November 2, 2011

A Woman’s Name

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Wedding picture courtesy of Christine Watters Photography, Cape Town.

Wedding picture courtesy of Christine Watters Photography, Cape Town.

You are born into a name, which helps define and demarcate your identity. If you are lucky, your parents will provide you with a wonderful name, such as Evelyn Martinique Mervine. If you are unlucky, your parents will provide you with a less-wonderful name, such as a long one that contains both the word “Herbert” and the symbol “IV.”  My husband may or may not have such a name. In many ways, your name provides more information about your parents and your family than it does about you. For instance, if your parents named you River, they are probably hippies… or possibly kayakers. You often grow into your first name (and your family) so that the name suits you. Your last name hints at your family origins. O’ Xs usually originate from Ireland while Mc Xs and Mac Xs usually originate from Ireland or Scotland. Lees and Yangs usually originate from Asian regions. Al Xs usually come from the Middle East. Before you meet a person, you usually assess the person by his or her name. From two words– a first name and a last name– you start to form an image in your mind of the person; you envision, subconsciously sometimes, how the person looks and talks and acts. You find yourself slightly surprised when Mary Chang turns out to have blonde hair, blue eyes, and a Chinese husband. Not always used, middle names often provide surprising new information. In elementary school we used to play guessing games to figure out our classmates’ middle names. I remember being proud when no one could guess my own. Middle names are mothers’ maiden names, important family names that didn’t make the cut for a first name, important place names, and names the parents would have given as a first name if they had been braver.

You respond to your name, automatically. Your head turns when you hear your name behind you, and you stall your actions for a few moments before realizing that someone you don’t know is calling to his child. At least, I do. Except, in my case, the person I don’t know in the supermarket is usually calling to his grandmother.  Perhaps Johns and Marys– or, these days, Aidens and Isabellas– don’t automatically turn their heads in supermarkets to their name, but those of us with less-common names usually do.When I was born in 1984, Evelyn was considered an old lady name and was not very popular for newborn babies. I was named after my great grandmother, and I’m very proud of my name. However, there are not too  many Evelyns my same age. Evelyn was the name of the wife of the elderly Wal-Mart greeter and of the Nursing Home residents I visited during my Middle School volunteer hours, not of my classmates. My classmates growing up were Jennifers and Jessicas and Ashleys; Michaels and Christophers and Matthews. I encountered one other Evelyn in high school, and another one in college. When I attended undergrad, there were two Evelyns in a student body of 4,000. Evelyn has recently made a comeback as a popular name for babies. Perhaps my own children will attend school with Evelyns.

You may love and admire your name, as I do. I like my first name because I liked my great-grandmother. Also, Evelyn is an ordinary name without being too ordinary. My middle name is fairly uncommon, at least in the United States. My mother selected the name Martinique because she admired Josephine, the first wife of Napoleon. My mother considered naming me Josephine, but she didn’t really like the name. Josephine was born on the island of Martinique, so my mother eventually decided on that name, which forms nice alliteration with my last name. I don’t care as much for Napoleonic history as my mother does. However, I do very much like volcanoes, and I share the name Martinique with a very exciting volcanic island that periodically erupts in a dramatic fashion.  I believe the name Mervine is of Celtic or Welsh origin. The Mervines have been in the Pennsylvania area since the 1700s, and apparently we have a coat of arms. Like many Americans, I am a mutt. I think I am a French-German-Scottish-English mutt. On both my maternal and paternal sides, I am descended from immigrants who arrived in the United States prior to the Revolutionary War, but over the years we’ve mixed with more recent immigrants. I suppose I could join the Daughters of the American Revolution if I wanted, but I’ve always found the organization somewhat silly. America is a country of immigrants. All Americans are children of the American Revolution, whether their families immigrated in the 1700s or 7 years ago.  I’m not exactly sure where the name Mervine fits into my mutt history, and there are other family names with which I identify, such as Graham and MacPhearson and Sinclair and Wehr. For me, the important part is that Mervine comes from my father, a man whom I admire very much. The name was passed down to him from my grandfather, a man I vaguely but fondly remember from my childhood, and from my great-grandfather, whom I never met but with whom I exchanged handwritten letters for several years after my grandfather died. I still have these letters tied together with string in my old room in my parents’ house.

