I became a professional name developer because I love studying names and creating new ones. But I fell in love with names because of one name I hated: my own.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think my name was a mistake. When I was about 3 or 4 I’d introduce myself to strangers by saying, “My name is Nancy, but call me Judy.” I have no idea where “Judy” came from; at that age I’d never met anyone by that name. But I definitely didn’t want anyone calling me by the name I’d been given at birth. I didn’t like the way it sounded: those nasal consonants never sounded pleasant, and Nancy was uncomfortably close to nasty. Besides, something about Nancy just felt … wrong. The name wasn’t me; it chafed like an itchy, ill-fitting sweater.
Then there was my name story — or the lack of one. My brothers had been named, in the Jewish tradition, after beloved dead relatives; the names came straight from the Old Testament, with no tweaks or embellishments. But when I asked my mother about my own name, she answered, vaguely, that I was named for an unspecified dead male relative of hers whose name began with an N. Maybe it was Nathan, maybe it was Nahum or Noah. She had no anecdotes to tell about Nathan/Nahum/Noah, no photos in an album, no explanation for why I was named after a man rather than a woman. I suspect she’d just had her heart set on Nancy and reverse-engineered a dead relative to justify her choice.
(My father wasn’t part of this history; he didn’t appear to have a vote in any of our names. Much later, I learned that he’d been overruled on his choice of a name for me: Judy.)
My mother gave me a name I disliked, but she also gave me an escape from it: her college dictionary, Webster’s Collegiate, fifth edition. It was one of the few books our family owned, and I spent a lot of time in its company almost from the moment I learned to read.
One of the marvels of this dictionary was that it had an appendix devoted to personal names — a “pronouncing vocabulary of common English Christian names.” (“Christian names” was puzzling to me, but I figured it was just some grownup mumbo-jumbo I’d understand when I grew up.) There were pages and pages of them, and I studied them devotedly, looking for clues, trying on different names for size.
Some names could be unpacked like Russian matryoshka dolls, with multiple new and interesting names hidden inside. Margaret, I discovered, yielded Mag, Maggie, Margie, Margo, Peggy, and Gretchen. If you were lucky enough to be named Elizabeth you could choose from Eliza, Bess, Liz, Lizzie, Beth, Betty, Libby, Liza, Elise, and Elsa as easily as changing your shoes.
And those names had meanings. Margaret, I learned, came from the Greek word maragon, which means “pearl.” Elizabeth comes from Hebrew and means “God is my oath.” Looking into the meanings of names became a hobby that eventually turned into a career when I began creating names for companies and products.
Naturally, I looked up my own name in the “pronouncing vocabulary.” And here’s what I read: “Diminutive of Ann.” That’s right: Nancy wasn’t a “real” name at all; it was a diminished form, a nickname. Worse still, a second-degree nickname: “Nan” with a silly suffix. No wonder I was unhappy with it.
Much later, I learned that my name had another meaning — one that for many years appeared only in slang compilations. A “nancy” or “nancy boy” is a disparaging term for an effeminate man or homosexual. In the burlesque era, a “nance” was “a stereotypically camp homosexual and master of comic double entendre — usually played by a straight man,” according to the playbill notes for the 2013 play The Nance, about one such character.
As if that weren’t enough of a burden, “Nancy” frequently appears in an alliterative insult. “Our country needs a strong leader, not a negative Nancy,” Cindy McCain, widow of U.S. Senator John McCain, told an interviewer in November 2018. She was referring not to the Democratic Speaker of the House — an actual Nancy — but to Donald Trump. Mrs. McCain didn’t invent the slur; it’s been around (along with the name of Nancy’s bad-mood sister, Debbie Downer) for at least 20 years, shorthand for “a person who is considered excessively and disagreeably pessimistic.”
It would be sweet, wouldn’t it, if I could tell you that despite all this I’ve learned to love my name. But that would be a stretch. I have, however, reached a sort of accommodation with it, learning to accept both its commonness — Nancy was among the top 100 girls’ names in the United States from 1920 to 1978 — and the darkness around its edges. I’ve found a professional silver lining in my Nancy struggles: I’m well equipped to talk to my clients about the assets and liabilities of their own brand names. I know how important it is for their names, unlike mine, to have backstories worth sharing.
And I know that creating a new name can be just as fraught as living with the original one. At one point in my life I was so serious about choosing a new first name — a name with deep personal meaning — that I ordered the necessary paperwork from the Social Security Administration. Then I made a big mistake: I told a friend about my decision, and she scoffed at my chosen name. I was crushed, but I learned an important lesson that I pass along to my clients: Don’t focus-group that name.
The real silver lining to this hate/love story, though, is that my dissatisfaction with my name led me, fatefully, to the treasures of Webster’s Collegiate, fifth edition. I’m sad to say that I don’t know what happened to my mother’s copy of the dictionary after my parents’ house was sold. It looms large in my memory, though. It was my portal not only to the joys of names, “Christian” and otherwise, but also to the glories of all dictionaries, old and new, monolingual and bi-, print and online.
And that’s a happily-ever-after ending after all.