The Stories I Tell ~ from The Word Cellar

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I love stories. I'm the one at social functions with a dozen new anecdotes. But I worry about hogging the conversation. Sometimes I tell myself that I'll be quiet and let others do the talking. But no matter how hard I try, my stories insist on bursting out! Here I can let my stories (the classics that I tell again and again, as well as new ones that unfold along the way) run free. I'm a professional writer and editor, and sole proprietor of The Word Cellar. I write for a variety of publications and clients on everything from green buildings and nuclear reactors to entrepreneurship and the arts. If you need words written, edited, or enlivened, I can help. Contact me.

6.29.2008

What We Call Ourselves (Part 2)


I sit down in the chair at the hair salon and Stacy, my stylist, says to me, "I have to tell you something. My name's not really Stacy." She's completely deadpan about this. I ask her if she's in the witness protection program and suggest that she not reveal her true identity. I don't want to end up at the bottom of a river somewhere. She glosses over my joke and says, "My name's not really Stacy. It's Jody."

Turns out that when Jody started working at the salon, there was already a Joni working there. And the receptionists couldn't distinguish who clients were asking for over the phone. So Jody, being the newbie, was forced to choose a new name. Thus, Stacy was born.

About a year after I started going to Stacy, Joni quit. And Stacy became Jody once more. But here's the thing: She was totally a Stacy. Even now, I sometimes have trouble remembering her real name. To me, Jody is the essence of Stacy.

What's in a name? I disagree with Shakespeare. I'm not so sure roses would still smell as sweet by any other name. Words in general, and names in particular, mean a lot to me. Just a small change in spelling affects how I perceive a word, even if the pronunciation doesn't change. For me, the words "gray" and "grey" are completely separate colors and ideas. (Grey is always much nicer, by the way.) Start mucking about with the pronunciation and my world turns topsy-turvy. An American to-may-to and a British to-mah-to might as well be completely different vegetables. (Okay, different fruits.)

What we call ourselves shapes us. Our names meld with us, becoming part of the fabric of our being. They also give us shape, acting as a sort of architecture on which other people can hang their understanding of us. Names become nearly inseparable from who we are. But what do you do if you don't feel like your name fits?

I had a friend in college named Katherine, but she went by Kat. After she graduated, she decided that Kat didn't really suit her and started calling herself Kate. That was fine for her new, post-college friends, but the rest of us had trouble letting go of Kat. I still have a hard time adding that extra "e" and remembering to make the long vowel sound in the middle. To me, Kat(e) will always be Kat, even though I honor her wish to be called Kate.

My failed attempt to rebrand myself from Jenn to Jenna wasn't the first name makeover I'd attempted. When I was much younger and people called me Jenny, I decided on "Jennie-with-an-i-e" instead of "Jenny-with-a-y." I chose that spelling, of course, because it seemed so much more sophisticated than "Jenny-with-a-y." But really, how sophisticated can the name Jenny get? It's young and cutesy. Perky, even. It's also the term for a female donkey. So essentially Jenny is an ass. It's also a type of bird, a jenny wren, which is rather sweet. (As is the Paul McCartney song of the same name.) And also? Jenny is the name of the world's oldest gorilla in captivity. It turns out that Jenny is really quite diverse.

Nowadays, the only people who still call me Jennie are a few family members and one friend from college. (She's Jessie and I'm Jennie. I think we should be characters in series of children's books about solving mysterious crimes.) The year I lived in England, people automatically shortened my name to Jenny. I'd say, "Hello, I'm Jennifer." And they'd say, "Hallo, Jenny!" I let it slide due to the accent. (That accent will let you get away with a lot. Just try it. Tell off the next person you see using a British accent and see what happens. They'll probably ask you out for fish 'n chips. Or spit on you. Proceed at your own risk.)

I never really liked my name until I discovered that it derives from Guinevere, which was Gwenhwyfar in the original Welsh. Still, I hated how commonplace Jennifer was. (This belies deep-seated insecurities, I'm sure.) When I grew out of my Jennie phase, I needed something more mature. This essentially meant that I needed something with as few syllables but as many letters as possible. And so Jennie became Jenn. I loved that second "n". I cherished it like it was my lifeline to individuality. It showed the world that although I had the most common name for girls my age, I had put some serious thought into my nickname. It gave me an edge. A certain je ne sais quoi. That's a heavy burden, even for such a stout little letter.

I still go by Jenn to almost everyone who ends up knowing me in person for longer than a month. But here's the thing: I think I might actually be a Jenna. I squashed that urge 14 years ago, but it's been floating around in the back of my consciousness ever since.

Would it be weird to start calling myself by a new name at the age of 32? Could my friends ever add that final vowel with any real level of comfort? Or would they forever be saying "Jenn" and then tacking a hasty "a"' on the end so it sounds like "Jenn...a"? In my professional and online worlds, I introduce myself as Jennifer. But when people actually call me Jennifer, it feels a bit foreign. In essence, I guess I could end up with four names: Jenn to most of my existing friends and family members; Jennie to a select few; Jennifer to business contacts; and Jenna to anyone I meet from here on out.

