It’s All in the Name

I’ve recently been reading essays on the power of naming, and I thought I would respond to them with a post of my own. Here is a post that coalesces them into a handy-dandy discovery list:

https://discover.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/names/

Names, I think, hold the most vital pieces of identity we can muster. And this isn’t just a comment on our given names, but also within our surnames, titles, and so forth. Names attribute so much of our identity to a single word, so it’s important to get it right. It’s who we are boiled down to a couple of phonetics – it’s a lifelong story in the span of several letters.

Actual Names (and non-names)

My name (AKA: please call me this)

My full name is Melissa Siew Yik Teo, with the Chinese portion of my name amounting to Teo Siew Yik without the English transcription. I don’t really tell people my middle name in fear they’ll butcher it (because they’ll definitely butcher it), but also because rarely has anyone made the effort to learn it when I tell them what it is (the only person outside of my family being my partner). I only use my full name on legal documents and most ID cards (like my driver’s license and my credit cards). Otherwise, Melissa Teo is what I feel most comfortable with.

Pronunciation
General: muh-LIH-sa TEE-yo
IPA: məˈlɪsə ˈteɪoʊ

My non-name (AKA: please do not call me this)

Some people call me Mel, which I’m not a particular fan of, especially now, because it reminds me of Mel Gibson, who I despise. I didn’t always despise Mel Gibson, but I’ve always disliked the name Mel. It was a nickname only used by online friends for a time, which was okay because it was probably easier to type out Mel than Melissa, but now it has started to bleed into some of my social groups in that they’ve verbally called me Mel (insert clip of The Ting Tings’s song, “That’s Not My Name” here).

I spent a lot of time as a kid searching up the meaning of my (English) name because my parents told me they just chose it out of a baby book (kind of wish I had a cooler story – alas). It’s Greek, rooting from μέλι (meli), which means honey. Maybe I wanted to craft a new meaning, or perhaps I wanted people to feel like I had a good grasp of my name (and therefore myself and my identity). Whatever the reasoning was, I knew my name was Melissa, not Mel, and it was important to me that people understood that.

I suppose I can’t blame anybody for calling me Mel since I haven’t explicitly told anybody not to use a shortened form of my name, but it’s still annoying because I’m spiteful and petty. Perhaps it also annoyed me because I’ve never introduced myself as Mel, nor do I respond to it if someone hasn’t called me that before. I’ve also never called myself Mel on social media (i.e. it has never been part of my screen names, usernames, signatures, handles, and so on). Whenever I go to input my name for a website or username, my default goes to the form of [first initial + last name / mteo] or [first name + last name / melissateo], but never [short name + last name / melteo] or anything of the sort.

It’s kind of the same thing as pronouns and using the right ones (which I still struggle with!). If you don’t consent to being called Clarence, why would anyone call you Clarence? Similarly, if you don’t consent to being called “Miss ____”, would you expect someone to call you “Miss ____” anyway?

Wrong names (AKA: just don’t)

I always try to compare the importance of naming to the act of spelling people’s names correctly. My name isn’t extremely hard to spell (I think?), but I’ve gotten the following misspellings over the last couple of years:

  • Melisa
  • Mellisa
  • Mellissa
  • Messila (?)
  • Milessa (?)
  • Milissa (?, as seen in the header image)
  • Malisa (?)
  • Malissa
  • Mellessa (?)
  • Melyssa
  • Melina (??)
  • Michelle (rather common, unfortunately, even though this is a completely different name???)

Some of the above are ridiculous (hence the “?”) given that most of the time these misspellings occurred, I had an email signature to go along with it. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who have a name that’s difficult to spell, or an alternative spelling. To me, not taking the time to get someone’s name right is like saying that they, as people, are not really worth the time (so Starbucks is off the hook for the most part, because they simply write down what they hear to the best of their ability, although that doesn’t make it any less annoying). To me, it feels like a homogenization of individual people into a collective glob of names and faces and personalities.

There was a post I read a long time ago (perhaps on Tumblr) about how someone wanted to name their child something super particular, with a certain pronunciation that would be difficult for most people to pronounce. Their reasoning was that their child would know who they could trust based on who could pronounce their name properly.

Titles

Pet names

Pet names are something that used to bother me a lot. My rule of thumb is that if someone isn’t willing to learn your name (and/or learn how to pronounce it), you probably shouldn’t let them call you anything else until they learn it (also you probably shouldn’t date them, but that’s an aside). Then they’ll be able to get away with calling you things like “babe” and “cutie” but won’t know the tonal patterns of your name – your identity to a great extent!

My partner and I frequently use boo as a pet name, which started off as a joke to pay homage to Aziz Ansari, but over time it became more common for us to call each other that (albeit sarcastically, but we use it more than any other pet name). He also calls me my dear, while I frequently use my darling. These are more affectionate terms, but I also wonder about the possessive “my” in these cases. In the past, I was generally referred to by the relationship I held with a person (“my daughter”, “my girlfriend”, etc.) but it bothered me because every single time I was introduced that way, eventually that’s how I would have been known.

Maybe I feel more comfortable with my current partner using the term “my dear” because I know that he most regularly uses my actual name to refer to me and not a relational title or a pet name.

Relations

Familial

My mother got me a summer job with her company when I was 18, and occasionally they’d bring in customers for a tour of our facility. When they’d come around to my department, they’d introduce everybody by name and title except myself: I remained “Sophie’s daughter, who’s just helping out here for a couple of months” until I left the job (about 4 months ago, to date, which was altogether a span of about 2.5 years) instead of “Melissa, our Junior Transportation Coordinator”.

