What’s in a name?

As it turns out, my father’s friend, Craig, isn’t Irish. My father, apparently, was mistaken about this for decades. Not because he asked, or even really because he thought about it. Craig’s last name sounded sort of Irish, so he assumed he was, and that’s as far as the thought process went. Then twenty-odd years of friendship passed, and, this being the time of COVID-19, where talking about anything in your daily life inevitably bumps up against the state of the world— a subject thoroughly exhausted in every other conversation you’ve had in the last five months— so you either say “nothing” or you turn to minutiae. The truly mundane. This is how the truth came out. Not Irish. Not even a little. He’s Swedish. 

A similar sort of conversational avoidance while on the phone last Sunday morning led my father to share the news with me as I drove, somewhat sleepily, to meet a friend at a park, where we would sit six feet apart.

“Did you know he wasn’t Irish?”

“Well, how often do last names even relate to heritage at this point? After all, nobody would know from your last name that you’re 1% Native American.” (He’s very proud of being as Native American as Elizabeth Warren.) “And look at me,” I pointed out. (My last name is distinctly Japanese. I am distinctly not.) 

“Most people assume that women’s last names don’t tell you much.” 

“Except maybe how many goats I’m worth and to who,” I said. “Whom?” 

(I’m insecure about my grammar. Who versus whom, when to say effect, when to say affect. I know enough to know what I don’t know, and that’s just enough to make a person insecure.) 

“Just say who. Even when it’s right, ‘whom’ sounds snobby,” he said. 

“That’s depressing,” I said. “The thing about women’s names. Not about whom.” 

“And then there are women who don’t change their names at all, so I guess it really doesn’t tell you much about who she married, either.” 

Here’s where I wish I’d asked my father, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Except I know that it wouldn’t. Scientists have studied this, and the name of a thing does change how something smells. A last name can make a people assume you’re Irish. My Japanese last name, which does not match my distinctly not-Japanese face, tells anybody I meet that I’m the sort of woman who would change her name for a man. That’s something not even I knew until, in a fit of premarital exuberance, I slung my arms around my husband’s neck, leaned back to get a good look at him, and offered to. “We’ll get team jerseys,” I said. Then, in my memory, I kissed him. 

Here’s where I wish I’d asked, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Except I know that it wouldn’t.

Even in the moment, the implications of the metaphor struck me. Trading names like trading jerseys means being traded. Like a commodity. That’s where marriage comes from, and in parts of the world, that’s still how it is treated. I ignored all that, because I was in love. I thought it would be romantic, and I actually liked the last name. My maiden name contained too many vowels to spell correctly on the first try. If not for the prospect of a phonetically spelled surname, I might not have followed through on this romantic declaration, but the last name being offered to me was decidedly a name upgrade. Plus, I didn’t know how much dang work it was going to be to actually complete the process. 

If you’re looking for evidence that marriage is not an equal prospect, just look to the paperwork. My husband and I signed the same marriage license, and I signed my new name,  thinking that was that. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. This is where his job ended. He’d done it. He was married. I was just beginning. I needed a new drivers license, passport, social security card. Once I had new identification, of course that meant my bank accounts needed new information, along with anyone who sent me mail. Thank God I made the change in an era where magazine subscriptions are a thing of the past. (Actually, no. I miss magazines, but not so much that I’m actually going to subscribe to any. RIP magazine industry.)

If I’d understood that I was volunteering not just for the romantic notion of sharing a name with my husband, whose last name was superior to mine, but also for three hours waiting at the social security office, would I still have done it? Probably not. If I’d known that UPS delivery men would pause when I signed for a package and ask me about my husband’s race? I don’t know. I love my name; I love my husband; I love my life. 

And I resent a few things. 

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Hmm… I’m pondering the fact that I have no recollection of all the paperwork. I wonder if there was less of it in the 70’s or if it was easier because we were not so concerned about identity theft?


  2. Pingback: These Acts of Violence | Suddenly Suburban

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