Exploring yOur (inherited) identity
Years ago, a girl who worked in my office announced one day that from now on she wanted to be known by a new name. I thought, how strange! It was very confusing and I never quite got used to it. Then a few years later I was given a new name.
The one thing that identifies us most specifically in this world is probably the thing we think the least about: our name.
What’s in a name, anyway?
ANcient Naming ConVentions
First name, given name. Given by our parents based on tradition, current culture, geography, the alphabet, a whim. Last name or family name, handed down the patrilineal line from who knows when, deriving from a distant ancestor whose profession defined him (was a blacksmith, a weaver, a potter). Or signifying the region he grew up in. Or from a father’s name modified by an identifier of paternity¹. Sometimes a slip of the pen at Ellis island created a new lineage in an instant out of haste or ignorance or out of a desire to start anew in a new land, to not stand out, to just blend in and get on with it.
Names come into fashion and become outdated and disappear only to reappear years later when they become fashionable again. Just like hemlines and lapel sizes, they are a reflection of the times we live in. The most popular names of 2017 are Sophia, Olivia, Emma, Jackson, Liam and Noah.
In 1975 we had Jennifer, Amy, Heather, Michael, Jason and Christopher. Some parents name their children after a favorite sports or political or entertainment figure. There were many John F’s in the Kennedy era. I met a kid the other day who’s name is Gear. I asked how his parents came up with that name and he told me that Gear is a character in a Stephen King novel. His parents thought it was a cool name.
Some families go with a letter: Judy Jennifer and Janet are 3 sisters I know. Their daughters are Juliet, and Jane. In Quebec all boys are given the official first name Joseph on government documents; all girls: Mary. In Quebec, your second or third name is the one you go by in the world. There is a village in Macedonia where all girls used to be named after fruit, plants and birds. Take that, Gwyneth’s daughter Apple! When a woman married she became known by her husband’s name feminized by the addition of a suffix meaning “wife of”.
Name Change, Game Change?
Most of us don’t generally mess with our names. Some have nicknames. Last names often change for women when they marry; not so much for men, though. Artists are known to play around with their names: actors and musicians often take a stage name; writers sometimes take a nom de plume or pen name. Disciples of eastern spiritual practices are sometimes given a new name by their guru to symbolize a letting go of old beliefs.
Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin had to become George Sand so she could write and get published and taken seriously. Jon Stewart used to be Jonathan Leibowitz; Barack Obama was Barry for a while and then went back to Barack (Hebrew and Arabic name meaning “lightning”).
Head, Heart, Gut
I had been studying belly dancing (of all things!) and I was obsessed. I had joined a dance troupe. I didn’t join seeking fame, lol. I just wanted to be the best dancer I could be, for myself. But I admit a part of me was secretly curious about performing. I wanted to do it just once, to see if I could, to see what it felt like.
The leader of the troupe wanted us all to have exotic/sexy/mysterious names. Our stage names should have several syllables and lots of a’s. Some of the dancers had chosen their stage names but I hadn’t. Mainly because I thought it was dumb. And, really: who did they think they were taking another name?!
I ignored the exotic names and kept dancing. And I did perform with the troupe. And I did it again. And with each performance I kept getting better. Until I knew – this was something I really wanted to do! ( At that point I had no idea I would work professionally as a dancer and teacher for over a decade.)
One night the leader looked at me and said, “I’m going to give you a name.”
And I said, “OK.”
She closed her eyes and channeled the goddess of belly dance names and I was suddenly Safiya.
Soul Power, On Tap
S A F I Y A. I liked it. Safiya is an Arabic name that means “pure” or “clear”. When French writer Gustave Flaubert went to Egypt in 1849-50 he was seduced and fell in love with a bellydancer named Safiya. Safiye is the Turkish equivalent. Wikipedia says no, but I think Safiya is related to Sophia, goddess of wisdom. Safiya, my hero.
That was in the late 1990s so I’ve been Safiya for almost 20 years! Although I’m not dancing now, that identity, that persona, that spirit is still with me. She has been laying low for a while, gone underground.
I wish I could call upon her now as I did in my bellydance era, but for some reason we’ve been estranged. Before every gig for many years I had a huge “who do you think you are” moment. “You think you are a bellydancer???! No way! Too fat, not beautiful enough, not good enough, not, not, not!”
I would sit in the bathroom struggling to do my makeup and think, “How am I ever going to do this?”
But for some reason it was urgently important that I do it. I had to. Then I’d remember Safiya and I’d ask her to take over. And sure enough she would step up and do the impossible: she’d get the eyeliner just right and make the hair big and wavy. She’d get out there in front of a room full of strangers and show them my deepest, most powerful self. And it felt amazing.
What’s in a name?
A portal to the self that was wounded or shut down by damaged and unfulfilled parents and random circumstances.
A heroine to swoop in and do the impossible. Sometimes when all else fails the only way forward is to decide be someone else for a while.
The Name Game
Things to think about:
- How did u get your given name?
- Are you named after anyone? Family member? Celebrity? Character? How do you feel about this person?
- Look up derivation what does your name mean?
- How do you feel about your name? Like? Don’t like? Just got used to it?
- What new name would you take if you decided to go by another name?
- Try it out: take the Jimbo challenge (see DK’s Jimbo story)
- For example, the suffix -son as Thompson, son of Thomas; the prefix O’ as O’Henry, son of Henry; in Slavic languages: suffix variants -vich, -off, -ov -ski, as in Michailovich, son of Michael
- Identity: from the Latin idem, “sameness, oneness, the state of being the same.”
- Persona: from Latin persona, “human being, person, assumed character; originally a mask, false face;” related to, personare, “to sound through.”
- Alter ego: Latin, alter, “to become otherwise;” ego, “the self; that which feels, acts or thinks.”