A couple of months ago I read The Name Therapist: How Growing Up With My Odd Name Taught Me Everything You Need to Know About Yours. The author is Duana Taha (odd name, yes, by her own admission) and I saw her speak at LITLive, one of the gritLIT Literary Festival kick-off events back in April. Duana was a funny, lively, bubbly speaker, and the topic of names – given names, that is – is one that has always fascinated me, so it’s no wonder I hung on her every word and bought her book.
According to the book jacket, Duana has never met another Duana. For a very long time, I could totally relate to this.
My name isn’t particularly unusual, or unusual at all, really. I have never experienced a “Oh, that’s exotic, where are you from?” or a “E…liz…what? Can you say it again?” kind of thing when I have introduced myself in a variety of different countries, so there’s that. I also know the name Elizabeth exists in lots of different cultures, with various spellings perhaps, and slight variations on pronunciation, but it’s still pretty recognizable.
So, with a relatively normal kind of name – for North American culture, anyway – what sparked my interest in names? Well, it’s probably due to the fact that for a long time, I really, really REALLY disliked my name.
It seems ridiculous now – I mean it’s a fine name, I have grown to like it, maybe even love it – but 40+ years ago? Oh hell, no.
Elizabeth, to me, as a child, was a name for old ladies. “But…but…!” people would stammer, “What about the Queen? What about Elizabeth Taylor?” Um, well yes. To a child those are OLD LADIES WITH OLD LADY NAMES. Get it? You are literally proving my point.
Elizabeth was the stern aunt in Emily of New Moon, who didn’t understand Emily’s desire to write. I have never forgiven L.M. Montgomery for naming that character Elizabeth. To be fair, Elizabeth was also one half of a set of twins in the book Twin Spell, by Janet Lunn, (now known as Double Spell) one of my all time favourite preteen reads. And, to be fair further, there are some pretty great Elizabeths in literature and pop culture, but remember, I was 7 or 8. I wasn’t reading Pride and Prejudice or Frankenstein back then.
And in the 1970s, in Hamilton? I never ran into another Elizabeth. Ever. In fact, I was an adult before I encountered another Elizabeth. There was at least one other Elizabeth in my high school, but the name only existed in the yearbooks, as far as I could tell. I never knew the girl personally (And yes, I scanned yearbooks looking for my name, doesn’t everyone. Never mind, I know the answer to that.)
The 1970s were a heyday for all the names I loved and wanted. Debbie? Yes, please! Lori, Tracy, Tammy, Sandy and Brenda. These were the girls I wanted to be. The girls who had to be known by their first name AND their last initial, because there were multiples in the class. Multiple people with your name! It made me giddy to think about it. I never got to be Elizabeth O. There was only ever me.
I asked my mother once (ok, probably more than once, if I’m being honest) why she called me Elizabeth. She didn’t have a definitive answer. It wasn’t a beloved grandmother’s name, it wasn’t that she was obsessed with royalty or the movie stars of the day. She just liked the name, and mostly she liked the name Beth, which my parents had intended to shorten my name to, but when I was born, I didn’t look like a Beth. So Elizabeth stayed. (Incidentally, if my dad had had his way, I would have been called Corinna, after the song “Corinna, Corinna” which you can listen to here. To this day I haven’t decided if that would have been worse or better than Elizabeth. It’s a pretty great name, but I have only met one Corinna in my life. Maybe she’s writing the exact same blog post. We’ll never know.)
In spite of my dislike for my (lovingly given) name, one thing I never did get the hang of was a short form for it. I’d already learned that Beth didn’t work, I never liked Liz, and maybe today I’d go with Eliza, thanks in part to the Schuyler Sisters, but when I was a kid Eliza seemed worse than just sticking with Elizabeth. (There’s a hole in my bucket, right? Sing it with me. No thanks.) The only exception to this was the time I tried to be Betty, because of The Flintstones. You know the episode where Fred gets hit on the head (or something) and goes all posh? And he starts calling Betty Rubble Elizabeth? That blew my mind, I wanted to be Betty! I went back to school after lunch and announced to my friends that they should now call me Betty. It never took. Actually kind of grateful for that, in the end.
Our names do kind of shape us, don’t they? And this is something The Name Therapist goes into in greater detail through stories and interviews – can your name determine your destiny? If I had been called Tammy, for instance, would that have affected my life immensely? What if Betty had actually stuck? What would be different in me if I had been the fourth Brenda in my grade two class? It’s an interesting line of thought, and one we can all relate to. With few exceptions, we don’t get to choose our name, yet it’s with us for the duration of our life. Those of us with children will tell you about the stress caused by making sure your child has the perfect name, the name that suits them perfectly. It can be very intense, and people can be downright hostile.
The Name Therapist is a great book, highly recommended. It’s funny and thought-provoking, serious at times and occasionally poignant. And in case you were afraid I was venturing into special snowflake territory with my stories about being the only Elizabeth, like, ever, Duana Taha set me straight: