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Answer the following question: If you could choose your name, what would you pick? Seems like such a simple question, right?
As I tried to answer it recently, I sat with my fingers poised over the keyboard, waiting for the answer to come. It didn’t. Every possible choice tied me up in angst-filled existential knots.
For the record, let me state that I hate my name. My legal first name is Jennifer, like three-quarters of the females born in America between 1975 and 1985. I’m making that up, but that’s how it feels. No one wants to feel like a clone, but that’s what this name means to me. I’m sure that’s not what my parents intended. Truth be told, I threw them for a loop by being born too early, so it’s not entirely their fault. Here’s how it all went down.
The Origin of My Name
This disaster started before I was even born. My parents already had a name picked out: Heidi. Very nice, very Aryan. Due to unforeseen genetics or maybe because I was such a preemie, I was born with bright red skin and dark black hair. Not so nice, not so Aryan.
My parents faced a choice: give this weird-looking kid a Swiss girl’s name, or find something else. They decided to find something else. Unfortunately, this must have been really hard because what they found was the same damn name littering incubators all over the country. My middle name? Rebecca. First runner-up in the “girl’s generic name” contest.
Oddly enough, although they put Jennifer on the birth certificate, they never called me that. I was always “Jenni.” Spelled with an “i.” If you think about it, that’s the only logical way to spell it: you start with Jennifer, and lop off the end. I have no idea where this “Jenny” and “Jennie” crap comes from. Spock would definitely not approve.
In kindergarten, there were three of us. One was Jennifer, one was Jenni, and one was Jen. It’s been this way for most of my life. During my school days, I had to be identified not by my name, but by some other defining characteristic.
During my school days, I had to be identified not by my name, but by some other defining characteristic.
Note to five-year-old self: get a defining characteristic. You will need it until the last day of high school. Choose wisely.
Dreaming of a Do-Over
I soon learned that I liked the idea of escape. I would have liked this without a generic name, but the name certainly helped. Reading was cheapest and easiest escape I could find, and I dove into the world of kings and queens as soon as I could read. Other kids read The Baby-Sitter’s Club. I read those, too, when I’d already plowed through biographies of Marie Antoinette, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Mary, Queen of Scots. They all had such regal names. Not a single one was named Jennifer.
In my dreams, I was named Elizabeth, in honor of Elizabeth I. It stayed that way until I moved eastward in my reading and discovered the Russian imperial family. From that moment on, it was Alexandra. Had the choice been mine, I would have chosen Alexandra a thousand times over. Regal, exotic, beautiful, pretty on paper: that name was everything. Mine was nothing – bestowed indiscriminately on porn stars, talk show hosts, cheerleaders, and eight hundred other types of girls who had nothing in common with me.
My obsession with the name Alexandra lasted until the second half of college, when I dated a guy named Alex and the name was forever poisoned due to the heroic levels of assholedom reached by said individual. Dream shattered. Game over.
I’m still struggling to find a suitable replacement.
A Return to Roots
Somewhere along the way, I discovered that “Jennifer” is a modern version of the Welsh name “Guinevere.” I like the idea that the name I loathe has some dim connection to a beautiful name that belonged to a queen. But, in strictly logical terms, Guinevere? Can you really go through modern life with a name like Guinevere? Would I really choose that as my replacement name? I can’t commit to it. I like it, but I can’t commit to it.
After discarding Elizabeth and Alexandra and Guinevere, I forced my brain back through the forks and branches of the family tree. A family name would mean more, wouldn’t it? In the thousands of names I’ve uncovered through Ancestry.com (half of which are probably wrong), there has to be something unique that I’d be proud to bear, right?
Let’s check in with a few examples:
- Mildred: I’ll pass
- Eldora: too Bewitched
- Samantha: not after Sex and the City
- Ida: again, I’ll pass
- Annie: not an orphan, so no
- Obedience: not so much
- Audrey: gives me a Little Shop of Horrors flashback
- Rachel, Ruth, Hannah: the usual Biblical trifecta
- Nazareth: my heart stops a little bit at this one. I can’t imagine having this name, but at the same time, it has the exotic flair I’d be looking for. It’s romantic, dark, yet indicating faith in something. It’s almost right.
A Question Unanswered
I don’t know where this leaves me. I don’t know why I can’t just pick a name. I’ve lived with an unsatisfactory one for 36 years…what’s another couple of decades? But I can’t pick one unless it’s perfect. Maybe I’m meant to be nameless. Maybe it’s my characters’ names that matter more than mine. Maybe it’s your names, dear readers.
Maybe I just need a few more years to find the right set of letters and sounds that creates a harmonic reverberation in my chest. I’ll know it when I hear it. And I haven’t heard it yet.
If I figure it out, you can expect a jubilant update to this post. Feel free to offer your suggestions in the comments.
Fact: Jennifer was the most popular baby name for girls in America every damn year from 1970 to 1984.
Fact (probably): Jennifer is a Cornish derivation of the old Celtic name Gwenhwyfar.
Fact: Gwenhwyfar (or Guinevere) means something like “white lady,” “fair lady,” “white phantom,” or “white ghost.”
Fact: Jennifer doesn’t translate well into other languages. Mostly it gets mixed up with Genevieve, and ends up as “Ginevra” in Italian, “Geneviève” in French, and “Genoveva” in Spanish.
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