What’s in a name?
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare said, correctly, but most names also come with stories, and many times those stories are fun to tell.
I honestly do not understand how Facebook works about 75 percent of the time, but while activating my new phone this weekend and re-signing in to all my apps — I know this process has gotten significantly easier, but it’s still one of the (seemingly growing number of) technological tasks that can make the idea of living in a past century without air conditioning or flushing toilets seem quaint and desirable — I found a Facebook message that I had apparently received a little more than a month ago.
“I guess it has been about 30 years big guy,” it said. (I’ve lightly edited the messages for formatting and to remove a few personal details.)
I looked up Sean first since I thought it might be less common than Danny and found you were one of his friends. Thinking about the old days and wondering how you and the rest of the O’Byrne clan were doing. Hope all is well.
Unless there’s been some sort of tear in the space-time continuum (I don’t really know what that means, but, actually, maybe that has already happened, what with the seemingly improbable yet nonetheless impending Trumpocalypse bearing down on us?), it would be impossible for it to have been 30 years since I’ve seen anyone, at least in this life.
I was not confused, though. This has happened a few times since I entered adulthood. Not this exactly — this is the first Facebook message I’ve received — but I share a name with someone who runs in similar circles as me, so weird things happen.
Hi, [Facebook guy]. I did not see this until now — sorry! Facebook sometimes buries messages from people you’re not connected with or something? I can never figure it out.
Anyway, you mention Sean, and I assume you mean my uncle Sean — I’m Danny Jr. It’s nice to meet you, though. I gather you and my dad and the O’Byrne clan were childhood friends? I can give you my dad’s email — he’s not too big on the Facebook scene: [e-mail address].
There are other Daniel/Danny/Dan O’Byrnes out there besides my dad and me, though there seem to be very few in the United States. I don’t know how much I thought about it when I was younger, but I’ve grown quite fond of my name. I like that I’m named after my dad — it’s “Dan” and “Danny” now, but Dan Sr.’s childhood acquaintances still know him as Danny and may or may not know me as anything at all, which has led to some confusion and, for me, amusement at gatherings here and there.
I like my name’s unrelenting Irishness — Daniel Francis O’Byrne. Daniel Francis O’Byrne Junior! If it involved a suffix and an audible exclamation point, it was coming from my mom’s mouth, and it’s likely I then pretended I didn’t hear her the first time in order to try to discern why I was in trouble and to formulate a defense strategy. A few seconds later, it would be a shortened Daniel Francis!, and it was time for the reckoning.
But now it’s not hard to imagine that instead of trying to convey impending doom, my mom was simply belting lyrics from a modernized version of an Irish folk classic:
Daniel Francis O’Byrne Jr.!
Oh Danny Boy, the pipes the pipes are calling
from glen to glen and down the mountain side
the summer’s gone and all the flowers dying
it’s you it’s you must go andI must bide
but come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
it’s I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny Boy my Danny Boy I love you so
I like that I can tell right away that someone is smart if they pronounce the name correctly — oh burn. Pronouncing it incorrectly does NOT indicate a lack of smartness (I’m a name butcher myself, and I’m not stupid, I don’t think), but pronouncing it correctly DOES indicate the presence of smartness, 100 percent of the time. It does not bother me when it’s pronounced incorrectly, though — it can exacerbate an already upset state, certainly (think: on the phone with a cellular company customer service representative, which is already a situation that causes heightened blood pressure by itself), but that act of mispronunciation alone is not bothersome.
On the contrary, who wants a name that everyone can pronounce? No one’s remembering Adam Smith, or at least not immediately differentiating one Adam Smith from another. But Daniel — “I usually go by Danny, but I’ll respond to whatever,” I’ll say — O’Byrne, there’s a name someone might remember without any additional act of note on my part. That’s great for me, since I like to save my limited supply of notable acts for use during extenuating circumstances.
Here’s a story that I like to tell when I want to highlight my courageousness, for lack of any actual stories of courageousness.
Freshman year of high school, first day — a nervous, vulnerable time for any youth. It turns out that in one class, I am one of an abnormally large number of Daniels — four in all, plus the teacher. Dan Kenney. Mr. Kenney.
So on this first day, he went through the class roster, as most teachers did, top to bottom, and when your name was called, you were to raise your hand and then make sure to inform Mr. Kenney of your preferred name, i.e. John instead of Jonathan, Mike instead of Michael, Danny instead of Daniel.
So Mr. Kenney starts moving through the list, and we arrive at our first Daniel, who raises his hand. (These quotes are paraphrased since this was 14[!] years ago, but this is how I remember them, and I’m fairly certain they’re 99 percent accurate.)
Daniel #1: “I go by Dan.”
Mr. Kenney: “Good choice. My name is also Daniel, and I just hate ‘Danny.’ It’s the worst. I always thought it made me sound like a little kid. Dan it is.”
This was a religion class, so I started to pray for spontaneous combustion, or a fire alarm, or something, anything that would prevent getting to the O’s on that list.
Daniel #2: “I go by Dan, too.”
Mr. Kenney: “Excellent. Love it. You’ve made a wise choice, a choice that will ensure your future success.”
I was Daniel No. 3. It was honestly 50/50 between making the spur-of-the-moment switch to Dan for the rest of my life — starting high school, time to grow up, entering adulthood — or making a stand for Dannys worldwide.
“I, uh, well, I, actually, you know, I like to go by Danny, so.”
BOOM. A tour de force, the reviews would have called it. The quick wit. The steely-eyed determination. Refusing to back down. What grace! What courage!