Spousal

Some family members have also asked me about marriage plans since I started seeing my partner, which includes what goes into deciding what my (or my child’s) last name will be. I always get weird about questions like this because it assumes that A) I’m going to get married (and/or have a child), B) I’ll have enough money for a marriage (and/or a child), and C) I’ll change my last name.

My 12th grade AP English teacher told us about a time when she received mail from family members addressing her and her husband as “Mr. and Mrs. {His First and Last Name}”. She wrote back to the family members with the message: “Mrs. {His First and Last Name} does not live here”.

I don’t think I’d be able to settle for being called “Mrs. {My Partner’s First and Last Name}, let alone take on my partner’s last name, simply because of its historical roots. When a woman got married, she lost her surname and was known as “wife of {her partner’s name}”, as a possession of her husband, and only known in relation to her husband. And even if I did take his last name, I would want to keep my own as well (which would be cumbersome since he has an amalgamated last name between his mother and father’s last names, so adding my own last name to that would be a tri-partite coalescence).

Choosing, Changing, and Restructuring Names and Titles

The most drastic name choice/change I’ve ever done was through my social media handles, and even though it wasn’t anything like a legal name change or anything, it still feels like a bit of an identity. Prada Hag (or PRADAHAG, pragahag) is my latest online alias, and I feel like I’ve grown attached to it in the last little while, which is cool because reflecting back on the other aliases I’ve had, I didn’t feel as strong of a connection to them as I do now. I used to have many aliases, ranging from spacecaptainmelissa, avocadoenthusiast, tres-spooky, hella-noel, quinoaprincess, lildaddio, petitparapluie, among other weird ones (please do not ask me why I chose any of these because the answer, after some deep thought, is “I don’t know, I thought it sounded cool” for each of these). Perhaps it’s because all of my social media handles are under the same name, whereas before I didn’t, but I still feel a certain attachment to my “hag” persona.

The “-hag” portion of my current handle came with a bit of self-depreciation. My sense of humour is usually self-depreciative, but this came after a previous boyfriend decided to use the word to describe me in conversation with some of his friends. Of course, this was shitty and annoying and obviously I wanted to be spiteful about it, so I “took back” the word and turned it into something funny instead (and made it a play-on-words – I imagined myself living in a hut in the forest with a collection of Prada bags).

This notion of “taking back” hurtful/oppressive names is not new – people of African descent have been called the N-word by White oppressors and have been taking it back – it is a word that they (and ONLY they) are allowed to use as a collective because of the historical context of the word. This also goes for the F-word that is used to refer to people of the LGBTQ+ community (in particular, as I’ve seen/heard it used, towards gay people), the G-word in reference to the nomadic Rromani Peoples, and the B-word, in reference to “angry” women.

As a general note, if you’re not Black, don’t say the N-word! If you’re for gay, don’t use the F-word! If you’re not Rromani, don’t use the G-word! If you’re not a woman, don’t use the B-word! Just don’t! You have a vocabulary! There are many words out there you can use! But not those if you don’t belong to those groups!

Positionality and Identity

It’s all in the name, and it’s also all in positionality – what are you known as first and foremost? This was a question that was extremely important to me when I considered how I would represent myself. Most of it is my own personal preference as to how I like to be addressed, but I think the following introductions hold entirely different pragmatic meanings despite being similar syntactically:

  1. Hi! I’m Melissa, his partner. I’m a pre-education student.
  2. Hi! I’m his girlfriend, Melissa. I’m an undergraduate student.

You might be wondering, “What’s the point? You’re getting annoyed over something small! You still have your identity whether or not someone calls you the right name!” The point of being called the right thing is all about recognition – when you recognize others as subjects, as individuals, you are in a better place to understand, respect, and empathize with them (at least that’s my reasoning for learning people’s names). How you use someone’s name (and pronouns, and titles) is a comment on how you see the person as a whole (and likewise, how you use your own name is a comment on how you see yourself, or want yourself to be seen).

Some people have chosen not to capitalize their names so they focus less on their own personal identity and more on their work and what their work encompasses. Such individuals include e. e. cummings and bell hooks.

Furthermore, in a country like Canada, maintaining the respect of other people’s identities and cultures is important (or is supposed to be important – we still have people who think that Canada is somehow White Man’s Land despite the fact that colonizers stole it from the Indigenous Peoples – anyway). Thus, knowing what someone wants to be called and how it’s supposed to be said is vital to sustaining that connection between one’s roots and surroundings.

It’s also important that we call people the right thing because someone’s name can subject them to social erasure and violence. This is exemplified through the following acts (which is not necessarily limited to these two acts):

  1. Calling a transgender person the wrong name and/or pronouns, especially if they have explicitly stated that they prefer to be called a certain name and/or use certain pronouns. Failure to recognize the proper name and pronoun of a transgender individual erases their identity and ignores their rights as an individual. However, in choosing to be called a certain name and use certain pronouns, the act of naming has also placed transgender people in vulnerable positions, where if people realize that they are transgender they are more likely to suffer violence and abuse because of the “discrepancy” between their sex and gender.
  2. Calling someone with a racialized name the wrong name subjects racialized people to erasure, but possessing a racialized name can also subject the racialized individual to stereotyping, discrimination, and violence based on the social connotations that certain “types” of names maintain (ex. in particular, names that derive from the Middle East or are “associated” with Islam, or names of African descent).

How do names impact you? What is the importance of your name? Is it all in your name as it is in mine?

 

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Self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades. Intersectional feminist. Educator/linguist in training. Fashionista, food-lover, and fairly poor hand-eye coordination.

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