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The Importance of Names and Personal Identity

Colleen is a psychotherapist retired from private practice, specializing in human relationships.

The Eloquence of a Nickname



Perhaps the most private part of ourselves, beyond the parameters of our skin, is the name we are given, nearly always by one or more parents, sometimes a mere few hours after leaving a mother’s womb. Indeed, for various animals, the first thing they learn to respond to is the sound of their given names.

As such, this name once bestowed, soon becomes sacrosanct. Thus, if someone toys with the name of another, he may be invading an area of the soul which cannot always be erased by an offhand apology.

The Horror of Boredom Through Repetition

Regrettably, during my student days, I was introduced to a girl whose last name was Oakley, I made reference to the legendary Annie Oakley, the pistol-wielding heroine behind the Broadway musical, Annie, get your gun. Wincing a little, this Ms. Oakley said, “Can you even begin to imagine how often I’ve heard that remark?”

Having said and truly meant I was sorry, I made an inner vow never again to allow myself a similar gaff. Beyond its tactless intrusion, repetition renders any joke boring.


Appealing Names as a Springboard For Envy

At around that same time, I became friends with a lovely-looking girl who, although named Susan, liked to be called Shoshana, her Bat-mitzvah (Hebrew) name. Her personality matched her appeal; she was friendly and fun to be around, never under-cutting anyone.

I have mentioned her prettiness only because the many young men drawn to her seemed to find her somewhat exotic name a quick conversation opener.

During one lunch hour, a girl who was not viewed as attractive either in face or disposition strode up to Shoshana, brought her eyes, close to her face, then said, “I’ve heard on good authority that your name is really Susan.” Smiling, Shoshana replied, “True, it is, but I like to be called Shoshana.” This left her would-be attacker no choice but to mope away, abashed and embarrassed.


Social And Cultural Influences

When, not long after I was born, my mother told a nurse she intended to name me Colleen, the nurse asked, with earnest concern, “But if you do, what will she have as a nickname?” My mom replied she had not thought of that, but now that she did, it didn’t much matter. In time, I did become “Coll”, to family and close friends. I like it, in that it denotes affection, but “Colleen” would have been fine as it was.

Still, what that nurse voiced reflected the beliefs of that era: everyone needed a potential nickname. Later, as feminism emerged, such nicknames as Debbie, Judy or Patty were shed in favour of Deborah, Judith or Patricia. While this demand has grown a bit more relaxed, it can still prove socially risky to shorten someone’s name before gaining permission to do so.

The Bleak Side of Pseudonyms

Unfortunately, not everyone can share the candor of Shoshanna regarding her birth name, thereby squelching any effort to taunt her. This does not always happen. During those teenage years, when the inevitable student-teacher warfare was at its height, one student unearthed the fact that a teacher who called himself Ray Hamilton was legally named Buddy Hearse. (Note: Names have been changed for privacy reasons.)

This discovery generated rude, scathing jokes, combined with an overall ambiance of ridicule towards him. Sadly, he added a further dimension by showing the depths of his shame and humiliation.

When one student asked him whether or not it was true, this middle-aged teacher all but begged, “Yes, but please don't tell anyone.” By then, since everyone already knew, this plea merely fuelled the mockery. Not surprisingly, this teacher left the school at the end of that term, doubtless due to this malice.

How He Might Have Handled Things Better

What if, on his first day, he had sauntered into the classroom, strode straight to the podium and announced, “Hello, it is nice to meet all of you. My name is Mr. Hearse; I will write it on the chalk board.” Having done so, ignoring whatever snickers arose; he could have begun his first lecture.

Soon enough, his brilliance as a lecturer would have forced those who had guffawed feeling like buffoons.

A Change as a Re-invented Identity

At times, people change their names as a method of freeing themselves from a cocoon which they believe has begun to trap them. As one young woman said, during a talk show interview, her birth name represented, at least in her mind, “a little fat kid with pimples and rotting teeth.”

