I had a conversation with a pal of mine the other day. For the purposes of this article, let’s call him “Russell.” He mentioned that he’s had friends who have used his name as an adjective to describe things that reminded them of him, saying, “That movie is very ‘Russell,’” or, “That script was so ‘Russell.’”
I started to wonder: Do our names influence the way the world interacts with us, subsequently shaping who we are, or do we take our names and turn them into unique descriptors of our personalities?
Well, if I had been born a girl, I would have been destined to carry this mouthful of a name: Anka Veronique Leilani de Soto-Foley.
Instead, I was born biologically male, and thus my parents had to decide on a different moniker. They narrowed it to either of two options. My mother, with Cuban roots tracing back to conquistador Hernando de Soto, was ardently behind the Spanish name Sebastian. My father, born of an Irish family with Bostonian roots, but going back to around the time of the Potato Famine, was ardently in favor of the more English Nicholas. The day I was born, as they handed me over from family member to family member in the hospital, my name was still up for debate.
The decision was finally made by my sister’s sister, who exclaimed upon holding me, “He’s a Nichol!”
Upon my mother’s request, the “h” was dropped in favor of the Spanish spelling. They picked my middle name, Sean, because it was an acronym for our nuclear family members’ first names (Stephen my father, Elsa my sister, Alicia my mother, and Nicolas).
Despite all of the debate, however, my birth-given name is far from the only thing I’ve been called.
Though not an exhaustive list, I can recall answering to the following names at some point or another in my life: Nic(h)olas, Niiiiicolaaaas (think: “Ricolaaaa”), Stormtrooper, Nic(k), Nykk, Nico, Nikolai, Nicol (Pickle), Nickelodeon, Sean, Sebastian, Santiago, Hector, Rick, Rabbi, Ozzy, Frodo, Filèt, NicFoley, THE Foley, de Soto, Foley, de Soto-Foley, dSF, de Frodo-Soley, de Foto-Soley, de Froyo-Soley, Mr. Anderson, and a few more that aren’t fit to print. I can also guarantee you that I represented a very different person for each group that called me each name. Nick/Nicholas to me feels very generic, like the “John” or “Joe” of our generation. It’s commonplace. But “Nic” stands out, and it lends itself to endless possibilities for “nic”names (I went for it). At this point, I like to think that I have turned “Nic” into a unique word among those who know me, though this has resulted from a lifetime of striving to escape the suffocating box of “Nick.” In other words, my unique name has become like my unique brand.
But for others who are more generically named, the case is surprisingly similar. In high school, I had a friend named David, a friend named Max, and a friend named David who changed his name to Max. It took us all a while to make the change, but the David who stayed David, the Max who was already Max, and the David who became Max were all able to craft their own identities as well (despite all being tall, skinny fencers with passions for the sciences and absurd senses of humor from upper-middle class backgrounds and who all went to well-regarded private high schools in the LA/Ventura area and have matriculated to colleges in California).
For example, I was having dinner with some friends last night, and the name “Max” came up. “Howard?” I asked, referring to his last name for clarification, immediately recalling the Max in question as the superbly athletic puzzle-master who enjoys the Internet infinitely more than I do. He has forged his identity as Max, just as DavidMax the military/sci-fi nerd who has turned his own surname, “Cohen,” into an adjective synonymous with him. The David who kept his name, the superstar scientist, is really the only person I think of when the name “David” is mentioned out of context. These three, with their own unique personalities and my interactions with them, have separated themselves from the realm of their generic names to form individual identifying adjectives that are quite specific indeed.
Everybody, generically named or not, has a personality. Once we get to know people, whether we’re Joe or Nic or Anka Veronique Leilani de Soto-Foley, their names recede into the background; who they are becomes more important than what they’re called. A recent Huffington Post story reports that a job-seeking man named José Zamora had to become Joe Zamora in order to be hired, suggesting that what we’re named, while eventually irrelevant in relationships, is all too relevant in making initial judgments. We would all do well to remember that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
De Soto-Foley is a member of the class of 2017.