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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Call Me, Tweet Me: A rose is happy to be called a rose

Published: September 7, 2012
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

Pre-birth, I had several different names, and none of them were Leah. First, I was Spot. After the first ultrasound, I was reduced to Speck, because my parents didn’t realize just how tiny embryonic me actually was. As I grew, I became Spike. For a brief period, I was Samuel Wolfe. Upon entering the world, I became Leah Ruth.

I didn’t have much choice in the matter, but I’m glad it stuck. I’m not a fan of the history of the name Leah (check out the Bible if you’re curious), but I like the way it sounds. Ruth is perfect—it’s been a family name for four generations, and the book of Ruth tells the most beautiful conversion story, reminiscent of my parents’ interfaith marriage and my mother’s conversion.

Eventually, I will likely change my last name (Finkelman is kind of a mouthful), but other than that, I have no plans to rename myself. To take the initiative of changing your own name usually indicates a desire to change people’s perception of you, something I don’t feel the need to do.

If I did, however, I’d be joining the ranks of many people for whom the name change stemmed from deep moral and ideological beliefs. I’d be joining people like Isabella Baumfree, who became Sojourner Truth after “the Spirit call[ed] her.” I’d be joining people like Jacob, who became Israel after “wrestling with God.” I’d be joining people like Malcolm Little, who became Malcolm X in protest of the last name likely given to his enslaved ancestors by their owners.

I could also join the countless celebrities who have “Americanized” their ethnic-sounding names (Leah Ruth Finkelman isn’t exactly straight-off-the-Mayflower). If I were looking for a quick change, I could join Facebook treasures like “BigBooty Joody” and “NuNu GaDatDoughFaReAL*<3 Johnson.” I’m thinking Leah floatlykabutterflyystinglykabeeee Finkelman. I’ll get back to you.

The key factor in these name changes, however, is that they were all self-embraced, rather than forced upon the bearer by others.

I was recently reunited with my sorority sister, Lyuba (pronounced loo-buh). On a whim, I decided to instead call her Lubz (pronounced loobz). I told her that was the plan, and asked if she was OK with it. She laughed and said yes, so that’s what I’ve been calling her for the past few days—I’ve experimented with Lubzie and other disambiguations, but nothing other than Lubz has stuck. I asked, she approved, so now she’s Lubz.

Maya Angelou, the prolific author and poet, writes about her one-sided name change in her 1969 memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” At the age of 10, Angelou, who still went by her birth name, Marguerite, began to work in the kitchen of the Cullinan family.

One day, Mrs. Cullinan had her lady friends over, and Angelou was serving drinks on the porch when a friend asked her name. Mrs. Cullinan answered for her, explaining that her name was Margaret and she didn’t talk much.

The other woman’s response? “Well, that may be, but the name’s too long. I’d never bother myself. I’d call her Mary if I was you.” This, understandably, prompted Angelou to decide that she “wouldn’t pee on her if she was on fire.”

The name caught on until Angelou found a suitable way to remove herself from the service of Mrs. Cullinan.

This example is rather extreme, given the position of authority of Mrs. Cullinan and her friend, but people still make up names for others. My mother, Patricia, often jokes that if someone calls asking for Pat, it’s either a telemarketer, who can’t be bothered to say her name, or a friend from elementary or high school, when her kindergarten teacher shortened her name for no apparent reason and it caught on.

Your name is an essential part of your personal identity, whether you like it or not. Your name can give clues about your heritage, your gender, your family, your race and other factors that constitute who you are, and what makes you unique. I am Leah Finkelman, I am not my sister, Micah, nor am I any other Leah who has ever lived. I am an individual.

It’s something of a social contract, in which society affirms that you are an individual, someone who has never been and someone who never will be again. To go ahead and change someone’s name without their consent is indicative of a complete disregard for your identity, especially if it’s used out of convenience, rather than affection.

A rose by any other name still smells as sweet, but it’s probably offended that you don’t care enough to just call it a rose.