We do not have a choice when it comes to the name, or names, our parents give us at birth – and, more often than not, we have no power over that naming process when we are children, though adolescents do rebel. Many children I taught asked me to call them by a name not on the register, and I was always happy to do this.
I was Christened Alienora Judith Browning. The ‘Alienora’ was taken, as I have said before, from the Browning Family Tree (an Alienora Fitznickle, who lived in the fourteenth century and married Sir John Browning) – and, although I can see that it is both unusual and, in its own way, beautiful, it has been, in many ways, the bane of my life.
Or one of them…
Brief summary: I was teased, taunted and bullied physically about my name, and my ‘posh’ accent, when at primary school in Headington (a suburb of Oxford). Few teachers were able to pronounce the name correctly (often giving it four, instead of five, syllables) – and I was too shy and introverted (even at secondary school) to correct them. This, of course, made the bullying worse, as the nasty little kids, and then teenage girls, picked up on every gaffe made by a teacher and used it pointedly.
Worse still, my parents – who agreed on little – were unable to reach a compromise in terms of my name in every-day life, so each called me by a different moniker. ‘Alienora’, however, was the name by which I was told off and shouted at from my earliest days.
My sense of personal identity, weak from childhood onward, was not helped by the Name Conundrum. I wasn’t sure who I was.
But this post is not just about me! Many of my friends have changed their names completely. For some, the original name was associated with unhappiness, even abuse; for others, Body Dysmorphia and/or Gender Dysphoria have created great anguish and a need to adopt a name more suited to the inner, emotional or preferred gender.
I absolutely respect this (and both identify and sympathise) – and, although I am assuming that each person had a birth name, am not interested in ferreting that information out (unless the individual chooses to share it with me for their own reasons): To me, each one IS the name – and, indeed, the gender – he or she has chosen. End of!
I think that, in the end, we are the name we choose. We are under no obligation to keep a name we personally find difficult, a name which comes from a gender we no longer wish to embrace, a name which has traumatic associations.
It is nobody else’s business, either. It is not up to others to sneer at us for our names or condemn us for the act of changing them. Names are an essential part of our identity, and for some of us – and I am one of them – the name we were given by our parents does not enhance, match or support the person we actually are inside (though, in my case, Alienora is a cracking name for a writer).
When I was in my late teens, I opted to call myself ‘Ali’ – and have stuck to this decision, albeit waveringly at times, ever since. I do not give anyone permission to call me by my babyhood nickname any more (other, that is, than my four siblings if they wish).
If a name is used as a weapon, it is very difficult to reclaim it safely. As I said in a much shorter status on Facebook, my full name was intimately bound up with punitive measures, taunting and bullying from the age of four onward. It was a name that made me feel profoundly powerless, left out, unsafe and isolated.
I will always be Alienora…
But, for the first time in my life, I am asserting myself with regard to the name I wish to be actively called: Ali.