Duana Taha is obsessed with names. A self-described “name junkie,” she gives advice on everything from how to name your children for success to what to do when your name’s been hijacked by a negative news story. In her book, The Name Therapist, she explores people’s relationship to names, as well as naming trends, and why she believes names aren’t only predictive, but can also shape a person’s character.
Reading the book, I couldn’t help but think back to last year just before my wedding when I asked my husband, “Should I change my last name?”
I blurted out the question on our way to his sister’s house for dinner. The sun was beginning to set, and the hazy summer heat hung thick around us.
It was just over a month until our wedding, and we were simultaneously tired from planning and excited for everything that was to come.
“It’s up to you,” he answered. “I’ll support you whatever you decide.”
It was a question I had been struggling with for a while. On one hand, I liked my surname, O’Connor. While it’s always spelled incorrectly by others (but hey, whose isn’t?) it was part of my identity. On the other hand, would keeping my last name make me and my partner less of a unit? How would it affect things if we had children?
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In the end, I kept my name. I’ve never been a particularly traditional person, but that wasn’t the reason. Neither was the desire to get out of doing a mountain of paperwork.
Changing my name felt like losing a connection to the past and to my family. I’m very close with my parents and my three siblings, and while the change wouldn’t alter our relationship, it felt like I would be losing a tangible connection. I am proud of my name, proud of all I have accomplished under it. Proud of the portfolio of work I have built as a journalist using it. While I’m certain this would have continued had I taken my husband’s surname, changing my name felt strange and uncomfortable, like clothing that didn’t quite fit.
Avery, a Montreal artist, has a different experience. Born with the name Yue, she was given the anglicized name Susan after moving from China to Canada at the age of 5. But the name didn’t quite fit.
“Susan was good, but I thought it was really serious and I didn’t like the sound of it,” she says. “Since I was going to be in fashion and art, I wanted something more creative.”
She pored over baby name books, and found herself drawn to androgynous names. She eventually settled on Avery. “I liked that Avery was neutral, and it wasn’t popular at the time,” she says. “I would also look into the meanings, and some were too serious. Avery is taken from the old English word for elf. I thought the meaning was fantastical, which I liked.”
Today she goes by three names – Yue to her family, Susan to her high school friends, and Avery to everyone else. (Avery asked that her surname not be used for this story.)
Whether we want them to be or not, names are part of a first impression, even before someone sees you. Names matter, so it’s no wonder we are obsessed with them.
“Almost nobody feels neutral about their name,” Taha writes. “Everyone has an idea of how their name has made them the person they are, or the ways it has kept them from who they might have been.”
Taha grew up defending and explaining her own name (pronounced Dew-Ann-ah Tah-hah). Her first name is Gaelic, a nod to her mother’s Irish roots, while her surname is Egyptian. In the book, she details her daily name struggles – from dreading the inevitable mispronunciation by a substitute teacher in Toronto, to constructing her own “Starbucks name” she gives to baristas for easier spelling.
“To have an unusual name is to necessarily be alone in this particular way,” she writes. “Everyone finds ways to cope with a label that screams ‘not like the others,’ and these days everyone seems to think they have one.”
One of Taha’s earliest coping mechanisms was the invention of her alter ego, Megan.
“I used to go around calling myself Megan, because to my mind, Megan was the perfect North American kid – she was probably going to get the ‘Over the Rainbow’ solo in the spring concert and be allowed to go to sleepovers and would have never have weird foods in her lunchbox.”
While she eventually dropped her alter ego, the feeling of being different never left her, and she found herself being drawn to others with unique sounding names.
Using this lens in her book, she explores the role of cultural bias and perceptions of race and ethnicity in naming. She speaks with a woman named Shelica, who changed her name to Shelley on job applications because she found she received more callbacks.
The practice, called resumé whitening, was highlighted in a recent University of Toronto study. According to the study as many as 40 per cent of minority job seekers “whiten” their resumé with anglicized versions of their names and downplay experience with racialized groups. The study also found minority job seekers were less likely to receive an interview if they used their real names.
Taha examines why some names are seen as low class. She digs into so-called stripper names (such as Candy, Amber and Crystal), finding that many of the most popular names were those of consumables.
“The idea that you can desire and lust for a Diamond or a Sapphire or even an Angel helps dissociate the idea that the name is for a person, and helps to create the illusion that the woman dancing in a strip club really is an object of desire.”
There is no doubt that names have a huge impact on how we are perceived by the world. Our names are our stamp, and we either love them or hate them. For me, it meant holding on to my family history and connection. For Avery, that meant changing hers to reflect her personality. For Taha, in the end it meant eventually learning to love and accept her name, no matter how much it frustrates her.
“They’re no less a part of our person than our personality, our emotions, or our physical beings,” she writes. “In large part, we’re stuck with them.”
Katie O’Connor is a producer at The Agenda with Steve Paikin.
Read an excerpt from The Name Therapist: 'What kind of name is that? What are you?'