The Power of Naming



I paused between shelves of brightly packaged herbal teas and redolent coffee beans at my neighborhood grocery.

“How are you? Haven’t seen you in a long time!”

I waited a few seconds. There was no answering voice so I stole a look at the speaker. Ah, yes, a therapist from the agency I had worked for prior to retirement. I came forward with a smile and we chatted a few minutes. Then I corrected the misinformation.

“You know, it’s funny that I’m so often called Sylvia. I tend to answer to it, no matter where I am, like it’s a second name. But my real name is Cynthia.”

The woman frowned, then covered her face with a hand in embarrassment. “I knew that! I think I knew it? But you always seemed like a Sylvia…really, I guess I once heard it wrong from the start and it stuck–sorry!”

“It’s quite alright, Julia, now you know who I really am. It was good to catch up a bit!”

On we went our separate ways as I laughed over what has become a common error.

Another time I was at a restaurant when a man came up and said, “Cindy, right? How’s it going?”

I didn’t recall his name right off. We established the name of another agency as where we’d crossed paths briefly. His name came forward: George.

I didn’t correct him though the name he used is like an off-key measure of music to my ears. I don’t think of it as my name, don’t answer to it. But I knew him less well and he had assigned to me the easiest name he could call up. It was unlikely I would run into him again so on we went.

All of us carry around the experience of our names, the etiological, familial and social histories. We are given our birth names after much thought and discussion by our parents, then we live with the results. (Apple, anyone? Moon Unit? Or a student in my old high school whose last name was Fish and first name was Star? She–a shy, rather timid girl–did not have it easy.) We find that, unless we use our middle name, it often gets dropped altogether–unless our mothers repeatedly had to call us in from the street for dinner: “Cynthia Jane Guenther!” What a mouthful, an old-fashioned (perhaps) and rather inelegant bunch of syllables to enunciate while shouting.

The truth is, I was called Cindy for years. It started at kindergarten, likely, as my family used my given name quite awhile.  Back then teachers didn’t have to be sensitive to such superficialities nor politically correct, so no one asked me if it was okay to shorten my full name to a nickname. It was like an invisible branding, even a literal name tag: I had to wear it and answer to it. I was “Cindy” at school then “Cynthia” at home and finally the two merged into one before I quite realized it.

As it happened, by fifth grade I also was developing a close friendship via church activities. She strangely had the same initials as well as the same first name. I felt a sting of disappointment at first; I didn’t know others with my name in the late fifties. Emphasis was definitely on the “my” in my assessment of this weird coincidence. How did she manage to keep the full name and avoid the ignominy of a nickname? She was taller, granted, with wavy, shiny dark hair and had a perfect smile, fine. She held the apparent right to the greater name while “Cindy” had become firmly attached to my life, at least my public, exterior, more social life.

She told me soon after we hung out more that she also was called our nickname but didn’t want it to become her “official” name. Okay, maybe she had a stronger will. (She did come from more money, which somehow seemed relevant at first.) In any case, it was certain we couldn’t use the same name as we entered seventh grade as best friends. Walking arm and arm down school hallways and sitting in classes together, people had to distinguish us by using the name’s different forms. At least we did look different: I tended toward dark blonde versus her raven haired appearance. I ended up a cheerleader but she did, too. I was known also as a daughter of our public schools’ well-known music program director. My buddy was into perfect grades and school politics; I was a dedicated arts lover and performer. But our school names had taken hold and that was that. I couldn’t easily reclaim “Cynthia”, not in that town.

I tried to change the spelling: “Cyndee”, “Cindie” or “Syndie”  with the last being favored. But it wasn’t accepted on school assignments. It, however, could be used on notes we’d all surreptitiously pass back and forth as if they were top-secret spy communiques. And then it came to me–I could choose any name I wanted and no one would know but my friends! We could all have secret names. I already kept a notebook of names–in the hundreds by then–for poems, stories and plays I loved to write. A few of my girlfriends went along with the idea.

I tried on several for good fit and decided on one so unimaginative I can’t believe I used it: Melodee. I played cello, I sang and danced, so why not, right? My second choice was Brooke (last name added: Hammond) and that persona was the writer who would one day be a roaming reporter or a marvelous novelist. In the meantime, I tried my hand at romantic poetry–oh, those mysterious, elusive boys for whom my heart throbbed but of whom I could not speak aloud. And for some reason I used my own name at the bottom of those pages.