Having had these teeth capped and losing some weight, as well as working on her inner self-image, she eventually grew to fit into the silhouette she had drawn. As a result, she dared to take on social and athletic challenges which would have eluded her otherwise.


When Changes Prove Counter-Productive

Still, as with Mr. Hearse, depending on one’s choice of career, a discovered change of name can add one more gun or sword to an enemy’s arsenal.

One top-notch university student, while aware of both her good looks and charisma, said she would like to run for political office, but felt her last name, Bloomer, would generate too much scorn. A name change, she sensed, would have worsened the issue, in that it would soon be found out, publicized and exploited.

In truth, she could have made use of her name by self-vaccination, inflicting a bit of pain on herself in order to dis-empower her foes. From the outset, she could have destroyed them by stating, both to audiences and the press, “OK, all you comedians out there, bring on the Bloomer jokes. I doubt there are any I have not heard in the schoolyard or on a park playground, so, if that is your level of juvenile wit, I do hope you enjoy it.”

Tools of Charm or Intimidation

In some types of work, intensive use of names is almost a job requirement. This is true of salespeople; if one can be perceived as a friend, ideally they will be trusted as such. Debt collectors also use a debtor’s name, often in every sentence as verbal collaring, a deliberate intrusion into one’s private space.

In addition, the shouting of a celebrity’s name is a well-tried trick of the paparazzi. Those under public scrutiny need to inure themselves against the reflexive tendency to turn in the shouter’s direction. When cameras are at the ready, the briefest turn of a head can result in an unwelcome photo.

Motivational writer Dale Carnegie advises the use of names in a variety of environments, on the basis that people are pleased and won over by this repeated acknowledgment. While valid up to a point, some over-zealous Carnegie followers tend to use a name so often that the person addressed can begin to wonder if the speaker has some type of hidden agenda.

Make The Best of Your Name


Anger And Insensitivity by Parents And Spouses

When my grandmother was born, my great-grandmother, having borne this seventh child, did not feel strong enough to attend the baptismal ceremony. Leaving the choice of name to her husband, when he returned home he said, “I’ve had her christened Eliza, Matilda. If both those names were good enough for your mother and mine, they are good enough for this baby.”

In fairness to my great-grandfather, it was customary to name a daughter after both parents’ mothers. Thus far, the couple had only had sons, and my grandmother seemed likely to be the last of their offspring.

Still, although nearly a century ago, both names were both quite outdated. Reaching her young adulthood during “the roaring twenties”, she dubbed herself Elizabeth, often abbreviated to Betty, continuing this throughout her long life.


A Spouse’s Verbal Infidelity

Nineteenth-century writer/philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson married a young woman named Ellen. At the time of their wedding, both knew she was mortally ill with tuberculosis. Emerson’s tenderness must have been deep, in that he married her with full knowledge that he would be forced to watch as her young life seeped away. A year and a half later, she died.

Later, he married the widow Lydia Jackson. Before their marriage, Emerson asked Lydia if she would mind if he, and his social circle, addressed her as Lydian, in commemoration of Ellen. There is no indication of Lydia’s having felt any objection. Perhaps she truly was not wounded by this ceaseless reminder of her husband’s previous union and continuing sense of loss.

Still, one cannot help wondering if Emerson would have been as tolerant if Lydia had appended a reference to her deceased husband every time she spoke to him and introduced him to others.

A Further Reference to a Past Love

In recent years, I worked with a woman called Ex-Yvonne. While finding her name a bit puzzling, I assumed such names must be part of her heritage from a third world country. Then one day, over coffee, she said when her father was in military service he had been stationed for a few months in France. There he had fallen in love with a girl named Yvonne, who he would have married, had not familial demands and expectations prevented his so-doing.

Still, when he returned home and married a woman from his native land, he insisted their daughter be named Ex-Yvonne.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault

Ms. Gault was born 1942 and became a famous American journalist and news correspondent. Primarily she reported via national radio channels and specialized in African American integration and the civil rights movement. She worked for the New York Times and also became a televised celebrity.

