Have you ever noticed how when people name a baby an unusual name, within the first year or so, you’ll start to hear people say things like “oh, he’s definitely an Ignatius” “he sure grew into his name” “I’m so glad they didn’t name him Steven, he’s not a Steven at all” or things of the like?
Surely you’ve heard variations on this. You may have said them, or have had them said about you or your children.
My mom is probably nodding along at this point, because in the late 70s and early 80s, no boys were named Nicholas or Zachary. Emily was marginally more popular, then, but even still, it wasn’t at all trendy. And heaven knows, there were no Olivias running around.
Today, 25–30 years later, that’s an entirely different story. The names my mother chose are now among the most popular names for children. She’s a trailblazer, clearly.
I know, growing up, I detested my name. I went to school with countless Katies and Kellys. Classrooms were lousy with Jennys and Saras.
For boys…Jasons. Lots and lots of Jasons. Ryans and Michaels, too. Of course, its fair to say that everyone knows lots of Michaels, that one’s been a chart topper for generations.
And then there was me. Olivia.
I never had pencils with my name on them surrounded by sparkly glitter and shiny embossed butterflies. Oh the colors those pencils came in. And pencil cases. Notebooks. School supplies of all shapes and sizes, personalized, with the names of these all-american girls, these Katies and Jennys.
I hated that I didn’t have those things. In fact, to this day, I still buy things that bear my name, out of some half-forgotten regression to the dejected grade-schooler I once was. Which is how, I’ve ended up with boxes of kitschy crap bearing my name, from the miniature coffee cup to the name plaque, it’s all stuffed in boxes in my new house.
What am I going to do with it? Build a shrine to my name?
Of course, as a full-fledged adult, the thing that bothers me now is that there are Olivias EVERYWHERE. They’re all 4 and 5 years old, but they’re flooding this earth. You can hardly turn around without bumping into one. This is bizarre for me, as I didn’t meet another person bearing my name until I was 19-years-old.
And she was a 90+ year old woman.
Now, when I’m in Target, I suffer for hearing mothers yelling “Olivia, stop that right now!” or “Come here, Olivia” or “Olivia, pick one” and similar. I turn each and every time. A lifetime of turning at hearing my name, knowing beyond a doubt that I was the recipient of the call cannot be erased. The Jennys and Katies probably don’t turn when they hear someone call their name in Target, that’s just another difference in our names.
I lament the days when my name was my own and it was unique to me. Utterly and totally my own-not to be shared with anyone else. I wish it weren’t so popular. I’d happily trade all the shiny items emblazoned with my name for the singular experience of being one-of-a-kind.
It’s funny, the things that you realize as an adult. If I had known how important it would become to be distinct, rather than just one of the pack, I’d have worried less as a kid and probably thanked my parents for their intrepid naming skills. Of course, there is nothing I can do. People are naming little girls Olivia and it’s a force that cannot be stopped.
And I’m left wondering, what will that do to my name? I believe that my name suits me perfectly. I’m sweet and pretty, but unusual and unique, all at the same time. I more of an acquired taste rather than someone that everyone can agree on. Once you love me, you’ll love me forever, but it might take a while. I’m not easy. I go with the flow, it’s in my nature, and I strive for peace and harmony, but I’m also a handful.
Olivia the woman and Olivia the name, we’re one and the same.
But what if we weren’t?
I mean, have you ever met someone and thought “oh she must be a Julia” and found out that her name is Gertrude? Do you ever identify more with the name than the person? For instance, all of the Ryans that I know are quiet, fun-but-studious, a little geeky, but generally someone you’d describe as a “good guy”.
By contrast, the Jasons I know are more high-maintenance. They’re awesome and loyal and forever kind of friends, but they take more work than the Ryans.
Now, I’m well aware that these are individual people, and a name does not dictate who you are going to be, but there must be some influence extended by naming. How else do you explain the common threads?
Let’s think about me.
What if my name were Katie?
Would I be the same person? How could I possibly be? I wouldn’t have been shaped by being unique and standing out in a crowd, but instead by being one of a pack. I’d be used to being Katie M. or even Katie Moris if there were other Katie Ms in my class. I wouldn’t respond to every call of Katie in a crowd, waiting instead for a more distinct identifier to determine if they were talking to me. Those little moments help make us, mold us, shape us into the people we become.
When I started, I was talking about giving a child a different name and then the phenomenon of “growing into it”. It does happen. You’re shaped by the effect your name has on you and your life and you do become a product of your name. My friend Sonya has a little boy, Dylan, who is 3. When she was pregnant, they were debating naming him Axel. I was in LOVE with that name and seriously campaigning to make it happen. Well, his name is Dylan.
I was disappointed. Dylan seemed so…wrong at first. However, this little boy is no Axel. Not even close. He doesn’t have the edge, the funk, required to be an Axel. He’s sunshine and sweetness and intense focus. He’s a Dylan. No doubt. They chose correctly and he grew into his name.
But, what if that doesn’t happen?
Surely, occasionally, for whatever reason, the name and the person just don’t match?
There is a woman I work with. She’s probably in her mid-40s. She’s a nice enough person, though I don’t know her well. Her name is Sarah. And I have a huge problem with that. She is NOT a Sarah. Not even close. I’ve known Sarahs (and I’m specifically talking about SaraHs, not Saras…different kettle of fish altogether) and when I address this woman, it sounds weird coming out of my mouth. My brain actually has trouble processing what I know to be true. Her name is Sarah. Honestly, if she came up and said her middle name was actually Sarah and she uses it because she likes it better, I’d not be shocked at all. If I had to guess, this woman is a Margaret.
What’s my point? (I’d actually be curious to know how long you’ve been wondering that?)
I don’t have one. Names are very dear to my heart. I love names. If I could figure a way to make a living studying names, I’d leap at the chance. This whole business always lurks in the back of my mind. Every so often I find a reason to bring it up. Today, Sarah/Margaret came in to talk to me and I had to force myself to call her Sarah, out loud. And I found myself wondering if her life would have been easier or just different if her parents had had the courage to name her Margaret or Ivette or Patrice or anything at all but Sarah.
And still, I find myself absurdly grateful that my fine folks had the gumption to go with Olivia back in ’79. Couldn’t have been easy, but it’s eminently worth it. I can vouch for that.