You may change your name, as your identity evolves. My own nickname “Evy” (pronounced like “Evie”) originated when I was in high school. The name was borrowed from the character Evelyn “Evy” Carnahan from the 1999 Movie “The Mummy.” This movie came out when I was a sophomore in high school, and my friends and I adopted the nickname “Evy” for me. In college I was mostly known as “Evelyn,” but my closer friends called me “Evy.” When I started grad school, I introduced myself as “Evy” in orientation, and the name stuck. My advisors and grad school friends know me by this name. When I start a professional job, I plan to go by “Evelyn,” again reserving “Evy” for close friends and family. My husband dislikes his name, so he chose a new first name for himself– “Jackie,” which is tangentially derived from “John,” which is one of his two middle names. He only goes by his real first name when necessary for travel or paperwork.

Others may change your name, which you may or may not like. I was a very clumsy child, so my classmates used to call me “Avalanche,” which I strongly disliked. My sister calls me– affectionately, most of the time– “Evilyn.”  Many people shorten my name to “Ev.” My husband selected his own variation of Evelyn, and he’s the only one who uses that variation. You are often stuck with the nicknames selected for you by others. I suppose it’s just best to accept them.

You may also reach a time when there is social pressure to dramatically change your name, and you feel conflicted. In Western culture, women traditionally discard their last name– their maiden name– and adopt the last name of their husband upon marriage. I’ve always felt uneasy about this traditional name shift. A part of me bristles angrily at the expectation that women must adopt their husbands’ names. Another part of me used to wistfully write Mrs. Evelyn So-and-So on my old school notebooks. A part of me wants to rebel and make my husband change his name. Another part of me is giddily happy to adopt part of my husband’s name, since I love him so much and the name represents a little part of him.  The biggest conflict for me comes when deciding what to name our children, if we have any. Hyphenating the children’s last names  is always an option, but I think that hyphenated names often sound clumsy. Also, what do you do for the second generation of hyphenated names? Do you double hyphenate?  I know a family– whom I admire very much– with four children. The parents each kept their last names, and they alternated the last names for their children. That is, two of the children have their mother’s last name, and two of the children have their father’s last name. But what do you do if you have only one child? Or three? Jackie and I aren’t even sure if or when we’ll have children, but I’ve already agonized about our children’s last names. Why should the children automatically be given my husband’s last name? Why is this socially expected? Why is there no obvious and simple alternative to the paternal name lineage?

You may decide, ultimately, that it is okay to change your name– and also okay not to change it. As many of you know, I was recently married a little over a week ago. Actually, our legal wedding at Home Affairs was a little over two weeks ago. When the marriage officer asked me what I would like my new surname to be, I hesitated. I had already decided what I was going to do, but I doubted myself even then. A flood of emotions rushed forth. Did I really want to do this? I was so nervous that I nodded when the marriage officer asked if I wanted a hyphenated (or “double-barrel” as they say here in South Africa) last name. I definitely did not want an awkward, double-barrel last name. Hyphenated names work well for many women, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I recovered and told the marriage officer that I wanted to take my husband’s last name which, legally, I have done.  Actually, I’ve decided to add an extra name, so my legal name is now Evelyn Martinique Mervine X. I figure that if my husband can have four names and a suffix, I can have four names, too. I will also be (hopefully) adding a prefix sometime in the next few months. My husband and I joke that we’ll have to be known as Dr. and Mr. X. So, I guess I am breaking convention after all. I have also decided to retain Evelyn Mervine as my professional writing name, so that’s the name you’ll continue to see on this blog and on anything I write in the future, from blog posts to scientific papers. Should my husband and I choose to have children, we will likely give them the last name X. However, I will continue to pass the name Mervine along through my writing progeny, which– like children*– will hopefully outlive me. Unless I decide to write a series of racy romance novels. That I might do under my married name or, more likely, a pen name.

*Don’t worry. Given a choice between saving my child and my manuscript, I’ll choose my child.