When I was younger and stranger, and a whole lot less busy, I thought that my school directory—complete with a listing of every single student, her parents, and their home address—made for compelling reading. I was truly obsessed with names, but not just any names: rare names.
I distinctly remember ripping open the phone book package each September, eager to get cracking at looking for diamonds (or Diamonds, as was the case for one fourth-grader) in the rough. The kindergarten section was the most engrossing, because I had never encountered those names before (and I realized that each year the names became more and more captivating), but I also looked forward to reading the names of new students in all grades.
“Paloma-Philippa Pippin-Portstein,” I would murmur to myself, titillated by the alliteration.
I used to annotate the book, too, writing small notes in the margins: “Classy,” reads one. “Marvelous,” another goes, and because I was not sure how to spell marvelous, it’s crossed out about five times and rewritten, each time smaller and less sure of itself. I brainstormed possible nicknames and alternate spellings, skipping over the common names and heading straight for the Gretchens and the Penelopes.
When I had memorized the phone book (and surprised my peers by knowing each of their parents’ names and their street address), I moved on to the old baby names book that mysteriously resided on our bookshelf. I read it like it was a novel. In fact, it was like a novel: the etymologies were all the plot I needed. I begged my parents to have more children because my secret plan was to pretend to be so traumatized by being replaced as the baby of the family that they would let me name it (the baby, I mean).
Once it had become clear that there were to be no more Davis children, I began to dream up names for my own eventual brood. At any given time I could—and did, with little provocation—list my offspring. I fancied Ziazan, which means rainbow in Armenian, as well as Pearl, Lorelei, and Beryl. Winifred was nice, too. I asked my parents, my grandparents, my friends—anyone who would listen, really—if they liked these names, and if not, for their constructive criticism. The most frequent response was a noncommittal “hmm.”
I was deep in the throes of name-brainstorming when, poring over the school directory as usual, my eye was drawn to a Pearl. My mouth hung open for what felt like 30 solid seconds: I truly was agog. “Oh gosh. Oh wow. Her parents must be so interesting. Oh gosh.”
I then glared furtively at my own parents, who had decided to give me the least interesting name there ever was.
Jenny Fran Davis.
I don’t remember the moment when I learned what my name was, but I’m sure that when I did, I thought, “What the hell?” or whatever the baby equivalent is. My name is truncated: Jenny is just Jenny (my parents aren’t even fond of the name Jennifer, a fact that dismays me still), Fran is not Frances or Francine (Francine! Now there’s a good one), and Davis is the Ellis Island abbreviation of whatever name my ancestors schlepped with them from Romania. Sure, it’s nice that my name is virtually impossible to screw up or spell wrong, but it’s also incredibly boring. I’ve always envied my friends who say their names and then feel the need to immediately launch into spelling them.
There’s something so delicious about a name that’s really outlandish. I’d love a name with character, because it’s a head start: right off the bat, you’ve established yourself as a person to get to know, a Person With A Cool Name, which only places second after a Person With Cool Shoes.
Of course, there is one upside to having a short name: According to Forbes, “The shorter your first name, the more you will earn. In fact, the data show each extra letter ‘costs’ you about $3,600 in annual salary.”
But you can have a short name that’s also original.
Take sociologist Dalton Conley, who recently published “Parentology,” a parenting memoir about his unconventional practices raising his two children. He (with his wife’s blessing, I suppose) decided to name his daughter E.
E. Just E.
That said, he also named his son Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles (well, he actually named his son Yo Xing Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser; Yo added on the Heyno and the Knuckles legally at age three), so maybe his children’s future economic success was not his greatest concern. Even so, I admire Conley’s irreverence.
“While we can’t really do much about the race or genes or social class we bequest to our beloved offspring, we do have a choice when it comes to names,” Conley wrote in “Raising E and Yo…,” an article published in Psychology Today. He later says, “We forced our children’s teachers and peers to see them as individuals by virtue of their names.”
In other countries, such as France, Conley goes on to point out, parents are forced to choose names from a government-approved list; in the naming world at least, America is a beacon of freedom. Children here can be named anything under the sun, letters and numbers in any given arrangement. They’ll be bullied, of course, but Conley’s final point is that recent studies have shown that being teased for having an unusual name can lead to the development of impulse control—assuming that the children refrain from lashing out against their attackers, that is. It builds character to have a name like E.
I could always change my name, I suppose. It’s legal, after all, and people do it all the time. But the cognitive dissonance of suddenly becoming Chrysanthemum might be unbearably large. I’ve set down roots as Jenny, uninteresting as it may be, and so Jenny I will remain.
I can always start spelling it Jen E.