Monday, July 19, 2010


I have always had issues with names. I'm not really sure why. Maybe it's because my family was so small when I was growing up -- we didn't need to use names most of the time, just titles and pronouns: Mommy, Daddy, He (meaning my brother David), She (meaning me). Of course we did use names fairly often, and I do believe I was often called by my own name, but for some reason it still seems weird to me.

My issue is that I don't like using people's names, especially people who are close to me. John gets this the most. I almost never call him by his name when I'm talking to him. It just doesn't seem important to use his name when he knows who I'm talking to! And he's generally listening, so I don't need to get his attention. He doesn't often use my name either. I remember him doing it before we were married -- in writing particularly -- and it always caught my attention, but now I think he's got my no-names habit. I speculated once that it's because we're always in the middle of a conversation which just gets paused when we're apart, but continues when we're back together.

That's kind of sweet, but the real reason (I think) is this. I never feel that a name can sum up all that a person is. The better I know a person, the more insufficient their name sounds to me. When I think of someone I know a little, I think of their name. When I think of someone I know well, a whole host of things pops into my mind: their image, their smell, the last conversation we had, a certain expression they have ... and to label this vast variety of things a plain utterance like "John" just seems insufficient. Besides, there are so many "Johns" in the world, and many of them have our last name, too!

Relational names work better for me: Mom, Dad, Grandma. These names aren't trying to express the whole person, but only the connection between me and the other person. That's something a bit more manageable. With people who don't have a "relationship name," I often use endearments or nicknames. A nickname says, "I am not trying to sum up all that you are, but only that part of you that I know and understand." It's something particular to me and that person. Sometimes I don't use the nickname out loud, because I'm not sure if the other person would like it, but I use it mentally when I think of the other person. Sean becomes Seanbo, Matthew becomes Maffew (and half a dozen other things), Olivia becomes Livy, Meredith becomes Meredee.

Which brings me to myself. I talk to myself rather often, generally just in my head. I guess we all do. Well, I had need of a name to call myself, but I have never felt very at home with my name. I like it fine, but so few people actually use it that often, generally people who don't know me that well, so it seems odd for me to use the same name. So I have several nicknames: Sheila-girl, Smudge (a play off my initials), and so forth. As for other people calling me by name, I don't mind it. When John does, it's really neat -- it seems that he's using the word with a much more expansive definition than other people do, because he knows me so much better. My mom mostly calls me "my darling daughter," which I like. Sometimes she calls me Juliana, which is my sister's name. When strangers call me and ask, "Is this Sheila C---?" or worse, "Is this Sheila J--- (my maiden name)?" I feel a bit iffy about saying yes. I mean, sure, technically that is my name, but with the new name, it's so new I feel like I'm just trying it on for size, and with the old name, it's no longer legally mine so I can't claim it! Besides, it's just a name. I am not my name. I don't know, I'm just weird about it.

I have always liked nicknames, and wanted one for myself. It would be such an easy way out of my name issues! Now friends would call me one thing, indicative of their special relationship with me, and strangers wouldn't know it so they'd call me something different. Only, Sheila doesn't lend itself well to nicknames. So almost every nickname made directly out of my given name, I've hated. And as for a nickname based off of something else about me -- well, what would you pick, out of all the things there are about me? Wouldn't that be just as narrowing? Like someone with vanity plates saying "SKI MAN" or "RUNNER." Does that mean you can be summarized as just a guy who skis or someone who runs? Isn't there more to you? So every nickname I've come up with for myself has fallen short, and no one will ever use them anyway. No one else has ever come up with a decent nickname for me either, except perhaps my mother. (Who has called me Sheila-girl, Pumpkin, and Sheerah, Princess of Power, without a word of protest from me.)

This is becoming a real problem now that I have a child. His name is Mark. He was named after my late father-in-law. I agreed to the name, I like it, there isn't any real problem with it. But I just can't call him by it, either to his face or to others. I've tried and it sounds funny every time. He's this chubby little baby, he can't have a name some grown man has had! (It is a very grown-up name, I think.) Not to mention that I know him so well, as he's grown from generic "baby" to very much Himself. Again, there's too much to put into a name. However, it's kind of important that this kid learns his name someday! I mean, he can't be Baby and Li'l Mister and Buddy Boy and Li'l Guy forever. So I've compromised and come up with a nickname for him: Marko. It's more baby-ish and it does seem to suit him, in a way that Marky and Macky and Marnie (my in-laws' name for him) don't quite. Sometimes I call him Mandrew (Mark + Andrew), but not that often. I still call him "baby" or "the baby" at least twice as often as anything resembling his actual name.

However, even though he's complicated things as far as his own name goes, he's solved some other problems. I no longer puzzle about what to call myself. I know exactly the perfect nickname for me that wraps up all that is important to me and how I fit in in relation to the people I'm with. That name is Mamma.


Heather said...

Beautiful post and thoughts. Lovely ending. =) And thank you for describing pretty much exactly and with more precision my previously incomprehensible aversion to names that has sat on the periphery of my vocabulary for a while.
Now I don't have to feel bad when I forget the names of people I am close with because I'm too busy talking with them directly! =)

Sheila said...

Such a relief to know I'm not the only one with this issue!

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, I'm glad you've found your name, Sheila!

My mother's own "real" name is "Mama Nee"--which she got when my cousin and I were both still learning to speak and both had women we called "Mama." My mother's name is "Renee," so she became "Mama Nee," which suits her mother hen persona very nicely. My cousin was her first niece and also the first to call her that--and some of my mother's old friends, who knew her when I was little, sometimes also call her "Mama Nee." But yes, she gets an occasional child who says, "My mother says I can't call you 'Mama'" and has to acquiesce. =)

Also . . . I'm currently reading George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind, which contains this interesting passage:

"What is your name, little boy?" [the voice] asked.

"Diamond," answered Diamond, under the bed-clothes.

"What a funny name!"

"It's a very nice name," returned its owner.

"I don't know that," said the voice.

"Well, I do," retorted Diamond a little rudely."

"Do you know to whom you are speaking?"

"No," said Diamond.

And indeed he did not. For to know a person's name is not always to know the person's self.

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