jewish family named Myers. The oldest child, I was born before any of my grandparents died so my parents had carte blanche over my name. I’ll tell you a bit about Jewish naming traditions in a minute.
Caryn was a popular name in the 1970s. There were five of us in my year at school; although three of them spelled theirs differently, we all pronounced our names the same way.
My name can be spelled in many ways – Caryn/Caron/Caren/Carin/Karin/Karen/Karon/Karyn, to name a few. Living in South Africa, people immediately assume that all of these variations should be pronounced as if the first syllable rhymed with ‘car’. But in my case it’s not. To avoid confusion, let me reiterate: the first syllable rhymes with the first syllable of ‘happy’, which I would be if people would pronounce my name correctly.
Sticks and stones
The old English proverb goes something like
‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.’
I, however, prefer these versions:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will make me go in a corner and cry by myself for hours.” [Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame)]
“Sticks and stones will break our bones, but words will break our hearts.” [Robert Fulghum (American author of, among other books, All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten)]
And let’s all spare a thought for Sathnam Sanghera, whose twitter bio (@sathnam) reads, “Journalist. Author. Don’t call me Samantha.” This British author and journalist wrote a Financial Times column, Mispronouncing, Mangling, detailing his experiences of the massacre of his name. For years he accepted the careless errors of others, particularly those in the marketing and communications industries. However, he now “make(s) a point of pedantically correcting everyone who gets (his) name wrong.”
Which you would too, if you had been called ‘Sadman’, ‘Saddam’ or ‘Satan Sinatra’ for most of your life.
What’s in a name?
I am sure Sathnam joins me in taking exception with the Bard on this one. There is more to a name than he credits in Romeo and Juliet. Yes, “a rose by any other name” may “smell as sweet”, but it is still a misnomer. He poetically chose as his example an inanimate object rather than a sentient being. I intend no offense to those who believe plants have feelings too. But if they do have, I doubt they extend to concern about what we call them.
Naming children, however, is one of a parent’s most daunting tasks. Jewish tradition assists as it is customary to name a baby after a family member who has recently died. If the deceased had a particularly unfashionable name, or was of the opposite sex, parents often use the name as a Hebrew name or second name. Or, as in our case, they use the first letter of the name to choose a name they are comfortable with.
In this way, our daughter, Billie, was named for my grandfather, who died a week before I found out I was pregnant with her. Reluctant to call her Basil but wanting to honour his memory, we agonised over ‘B’ names before settling on a playful one. Her unusual name provokes much interest but perfectly suits her charming feistiness.
Green Eggs and Ham
We named our son after his paternal grandfather, Sammy Bloch, whom I never had the pleasure of meeting. We chose to call him Sam. And by Sam I mean Sam. Not Samuel, not Sammy, not Samson. (Not Sathnam, either, for that matter.)
Dr Seuss could have taught the Bard a thing or two. Their interaction would’ve gone something like this:
Shakespeare: “What’s in a name?”
Dr Seuss: “I am Sam. Sam I am.”
Follow Caryn on Twitter @inotherwordscg