Of names, some are proper, and singular to one only thing; as Peter, John, this man, this tree: and some are common to many things; as man, horse, tree; every of which, though but one name, is nevertheless the name of diverse particular things; in respect of all which together, it is called a universal, there being nothing in the world universal but names; for the things named are every one of them individual and singular.
`What sort of insects do you rejoice in, where you come from?' the Gnat inquired.
`I don't rejoice in insects at all,' Alice explained, `because I'm rather afraid of them -- at least the large kinds. But I can tell you the names of some of them.'
`Of course they answer to their names?' the Gnat remarked carelessly.
`I never knew them do it.'
`What's the use of their having names the Gnat said, `if they won't answer to them?'
`No use to them,' said Alice; `but it's useful to the people who name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?'
Yesterday Fred had gymnastics. During her class I sit upstairs and watch or chat to the other mums. I can see when the class is ending, and I go downstairs to meet Fred coming out the door. Yesterday I was caught up in the conversation as class ended and Fred came upstairs to find me. She often comes up before class and it's not a big gym, though between classes there is always a throng in the cramped foyer, so it wasn't an overly alarming scenario for her. However she was most upset that I wasn't downstairs to meet her and had a little cry when she saw me.
I got a little telling off in the car for forgetting her.
"But we were talking about you," I said. "I was telling Emma's mum about you walking to school."
"But talking about me isn't me," she protested. "I am not the talk of me. I'm real me. I'm not a word. I don't live in your mouth."
I thought it was interesting that she made this distinction so abruptly, that she so violently separated the word girl from the skin girl. It is an insightful distinction - Frederique might have been Daisy or Anouk and Una was very nearly Kitty.
And yet, without her name, who is Frederique? The word girl can live without the skin girl, and the skin without the word, but each of them adrift, signifier and signified. For Ferdinand de Saussure, a founding father of semiotics, only together do they make up the sign, the object.
Is naming truly arbitrary? Or is naming destiny? When I name a character in a book I already know the sort of person they are, and I choose a name that I think reflects their place in the world, the values and attributes that they are composed of, and also their status in the novel. Do we shape our children with the names we choose. There seems nothing arbitrary about Fred's name now, it seems entirely adjectival. We chose it because we wanted her to be Fred/Freddie/Frederique, a chameleon child who could alter her name with her identity - be wild and boyish Fred, or sweet and girlish Freddie or glmaorous, elegant Frederique - and to us she is all these things. In herself she is far more gender neutral than Una, her favourite game is tiggy (which I used to call chasings, but what's in a name?), her hair has the sometimes appearance of a cartoon character at top speed (but it can also fall in soft, ethereal waves around her face), she is kinetic and likes science and maths and maps - in my view non-gendered activities. Yet she is fascinated with the mystique of her own femininity. She is complicated and changeable like her name.
As I write this, she is trying to make a pencil out of foam, reclaimed lead that mysterious separated itself from its pencil and stickytape. It is a stormy exercise that is leading to much frustration.
When we named Una, we gave her a simple, clearly feminine name. It is everything Frederique is not - straightforward, easy to spell, difficult to modify (though as it turns out easy to rhyme with: Una Balloona, Una Petunia, Una in the Moon-a, Una the Tuna). Pearl, her middle name, was an extra secret gift (Frederique doesn't have one, because we didn't feel she could possibly ever need one with such a fabulous elastic name as Frederique). And she is a simpler girl, or, perhaps it is just that my relationship with her is simpler. I love her dearly, but I can see the edges of her. With Fred (and I have blogged about this before) I have always found the boundaries ambiguous, where she ends, where I begin. We are more similar but also, simply, she was my first and my mother-identity was born with her. Frederique is the name of the piece of me that broke off, and became her.
That their personalities are reflected in their names can hardly be a surprise, we named them, and the values reflected in our naming also inform our parenting. Recently on a name forum that has become my new guilty pleasure there was a question about naming as branding - are we giving our babies a "brand" that they will carry with them through their life?
I asked Fred tonight if she would be a different girl if we'd called her Daisy. She took a moment to decide, swinging between yes and no. Finally she said, "No, because I would still look like me."
I asked Una the same question - what if we'd named you Kitty, would you be different? Not entirely understanding the question, but instead responding as if she'd been offered a choice, she said, "I'd like to be different." (She is the one out of the two of them that sometimes talks about changing her name, though I remember Fred went through a phase of it a year or two ago). Una said,
"Then people would look at me and say Hello Una and I would say I'm not Una, I'm Kitty."
Fred said, "But no one would know you because you'd be different."
Una replied, "But I'd still have the same clothes."
It interests me the importance the girls put on their appearance as determining who they are as opposed to their interior existence, or the history they have lived. (In Star Trek identity is always attached to memory.)
At eight I changed my name to Laura. It didn't stick. At ten I changed the spelling of Penny to Penni. That whim continues to haunt me. I was confronted with the choice when I published my first book. But by then, I felt branded, in the literal sense. Marked permanently by the shape of my name. It was the same reason I kept my maiden name. I just couldn't conceive of being called anything else. (Having said that, I see the appeal for changing it as well.)
My mother wanted to call me Rowena. Who would I have been if I'd been called Rowena? Penelope is a name attached to folklore and myth. The wife of Odysseus (aka Ulysses), who was courted by suitors when her husband went missing after the Trojan war. She promised to choose one to marry when she finished weaving her husband's funeral shroud, by day she would work and at night she would unravel it, until she was dobbed in by a servant. Odysseus turned up just in the nick of time. Is it because of my name that I studied Classics at uni, that I became a weaver of stories (and a liar)? Rowena apparently was a scheming Saxon seductress. So maybe I wouldn't have been totally bland and boring, though for some reason I think of Rowena as a bored housewife. No offence to Rowenas out there, but the name Rowena makes me uneasy.
Perhaps there is something about the almost-name that haunts me with an other person I might have been. There is almost a touch of the abject: that which “disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous” (most commonly identified in the spectacle of the corpse). Rowena is more not-me than Susan or Jacquie or Lily or any other girl's name.
So I am curious, do you know what other name you might have been called? How do you feel about it?