A question of names

April 2024
Phyllis Shragge

What’s in a name?  Would my life have been much different if my parents had called me by middle name, Claire, instead of by my first name, Phyllis?

For one thing, if I were Claire, I wouldn’t have to deal with dreadful misspellings of my name.  If I were called Claire, that’s C-l-a-i-r-e, my name occasionally might be spelled without the letter i, but that’s not so bad.   

The spelling of my name, Phyllis, though, generally is botched.  It should be P-h-y-l-l-i-s.  It is routinely spelled F-i-l-l-i-s or F-y-l-l-i-s or P-h-i-l-l-y-s or P-h-i-l-l-i-s.  Because I anticipate inevitable spelling mistakes, each time I need to provide my name for a form of some sort, I automatically spell it. I don’t wait to be asked.

But the spelling issue is a relatively minor annoyance.  Sometimes I wonder if my name contributed to my development as I was growing up.  Did my name mold my personality?  When I look back to my youth, especially to my preteen years, I remember wanting a name that was popular at the time, like Barbara, Susan, or Linda.  I wanted an easy name, easy to say and easy to spell.  My name seemed prim and proper.  How could I be cool with the name Phyllis?  I wonder how different I would have been as Claire. Would I have had more confidence?  Would I have minded the braces on my teeth? Would I have seen myself as lighthearted?   If I were Claire instead of Phyllis, would I still have been shy? 

And if I had been Claire as a teenager, would I have been certain about who I was and who I wanted to be?  If I had been Claire instead of Phyllis, would I have been less impulsive?  Would I have made better decisions?  Would have worked harder at school? If I had been Claire in the 1960s, would I have been busy studying instead of identifying with hippies?

As Phyllis, I came through it all relatively unscathed.  But as Claire, maybe there wouldn’t have been so many bumps in the road.  

And now as an adult, when I consider my name, I still see it as ungainly.  It’s a cumbersome name, old fashioned and decidedly outdated.  But it’s not old fashioned enough to be making a comeback, like Sophie or Emma, currently popular names for baby girls.  No, it’s just an old-lady name.  It certainly has no hope of ever being trendy. But I do feel better in one regard:  The cool Barbaras, Susans and Lindas of my generation have equally outdated names. 

So here I am, with a name people can’t spell, a name I don’t really like.  But when I consider what I might have been named, I’m relieved.  

In Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, babies are named after deceased relatives.  I’m named after my great-grandmother on my mother’s side.  I share her Hebrew name, Zipporah, meaning bird.  The name has been described as fitting for a free-spirited little one who can’t wait to spread her wings and fly. 

Although it’s customary for Jewish babies to carry on a loved one’s Hebrew name, often the namesake’s English name isn’t identical.  Sometimes, the baby’s name will begin with the same letter, or be similar in sound to the ancestor’s name.  

My great-grandmother’s English name was Fanny.  From that, came Phyllis.  As far as the name Fanny is concerned, I feel lucky I dodged that bullet.

I wonder if it’s too late to begin using my middle name.  Likely it is.  People would be confused if I became Claire Phyllis instead of Phyllis Claire.  I think I would be confused as well.

And I wonder if the babies of this generation—the ones named after cities, the ones with oddly spelled names, and the ones with names that aren’t really names at all and are just plain weird—eventually will resent their parents for the names they saddled them with.  I can guarantee they will.  Big time.  And likely when they grow up, they’ll seek out traditional names for their babies.  Maybe they’ll even name their little girls Barbara, Susan, or Linda. Not Phyllis, though.  For sure not Phyllis.