Saturday, March 29, 2008

on naming

There is a vignette in Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street called "My Name." I use it as a piece to teach denotation and connotation in my freshmen classroom.

Denotation: literal, dictionary definition. A house is a dwelling. Four walls, roof, sometimes a white picket fence.

Connotation: emotional meaning. The way I feel about my house, the first I've ever purchased, the way I think of sleeping next to my husband at night, the little bits of gray fence that have been chipped away by my dogs' eager heaving.

I look up each of my students' names on a baby name website. Molly means bitter. Ryan means little king. I joke about how I don't often feel bitter, but Molly is often taken as a nickname for Mary, and this is what it means, most of the time, depending on the source. I am stuck with "bitter" as an identifying marker.

I ask them to talk to their parents about the story of their name. My own simply appealed to my parents, and I was grateful it wasn't Lacey, which was also on their list. My maiden name is a town in England and a town in Ireland. I tout a "good Irish name," or claim it anyway. My new married last name is German, and means either a type of tree (this from our German exchange student Marie) or a logger, a killer of trees (this from Ryan himself).

I thought I'd named my sister, Chelsea. I had a classmate of the same name, which perhaps explained my encouragement of the name; my parents say they picked the name after a news reporter.

People often tell me they once had dogs named Molly when growing up. I try not to take it personally.

I could tell my students too about the struggle I had in my mosaic of names--what I go by as a teacher (Mrs. K) or when I publish (MSK) or when I sign my name on a document. I could talk about the discussions Ryan and I had sitting across from each other at restaurants, our beer mugs slick, our tempers quiet. How he wanted me to have his last name exclusively, how I wanted him to take mine. (Why must we always be so patriarchal?) We talked of tradition, of family pride, of rejection and acceptance of becoming a part in a new clan. A compromise, though I still don't entirely think it even, fair, but I love him and his family, so I accept, step back. Still, he should be a Sutton too.

There is the fact that I don't often write out my name on this blog, even though I know students have found it. I'd rather avoid a blatant existence.

There is the trickery of names--Nohbdy.

There is the power of names--Rumpelstiltskin.

There is the heritage of names. "Traver" is the family name passed about--my grandfather was Traver Kille (went by Lad, Kille was his mother's maiden name), his father was Traver [something], my uncle is Traver Michael (goes by Mike), and my cousin is a Traver too. His first son--Traver Jacob, goes by Jake. My sister-in-law named her son James, after my father-in-law. Ryan calls his nephew "little James;" he's also called "Jimmy," but never Jamie. My cousin, Traver's brother, was Jamie when he was growing up, but now he is James, though I often forget. His middle name is Brian, the same as my father. James also happens to be the name of my maternal grandfather and an uncle on my mother's side as well.

Do you see how it all loops? How tangled we become in our own naming, how incestuous it can be.

On The Gilmore Girls (a guilty pleasure) the mother, Lorelei has named her daughter after herself (goes by Rory). She continually has to explain this oddity, this fit of drug induced decision making. If Rory were a boy named for a father, strangers would not give that raise of the eyebrow. Rory wouldn't joke about epidural induced narcissism.

There is a list of names I could never foist upon an innocent child--names of students who have frustrated me, names which can only come from my mouth in exasperation. Most are boy names, though there are some girls too. Hopes that my children will never become the painful shapes of indifferent, rude, hyperactive kids in my everyday. The name grows with each new class list.

In contrast, there are names of students that I will always think of fondly, or ways in which "bad" names get canceled out--the frustrating X from student teaching becomes the endearing X from last semester, the one I would say, "If only I could be so lucky as to have a respectful son / daughter like that." Of course, I couldn't name a child for a student; this would seem incredibly strange.

An author or a character from a book. A good Irish name. These are connotations I like the most.

Names have been rolling around in my head since Kelly announced the gender of her growing baby. A boy. I teasingly call it Iago, my favorite Shakespeare villain, while she considers true names--something plain, but something that will fit. Something that will cling to his flesh as he slips into the world, something that makes sense when she looks into his eyes. The denotation and connotation must be essay worthy. He may one day be my student, after all.


KeLL said...

It is so hard to pick a name for my unborn child. Especially a name Richard and I will both agree on. The middle name is set. We both agreed to name him after my dad, but the first name is yet to be determined. Every name reminds me of someone or something, whether it is a bad memory or a fond one. I have to consider how others will judge him with this name. Will his classmates tease him because of his name? Will he be taken seriously in the professional world? Not to mention what his intials will spell. Possible nicknames. And I have no idea what he looks like or his personality.
It's a huge responsibility.

PS: My name means "Warrior" and I was named after a nurse my mom really liked. It's Gaelic
Richard means "Powerful, rich ruler" and he was named after his not so friendly grandfather. It's English/German.
My maiden name was misspelled when my ancestors arrived from Prussia. I have no idea of what it means.
My married name means "Son of Neal" and is Swedish.

chelsea said...

Chelsea means "port of ships," which I didn't like at first. But I started thinking about the definition of "harbor" and I really began to like my name. Chelsea's are supposed to be a comfort in time of need, if one is to believe the reflections of names.

Cole and I like to joke that if we had a son, we would name him Jack Bauer Stockton (after Keifer Sutherland's character in 24), but we are both very aware of the fact that that wouldn't be true. (Perhaps if we had a second son, since we both would name our child in jest.) Male naming traditions in his family and in ours mesh. Traver is a family first name for our side. Coleman is the family middle name on Cole's side. (It was his grandfather's first name and even Cole's cousin has it as a middle name.) It's really nice to know that Traver Coleman is it. If it's a girl, I'd like to use my maiden name either as a first or a middle name. I like the idea of names being passed down.