What's In a Name?

One of my pieces of advice that I don’t adhere to myself nearly enough is “Never read the comments.” The discourse of Web 2.0 has been a disaster for kindness, generosity, and careful thought. The comments are almost always spoiled before too long by someone who just has nothing to bring to the party but meanness. As the science fiction writer John Scalzi says, “the fail mode of clever is asshole.”

Anyway, I was put in mind of this by coming across a review of my book yesterday, a kind of a dumb review on kind of a dumb website. And one of the comments was “With a name like Herb Childress, he was never going to go very far in life anyway.”

I’ve always had a sort of fraught relationship to my name, given to me by my father to reflect his own father. Herbert Allen Childress II, skipping a generation over my father, the colorfully named Menton Lafayette Childress. Menton was the town in France where grandpa served in WW1, and who knows where Lafayette came from. Childress itself seems to come from the old English word cilderhas, or children’s house, and was a name commonly given to orphans, mostly Scots and Irish orphans made so by the English, which is why most people with that name settled in the American South, fought in the confederacy, owned slaves. Some distant relative was the writer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, for whom Childress, Texas is named, and who disemboweled himself with a Bowie knife after his third law firm failed. My name is a complicated hot mess.

When I was first in kindergarten, I remember telling some other kid my name was John. Like, a normal name. Now I’m much more comfortable with Herb, an unusual name any more. I only know one or two others, never found a toy license plate in the rotating wire rack at the hardware store.

I read a poem once in which the author said that nothing good would ever happen in the life of a girl named Candy. Lots of parents are now questioning their decision to name their daughters Daenerys after that character on Game of Thrones went nuts and firebombed an entire city.

It’s a paradox that our names, perhaps the single most personal thing about us, are reflections of our parents. About their family relations, about their favorite singers or actors or ballplayers, about their favorite sounds or their desires to be trendy. About all the other kids in the family having names starting with K, so why the hell not figure out how to spell Khloe? I knew a couple who named their three kids Mary, Jerry and Terry.

A family in our community adopted three siblings, when they were 6, 4, and 2. They’ve made a good home for the kids. But about three or four years after they came to live there, the siblings all—together—came to their parents and wanted to change their names. Not merely their family names, to reflect the parents who loved them and had given them a new chance, but their first names. All three. And their parents did that, helping their kids legally change the entirety of their names.

Maybe we all should. Maybe, after a life of living with a label pinned to our shirts by our mom or dad, we should be able to go to the store and find something that fits us better. It’s like getting a tattoo: if we’re going to live with it forever, at least we ought to be able to choose it.