I'm not ready to make any changes just yet. Names get into our being. They're part of the story we tell to ourselves and about ourselves. I don't know if I can cast aside Jenn or Jennifer for Jenna. Plus, my husband is the only person who calls me Jenna. Do I want to offer up that name to just anyone, or keep it as a sort of sweet secret between us?

What do you call yourself?


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7 Comments:

Blogger nejyerf said...

being a fellow jennifer i can relate to this name dilemma.

growing up i was one of several jennifer in my school.

my grandfather called me "jennykins" i hated and loved it at the same time.

i refer to myself as jen but yet in a business setting it is always jennifer.

when i met my husband(then boyfriend) i was not that surprised to find out that he had a sister named jennifer. after all we were both born in 1972 and she too had a 50/50 chance to be named either jennifer or michelle.

the family was confused until i let them know that i preferred to be called "JEN". and she continued to be called jenny. problem solved.

when i was in college, i used the name mabel when i went out partying. it was different, unique and set me apart from the other girls. but in the end if i wanted him to call me i had to admit that i was just an ordinary jen.

the thing that struck me the oddest was going from jen with my maiden last name to jen with my married last name. because, not only did i have a new last name but somehow i had also become a mrs. and moved to a new state where people only knew me as jen with the married last name. so i a way i did become a new person.

good luck in your quest to find the right name.

jennifers united!!

6/30/2008 5:49 PM  
OpenID heidiannie said...

Names are so much a part of your identity-I'm really too old to still be Heidi-I didn't like it much as a kid( everyone named their German Shepherds Heidi)- and some toymaker made a doll named Heidi, which would have been fine if the commercial didn't have this inane commercial with a stupid little jingle about raising her arm and calling out" Hi Heidi! "
But I could live with it because I was young and blonde and cute and (when they weren't thinking about their dogs)most people thought I looked like a Heidi. Now I'm 54 and most Heidi's are 30 or younger and my name belongs to some one else. I don't really have a name for myself- when I'm thinking about myself I think "Hey, you-listen up!" Although my user name for Livejournall is heidiannie- and that is worse than just Heidi!!!

7/01/2008 7:35 PM  
Anonymous Lisa said...

When I was little, my play name for myself was Jessica Robinson! I have no idea where that came from, but she was the person I wanted to be. I put fake little ID cards in my kiddie wallet with that name written on them. I pretended to have credit cards and checks for Jessica Robinson, too.

Otherwise, I'm still - and probably always will be Lisa :-0

And, as long as I can still call you 'friend', I'll be glad to refer to you by any name you choose :-)

Great post, by the way. I've been aware lately of the limitations we place on ourselves by the names we chose and the stories we tell. Tough stuff to overcome.

I sometimes (more often lately, actually) have fantasies of moving some place where I'm totally unknown and can be anonymous. Then I could choose who I want to be and how I want to define myself. I often wonder what I would keep, what I would leave behind, and what parts of me I am totally unaware of that would just stay no matter what.

7/02/2008 9:01 PM  
Blogger tj said...

You're a miracle of sorts - I stumbled upon your blog and you made me smile with your words. That's amazing! You see, I've had a terrible day that was getting worse by the minute, the type of day that kicks you in the gut when you're already in the gutters. So thank you my randomly rare find!

Keep up the blogging, tj

7/03/2008 3:16 PM  
Blogger bella said...

I changed my name for reasons that are somewhat complicated to get into.
but doing it was a big step for me, in giving me back my own life. I loved picking out my own name. And yet, I also have always felt the importance of names and choosing my son's name felt like a big deal to me. So I see it both ways. :)
few things bother me in the same way as meeting someone and feeling like they just don't have the right name. :)

7/05/2008 5:13 PM  
Blogger jen said...

To my family and everyone 'back home' I'm Jennifer. To my husband, best friends, and everyone I've known since college, I'm Jen. It just sort of worked out that way.

It's funny to watch my mom stumble over my name when she comes to visit. She's so used to calling me Jennifer, but when everyone else is calling me Jen it make her a little tongue tied!

I once knew a gal who completely changed her name. First and last, from something ordinary to a combination of crayola crayon names. When I asked her why she did it she simply said, "I wanted completely separate from my family."

Well, alrighty, then.

7/06/2008 1:05 AM  
Anonymous Claire said...

Well you can do a lot with the name jennifer. When you have a one syllable name like CLaire, you're a bit stuck for alternatives.

I was once on a Christian holiday where I chose to go by the name Megan, comments in my little book which everyone signed at the end of the week are all addressed to Megan. who only knows why I picked that name, I think it was an unusual name at that point, now every other small british girl is called it.

I do go by my middle name - but it is reserved for my father and I won't even let my boyfriends call me that. But I have to say I don't think I look like a Claire but I haven't yet found a name which matches my face.

C x

7/14/2008 10:10 AM  

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