People recreate and even legally change their names with ease these days, but not when I grew up. No one thought that much about it, I doubt, unless the given name was plain loathed. We might use nicknames for fun (one guy I knew was dubbed “Chilla” and another “Snarfy”, who knows why?) but nothing as fancy or exotic as those that crop up in our pop culture-driven society today. It surely has to do with one’s identity, how people desire to be recognized, who they would rather be. How they want to make their mark and be remembered.

Just as we are born into names, they have a different sort of potency as our days end here. Friends and family bring forth, even conjur personalities and memories as the name is stated once more. And if someone is banished from a family or a community, that name is not ever to be spoken again. That person becomes anathema, invisible.

Yes, names are more than a chosen arrangement of letters. They eventually carry who we are unless we alter things, ourselves.

Somewhere along the line I realized my best friends–yes, even the other Cynthia–called me “Cyn.” She and I sometimes even used that same shortened name with one another. (I saw her a few years ago, in a church in Portland (would you believe it, we both had moved here) and we exclaimed, “Cyn!”) My mother hated it when she answered the phone. “You mean Cindy? Yes, I’ll get her.” She would turn to me with hand over receiver and whisper, “That name sounds like ‘sin’ and I don’t like it!”

I didn’t care what she thought. That three-letter name became so powerful to me–the telltale marker of a dear friend, those I trusted and was deeply loyal to, who mattered more in my teens than my family–that even today it will stir a well of emotion. I can hear my first true love’s husky, warm voice saying that name. I remember my best male friend, now passed on, still using the endearment as he visited me one year before he died. I can remember my other best friend who lived a harder life than many while being a true support, calling me up, saying: “Cyn? We need to walk and talk.”

If someone other than closest hometown friends used this name it would feel like an intrusion, as once happened at work when a new guy blithely dropped it in a sentence. Wait a minute, he didn’t even know me so I had to nicely tell him: “My name is just Cynthia, not Cyn, okay?”

After I was done with high school and moved to the Seattle area for a while I found it good timing to take back my birth name. It was the only name strangers or new-found companions would have to call me. No one could confuse me with any other, or at least not often. It was a relief. I had missed it in a profound if unconscious way, with attendant and unexpected feelings. It was as if I was rescuing a large part of myself, once almost forgotten. But I wasn’t sure what to do with it at first. Who was this person after being Cindy or Cyn for so long? It heralded small changes that would help renovate my life over many years. My birth name would be honored and worn with more self-respect and compassion than had occurred in a long while.

“Sylvia” started to show up during my career as a mental health and addictions counselor. The only one I had  known very well was the poet Sylvia Plath, who took her own life long before her genius could come to full fruition. Of course, I knew her only in print and during own poetic ponderings but she made an impact. I wasn’t prepared for being flagged down with such a name as that, yet when it happened more and more, it began to seem reasonable. It had three syllables like my own name. If someone didn’t hear well, it might be mistaken for the actual name. And some people admitted “Cynthia” was “too formal” and they didn’t “feel” it whereas Sylvia seemed, well, accessible. Warmer. I’d shrug it off but some thought of me as reserved, a bit intimidating at times, despite undisputed devotion to my clients. The mistaken name grew on me despite a random thought that some might like to rename me… and I suspect I will continue to answer to it, if no one else does first!

Before sitting down to write today, I looked up my first and second names for more information. I have to admit I’ve always enjoyed the meanings. “Cynthia” is the Latinized form of the Greek Kythia, woman from Kythos. It is additionally a name denoting Artemis, Greek moon goddess. Diana is also associated with it as a huntress of the moon. (As a side note, “Sylvia” is an Italian name of Latin origin meaning “from the woods”. Silvia is the Roman goddess of the moon and forest.)

My  simple middle name, “Jane” was originally a feminization of the male name Johannes. Derived from Hebrew, it means loosely, “gift from God.” That was something I didn’t know until today.

I loved my name even as a youngster without knowing its meanings and it suits me well. Nothing pleases me more than being in the woods or being under a star-beaded sky, basking in the moon’s fine light, both calming and thrilling to behold and sense upon my body, filling the heavens and earth. I sure don’t know how much of a gift from God I have been in others’ lives but this human life is a most sacred treasure. God has and always will be my deepest love. Both sensual and spiritual wonders have informed and energized my life and I am so glad of it.

Oh, yes, I have one more tidbit about the curious place of namings in my life. There was a person of strong heart and intuition who gave me another name in my twenties. Is it a real name, is it even important now? It felt almost celestial in its essence then: three syllables starting with a “C” like my own earth name but sounding as I imagine a little music of the spheres sounds. It felt like one I already knew. At times I still say it in a whisper or hear it in my dreaming. I am happy to have this small gift tucked away. But I can’t tell you, of course–it is a secret and only mine. At least, as far as I may ever know!