Monday, 4 August 2008

What's in a name?

I have a new granddaughter, who has been given the charming name of 'Inga", redolent of Vikings and fjords and other such Scandinavian delights. It set me thinking about all the names and nicknames that I, and those around me have carried, and the baggage that names carry.

I was named Michele (only one 'L' as my father didn't know how to spell it) but rapidly became 'Mimi' to all and sundry - today, only my cousin Janice calls me Mimi. Mimi was a pretty, dark haired little girl, and she is now buried so deeply inside me that I can barely remember her - to be called 'Mimi' now is deeply disconcerting. When I went to school I was the only Michele for a long time, and no-one really knew how to pronounce it, I suffered the pain of being 'Meee-shell' for many years, usually in a nasal voice, that made me cringe. My mother, in my later childhood, affectionately reduced my name to 'Miche', pronounced 'Meesh', which later led to people calling me 'Midge', particularly grating, as I hadn't even granted them the right to call me by my christian name, let alone my family diminutive. Grrrrrrrrrr!

Now I am, happily, known by most of my nearest and dearest as 'Moomin', which recalls the fictional characters of Moomin Mama and Moomin Papa and their brood, a family of Hippo-like characters in a series of childrens books. Not that it came from them - my 2nd daughter asked me what I would like to be called, when I became a grandmother (I don't much like 'Granny,' or even 'Mum'if it comes to that, too de-personalising for my taste, I'm aperson, not a relationship.) I suggested 'Mim', after the mad witch in 'The Sword in the Stone' - Mad Madame Mim. At the time, I had a fondness for having pink hair, which Madame Mim also did in the film, and she was one very powerful, contrary lady, which suited my self image very well! Well, between having rather too much 'falling down water' and a family tendency to Spoonerisms, it got transmogrified into 'Moomin' and stuck. Since my shape is rather closer to a hippo's than I would like, and the Moomins were such an extraordinary family, it seemed to fit rather satisfyingly, so I've stuck with it.

My husband was named Jeffery, after a novel writer favourite of his mother's, and despite being slim and agile, for some reason had the moniker 'Jumbo' applied in his childhood. These days, he is often, lovingly, known as 'Jiffy', again a product of my 2nd daughter's creative wordiness. This, to me, seems to fit his gentle, giving and generous character very well, as well as his eagerness to get things done as quickly as he can - provided he doesn't get distracted!

My son was called 'Nicolas' (yes, no 'h', it's French) after the 'vin ordinaire' that was delivered to the door in Paris when I was an 'au pair' in the 60's. When little he was known as 'Nicky', and as the youngest, with 3 forceful older sisters, he found it very uncomfortable as he reached young adulthood - not surprisingly, he felt he was not being treated as an adult by those who called him by this diminuative, so he became 'Nick'. Around this time, he was also known as 'The Boy Wonder', which he self-deprecatingly turned into 'The Boy Blunder', which gives an impression of his state of mind at the time, I think. Now, he is indubitably a man, and has returned to being Nick. He's as fallible as any other man, of course, and has a long way to go, but I think he's found an identity with which he is comfortable, at last, solid ground on which to build.

My eldest daughter was called Annabelle, after my delightful next door neighbour, and this suffered little in the way of contractions. Nor did she have any nicknames in the family -though one 'stepfather' was prone to call her 'Belly' - not appreciated at all. (his name for me was 'Sludge Pan', I think that should have warned me, but I was slow on the uptake) Now she has moved back to her childhood home in Orkney, and everyone calls her 'Belle', which I find highly appropriate - although she is blind to it herself, she has real beauty.

I could go on listing names, but that's not what I want to get across. What interests me is how much we are affected by what we are called, and by who calls us what. Our identity is such a fragile and malleable thing, and if we are not very careful, we can end up not knowing who we really are at bottom, and being a composite of other peoples' ideas of us. This, I think, is why we need to be careful what we allow others to call us, we need to know what we stand for, what our values are and how these create our own vision of ourselves. Then, we need to do everything in our power to ensure that that we actually are that person, and names are a very helpful peg to hang this identity on. For me, 'Moomin' (or Mwmyn, if we're being Welsh!) suits me very well, no glamour, plenty of affection and comfort, with a streak of steel but no sharp edge! Maybe, like all of us, I am deluding myself, but it keeps me happy.

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