Everyone had a good laugh about it, and Mr. Kenney noted that he was just speaking for himself, Dan was just what he preferred, Danny is a perfectly acceptable option. As it turned out, Daniel No. 4 went by Danny as well. I never talked to him about it, but no doubt my demonstration of unwavering strength provided the wind beneath his wings.
I like that my name can lead to accidental Facebook connections that lead to O’Byrne history lessons.
“Sorry. I did think you were your dad,” the Facebook guy responded.
It does not surprise me he doesn’t do Facebook. Your dad’s family moved to Battle Creek, Mich., when he was in 3rd or 4th grade I think. They lived on [street name] Street just over 4 blocks from my house on [other street name] Street. He was a year behind me in school and Sean was 2 years ahead of me. We went to [school name] Elementary together and then your dad transferred to the Catholic school in town. I went to public school.
Sean was in public school in junior high so he was at [school name] Junior High in 9th grade when I was in 7th. I think your dad moved to Butler, Penn., before his junior year in HS, but I don’t remember exactly. He then moved to Omaha and I came out there (sometime between 1985 and 1988 — I know I was married, but we didn’t have kids yet). Thanks for the email address. I will try to drop him a line sometime. After he got married we lost touch.
I know I complained about this technology stuff like a crank at the top of this piece, but, seriously, what a time to be alive, when the globe can be reduced to a few fiber-optic cables.
What about some of the other weird stuff that happens since my dad and I share a name? Sometimes there are bonafide advantages.
My dad used to get a season pass to the Henry Doorly Zoo every year, and in those days, if you “forgot” the pass, you could simply present your driver’s license and they would look you up. I’d present my license, they’d look up “Daniel O’Byrne,” and if they inquired about the differing address, I’d inform them of my recent move and that I was certainly planning on updating that when I renewed my pass the next year.
Probably about a year ago, I learned that my dad and I both have accounts at the same banking institution. This lesson was imparted on me after the bank moved a fairly large amount of money from my savings account to his checking account as he prepared to embark on a vacation. This seems a rather significant error for a bank to make! I wonder if some random Warren Buffett in Columbus, Ohio, ever ends up with the occasional extra $6 million?
Here’s some advice for others who share a name with someone who runs in similar circles (whether that circle is “immediate family” or a little wider) — always double-check and follow up.
“I’d like to check in to my hotel room, and I just want to make sure you’re looking at the reservation for Daniel Jr. It should be a Lincoln address, not an Omaha address.”
Oh, you’re right, I was looking at the wrong one. That must happen a lot hahahahaha.
“Hi, I need to cancel my cable package because it’s gotten too expensive and also you’re literally the worst.”
OK, Mr. Oh Brien. Can I maybe offer you a slimmed-down, cheaper package?
“No, but please make sure you’re not canceling Dan Sr.’s cable, but rather Danny Jr.’s cable. What’s the address you have on the account?”
Let’s talk punctuation.
My dad was recently married. Sometime shortly after the wedding, my step-mom was introduced to the wonders of the in-name apostrophe! All the fellow apostrophe-havers out there know what I’m talking about. Behold this simple email:
Family — I’ve been having trouble getting emails. They have changed my work email address to [first name].OByrne@[rest of email].
I don’t know how many people in the world have apostrophes in their first, middle, or last names, but it has to be hundreds of millions. And yet! Our IT systems still cannot handle them.
When I was a child, I remember listening to my parents on the phone with various vendors and other people, and they were obviously already apostrophe-problem veterans, because when it came time for the name on the pizza delivery order, they both said it the same every time: “Oh burn — oh, apostrophe, capital bee, why, are, en, ee … no — are, en, ee … yes, that’s correct.”
I think I once asked, although this could be fictionalized now that I’m on the inside: “Why do you go through all that? Just say o-b-y-r-n-e.” Silly, naïve child!
This is now a very common exchange for me virtually anywhere I need to check in, pick something up, or otherwise register for or confirm anything:
“I need to pick up my dry cleaning.”
What’s the name?
“Oh burn, Oh, apostrophe, capital bee, why, are, en, ee.”
Hmmm, I’m not seeing it.
“Try it without the apostrophe.”
Nope, not there.
“Try it with the apostrophe but with a lower-case ‘B’.”
Sorry, no luck.
“Try it with a space instead of an apostrophe between the ‘O’ and the ‘B.’ Sometimes that works.”
Oh, yes, there it is! Are you still at N. 177th St.?
“Nope, that’s my dad.”
Oh, I’m sorry, what’s your first name again?
“No, I mean, it’s the same name, but I’m a junior. Maybe it’s under ‘Danny.’”
You’re right! There it is. Thanks for your patience, Mr. O’Brien.
/picks up computer monitor, throws it through window
And yet, how charming, how mine! How unique it is to be an O’Byrne.
I’m betting everyone develops their own name stories, building blocks for personal narratives. Even Adam Smith! “Hi, I’m Adam, Adam Smith, not the philosopher, although I’ve been known to philosophize from time to time, hahaha.” When we think of names and their stories, we most often think of their histories, their lineage, which great-grandfather came over on which boat and when the name changed to avoid religious or racial persecution, and this is great, and it’s important, and I swear I’m going to learn more about the O’Byrnes someday.
But while every name has a history, every person has a story, and sometimes a major part of that story is a name. What’s in your name?
Here’s my dad’s response to the Facebook messages I forwarded to him:
I saw 1974 Knicks play the Pistons with [Facebook guy]. Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Willis Reed, Bob Lanier and Dave Bing.
The shorts were SHORT!