Further Reasons For Choices

At a fairly young age, Charlayne Hunter-Gault asked her mother why she had not named her the more conventional Charlene. According to Ms. Hunter-Gault’s memoir, her mother replied she had created “Charlayne” in order to provide a frisson of uniqueness. Upon learning this, Charlayne viewed her mother as brilliant, both in custom-designing a name and her reasons.

As Ms. Hunter-Gault writes, each time a new person heard her name spoken or saw it written, they were likely to think about it for an extra few seconds. If this thought resulted in deeper consideration of her identity as a person on job applications or resumes, it could serve as a bonus.

Ray Kurzweil Discusses The Theories Involved When Evaluating Our Personal Identity

Experience as an Eliminator

Two teachers, marrying in their late thirties, decided to have a child fairly soon. Once apprised a baby was on its way, each of them sat down with a pen and paper in order to record the names of their most obstreperous students. Though at first believing their lists would be brief, they soon found the opposite. Recollecting their fifteen years of teaching, each quickly filled a page.

When choosing the name for their baby; if a name was on their lists then it would be rejected. The reason for this was that they did not want the name of their baby to be associated with any of each-other’s negative memories.

Tom Cruise Was Born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV

Screen Actor Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise born in 1962 is a famous actor and film producer appearing at the age of 19 in the epic film “Endless Love” He has been nominated and received several best actor awards including the Golden Globe.

The Potential For Exploitation

Some years ago, I knew a young man named Matthew Cruise. When chatting to a girl in a club, the mention of his last name nearly always resulted in a wide-eyed, “Are you Tom Cruise’s brother?” Matthew would respond, with candor, “Yes, I do have a brother Tom.”

The palpitating girl would then ask, “Do you think you could get me his autograph, PLEASE?” When Matthew replied he could easily do so, the more forward Cruise fans would ask if they might meet Tom Cruise. Mathew would respond, “I’m sure Tom likes gorgeous girls like you, just as much as I do. (It intrigued him to find how much he could say within technically truthful parameters.)

The Return to Reality

Being an honest young man, after a bit more banter, Matthew would own up to the fact that while he did indeed have a brother, Tom Cruise, he was a garage mechanic, rather than the Hollywood heart-throb of their imaginings. Still, Matthew did comment to me, on occasion, how easy it would be for a cad to turn this yearning to his advantage in that he himself had been tempted at times, but would not seek intimacy gained via false information. Still, arguably, in such scenarios, exploitation is mutual.


A Scheme to Create Credibility

One would-be author believed himself to have discovered a fool-proof method of climbing towards fame. Studying phone directories, he would find everyday people with famous names such as Norman Mailer or Germaine Greer. Then, having phoned these people, he would offer a payment tempting enough to secure commendations of his work, according to his dictation.

(This was the equivalent of recording an album in a home studio, then buying the appearance of praise from Simon Cowell, and other famous stars)

Having obtained these endorsements, he would send them to agents and publishers, hoping they might keep his manuscript from being tossed into the “slush pile” of unsolicited writing. Eventually, this ruse was revealed. As a consequence, the credibility he hoped to establish was lost. Once one is viewed as dishonest in any field, the shadow proves hard, if not impossible, to elude or erase.

Actress Shirley Jones

Shirley Mae Jones was born in1934 and is a famous actress and singer who began her career on stage and then found fame as a film actress best known for her parts in classic musicals such as Oklahoma and Carousel.

Standing Out Via Lack of Uniqueness

Long-time singer/actress Shirley M Jones recounts in her memoir that, as her fame grew, someone asked her why she kept such a conventional name. With characteristic dry wit, she replied, “I suppose I could change it to Shirley Smith.” Among the Lana Turner’s, Zsa Zsa Gabor’s and Judy Garland’s, Ms. Jones’ maintaining her given name made her something of an exception.

