What’s in a Name?

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte
The Son of Man (Le Fils de L’Homme),  Rene Magritte, 1964  Oil on Canvas

Growing up, I didn’t like my name. I’m still not crazy about it.

But at thirty-three, I’m not going to endure all the administrative hassle that comes with a name change. Growing up, I wished my name was something more feminine sounding. You might be scratching your heads: “Betty is pretty feminine, no?” After all, unlike Ashley, Courtney, Whitney, et al., Betty never began as a boy’s name. It’s supposed to be short for ‘Elizabeth,’ but because my immigrant parents didn’t know any better, they just named me Betty. It’s a feminine name, sure, but I’m talking more about the sound.

To me, Betty was just one notch up from Peggy or Maggie or Patty, all popular names for daughters of the immigrant Chinese. My Chinese name is Zhen 珍, and my mom was really close to naming me Jane, which I actually like, despite its associations with plainness. But she went with Betty, so here I am.

Still, my brother Howard (his Chinese name is Hao 浩) and I got off easy compared to other Chinese kids. In Chinese school we knew a set of siblings named Jasper and Emerald and I’m fairly certain their parents weren’t geologists. I once met a guy named Rocky, who told me his sister was named Sandy. And our friend Billy, well, his older brother’s name is William. At least his parents sort of got the order of things.

Then there are the Chinese and Taiwanese kids who name themselves with no help from idiot unaccredited English teachers who probably stifle sniggers every time they take roll. When I taught English in Taiwan, the kids were in college and had already spent over ten years with names like “Beck,” “Star,” “Zero,” and “Lupe,” and were unfortunately, reluctant to change them despite my encouragement.

My dad was also victim. Of himself. Apparently he went by January – yes, January – for a good chunk of his adult, professional life. A young and eligible bachelor working in Hong Kong, he went – at least socially, by January. The women who supposedly wanted to date him sang it like a whiny song.

“Jaaanuary what are we doing this weekend?”

“Jaaanuary when are you going to settle down?”

“But….why,” I asked my mom, when she told me this.

She looked at me as though it were obvious, “Well, his birthday’s in January.”*

If you’ve ever met my dad, he looks more like a “Barry” or a “Bob.” Hell, he looks more like a Betty than he does a January.

When he finally moved to the States he knocked that bullshit off, probably noticing that there were literally zero other men named January, and went by his Chinese name, Kwong Tian Ho. But he had a habit of trying to make things “easy” for westerners by saying, “You can call me ‘Ho.”

But the worst self-given name I’ve ever heard?

In college, one of my literature professors told me of a female Taiwanese exchange student who, on the first day of class, shyly introduced herself as Lucifer.

“Is that a popular name in Taiwan?” my Professor asked, puzzled.

No, it’s not. And I’ll bet she had a…hell of a time getting a job. Har har. I hope someone kindly told her to shorten it to Lucy, and keep it there.

My Taiwanese cousins were a bit luckier. My cousin Melody is quite like a Melody. Her older sister Ming-Jieh toyed around with the name Chris until she went to America for grad school and realized that she didn’t need to make things easy for the westerners and her Chinese name was her Chinese name and people needed to learn how to pronounce it. I found that quite admirable. And until high school Karen was Mandy, and her brother was Felix.

“Why Felix,” I remember asking him.

“I really like Felix the Cat,” he said.

I’m pretty sure I informed him, with unshakeable American authority, that people didn’t just go around naming themselves after their favorite cartoons.

“Actually, my favorite cartoon is Doraemon,” he said. Doraemon is also a cat albeit without ears. My cousin likes cats. But it didn’t matter. Felix was a stupid name. But he stuck with it until he was in his late teens and thinking about stuff like getting a job. He admitted it was probably stupid.

“I told you,” I said.

“Help me pick a new name,” he pleaded.

So I went to work and drew up a list of names I thought would not only suit him but also help alleviate some of his dorkiness. But it was all for naught. Before he even saw my list he came back one day with a gleeful smile.

He had it he said, and paused for the reveal. I raised my eyebrows.

“Larry,” he said.


More of a lateral move on the dorkiness scale, but to this day, he’s my cousin Larry Formerly Known as Felix Not the Cat.

Anyway. This is all to say that names, despite the ease with which some people cast theirs off and assume new ones, are quite important. They can make your life easy, or, if you’re an Indian kid named “Appu” or a Chinese girl with the last name “Ho,” make you quite thick-skinned about certain things. Names also say a lot about your parents.

We’re four-ish weeks away from D-day and have yet to settle on a name. We still refer to him as “the baby”. This, I feel, has been one of the unexpectedly more difficult things about having a kid with someone who has very different ideas about names. For a long time, before I met Tom, I was set on naming my son Benjamin.

“That’s a fat kid’s name,” said Tom. Apparently he had known a fat Benjamin. Tom had little to say about said Benjamin’s personality, but apparently his girth was enough to knock the name out of the running. Of the Benjamin’s I’ve known, only one has been prone to fatness. Even so, I liked him and the other Bens. They were invariably good-natured, patient, and handsome in a rounded, approachable way. No sharp angles to be found in either countenance or personality.

Then, thinking to one of my all-time on-screen heroes, the resourceful, rugged, and handsome Indiana Jones, I suggested Harrison.

“Harrison Ward? Really Betty?” Tom scoffed hard. “You want our kid to be called Han Solo for his entire life?”

“Most kids his age probably won’t even know who Harrison Ford is,” I said. I wish Mr. Ford a long and lovely life, but at 77 I doubt his own name will resonate as much with our kid’s generation as will his film characters Indiana Jones or Han Solo. Besides, we could call him Harry for short, which is so cute.

“No,” said Tom. And that was that.

We quickly vetoed anything too new age-y or fancy or trendy. We wanted something classic, or perhaps something Irish that my parents could pronounce.

“Seamus?” Tom suggested.

I thought about how my dad purposefully called my nephew Dylan, “Darron” for a while, just to troll my sister-in-law. “Seamus”, pronounced “Shay-mus”, would be asking my dad to troll us. “Seamus” sounds too much like, “What?” (什麼?)in Chinese, not to mention the millions of people both Chinese and not who do now know the first thing about Irish pronunciation. (I spent much of my life pronouncing ‘Sinead’ like Sin-ee-ad.)

“No to Seamus,” I said.

We discussed our criteria:

Name-wise at least, we want the kid to blend in. That means nothing too grand (e.g. Ceasar, Baron, Romeo) or trashy (can’t provide examples without offending some people we know) or hippie-dippy (“What, like ‘Apple’ or some shit?'” my friend Amy said. Yes). Hopefully the kid stands out in other ways.

We’re also nixing unique spellings so his trips to school, Starbucks, and various administrative offices (minus jail), can go a bit more smoothly without him having to respell it a dozen times.

So far, we like James, William, and Arthur. And we’ve decided we’ll take a good look at him on the day he arrives before making a final decision because, who knows? Maybe he’ll look like a James. Grimace like a Will. Smile like an Art. I’m also thinking of throwing “Ho”** in there. After all, he’ll be half Chinese and if he wants, should be able go around like his granddad does and tell people to call him “Ho.”

But I really hope he doesn’t.

Obviously, to be continued. 

*My mom’s birthday is also in January but she went by Olivia.
**While I spent much of my youth disliking BOTH my first and last names, the bigger issue is probably “Betty” since it is a time capsule name. When we got married it occurred to me that to go from Betty Ho to Betty Ward was like adding 50 years to my age on paper.


4 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. I’m so curious. What did you end up naming your son? James (and Matthew) are my favorite boy’s names…just sayin’.

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