Shirley Jones at The TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood 2014

Zsa Zsa Gabor. Her Birth-Name Was Gábor Sári or Gábor Zsazsa

Zsa Zsa Gabor, born 1917. She is a  legendary screen actress and famous for marrying nine times

Zsa Zsa Gabor, born 1917. She is a legendary screen actress and famous for marrying nine times

Judy Garland Was Born Frances Ethel Gumm

Judy Garland 1922 to 1969. She was a famous actress and singer most famous for her role at aged 16 in the film The Wizard of Oz and the song "Over the Rainbow"

Judy Garland 1922 to 1969. She was a famous actress and singer most famous for her role at aged 16 in the film The Wizard of Oz and the song "Over the Rainbow"

Women in The Professions

It has long been known that renowned novelist George Eliot’s true name was Mary Ann Evans. Other early women authors published their work under names such as Mrs. Humphry Ward or Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell. We tend to assume such a need to be obsolete. Unfortunately, it has not been completely eradicated.

During the 1980s, artist Denise Cavendish found she had paltry success in selling her work. When she began to market and sign her paintings D. Cavendish, her art garnered far more recognition.


The Dentist Initials

Several years ago, I received through the post an offer of a free dental consultation with a Dr. A. M. Dawson. I admit to having assumed this dentist was male, though it would have made no difference. In any case, when I arrived, I found she was named Anna Megan Dawson. Inwardly, I wondered if a male counterpart, Dr. Adam Mark Dawson would have felt the need to advertise under these initials.

Naming Infants as an Act of Defiance

During the 12th century, philosopher and teacher Peter Abelard was hired to tutor a young woman, Heloise d 'Argenteuil. Employed by her uncle/guardian, Abelard was meant to encourage her skills in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as literature and rhetorical skills.

Her uncle assumed her zeal for learning would be confined to intellectual exploration. Left by themselves for long periods, the relationship between these vibrant young people soon evolved from a teacher-pupil relationship to that of lovers.

When Heloise bore a son, she and Abelard agreed to name him Astrolabe, an early scientific instrument intended to discern the location of various parts of the solar system. In an age where children were named in honour of saints or revered figures, this choice edged towards blasphemy. In our own day, it would be equivalent to naming a baby “Microscope” or “Compass”.

Why then did they choose it?

Already, their relationship breached every boundary and propriety of medieval Europe. It was as if this naming added a fillip of rebellion to a relationship which both knew would be viewed with wrath and opprobrium.

Respect Displayed by The Use And Pronunciation of Names

Returning to modern times, during my university days, one seemingly sensitive professor asked if any of us would like to be addressed by a name different from that listed on her class roster.

One young man named James voiced a wish to be called “Jamie” This professor, looking aghast, said, “That name is for a child or a girl. I refuse to call a student your age such a ludicrous nickname.”

A similar insult was felt by a friend, Mabel. Born in Cuba, she asked friends and classmates to pronounce her name in the Hispanic way, Mavelle, with its B replaced by a V, and emphasis on the second syllable.

While most of us were happy to do so, there were a few who said, “Forget that, I’ll just call you Mabel; it’s easier for me.” When I asked her if she found this degrading, she said, in an odd twist, it proved useful, in that it gleaned the rude from the respectful during one early conversation.

Grasp Freedom, Then Include it as Part of Your Own Identity


Throughout history and in various cultures, the choice and use of names has served as an undercurrent in human dealings. They can denote deference, respect, contempt, condescension, and a plethora of other emotions. Intriguingly, names can also bring people together in unusual ways.

My husband’s surname is Swan. Therefore, when Alfred Hitchcock’s film, The Birds, premiered in London, families with bird names were invited to the viewing and the gala afterwards. As a small boy, my husband accompanied his parents to this event. On their right sat a family called Wren, while on their left sat the Sparrows.

I find it touching that families laughed and chatted that night who, in all likelihood, met for the first and only time, due to no other bond than the sharing of bird names.


  • Carnegie, Dale: How to Win Friends and Influence People: Publisher Vermilion 2006
  • Hunter-Gault, Charlayne: In My Place: Publisher: Vintage 1993.
  • Jones, Shirley: A Memoir: Publisher: Gallery Books 2013.

© 2014 Colleen Swan