Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Rose By Any Other Name Is Just As Thorny

Most people do not say my name correctly on the first try. Many don't get it right on the second or third attempt either.

It usually goes something like this:

"Hi, I'm Kiersten."
"Oh. Nice to meet you, Kerrsten."
"Oh," person says, clearly giving up and beginning to think I'm an uptight snot for insisting. "OK."

Usually, I'm a duck and this is where I let it roll off my back. Every so often though, like a cicada hitting its 17th year, I become uber sensitive to it. I had a choir director named Gordon who would use ever-changing versions of my name except the correct one, and I (fondly) called him on it until he eventually pleaded for a dispensation to which I magnanimously said, "no problem, Grover".

It's a respect issue and honestly, how hard is it to get right? First of all, I just pronounced it for you. Parrots could, well, parrot it back to me correctly given half the chance (except for the Norwegian Blue, but he has his own set of problems). It's even spelled phonetically! I'm mean, nobody calls Kierkegaard, Kerrkegaard, right? Of course not, because that would be silly.

I grew up in the 80s in a land of Jennifers and Stephanies and Christines where I was almost always the odd one out. The over-sized bifocal glasses, a Dorothy Hamill haircut, and a tendency to wear striped tops with plaid pants didn't help. This was also a time when it was quite popular to have stickers and notebooks and jewelry that featured your name. No revolving kiosk of name stickers at The Hallmark Store ever had KIERSTEN - believe me, I looked. Society conditions us to conform from the a very early age, and above anything else, I wanted to be normal, with a normal name that everyone got right the first time and not the strange girl with the weird name.

Thus in my early adolescence, I went through a phase of wanting to be called Kris; short and sweet with no need to buy that extra vowel. Two fundamental issues stood in my way: 1. I went to school with the same kids I'd been with since kindergarten who would never, ever call me Kris, and 2. The few times people did use it, I forgot they were speaking to me. Kinda important to answer to the name by which you wish to be known.

Ironically, I have a myriad of nicknames, from K to K-squared to Kik and KiKi to Squirt the Flirt (thanks sis) to, well, you don't need to know that one. Suffice to say for someone in a love/hate relationship with her name, I failed to grasp the fact that the people who loved me most rarely used it themselves. My ever-evolving personality had carved out names of its own.

Are we defined by our names? Or do we do the defining? Do we display name-associated characteristics from birth or do we grow into their prophecy? Dickens famously named his characters to reflect their personalities. Scrooge, Cratchit, Havisham, The Artful Dodger, Fagin, Drood, Fezziwig. In my own writing, I've both set out with one name for a character only to end up with someone different, and stayed with the same name all the way through to the happily ever after.

By the time I hit college, I'd come to own my full name, to enjoy the cadence of its five syllables, to be proud of the uniqueness of its spelling. Perhaps I finally realized I'd left normal behind a looonnnngggg time ago (seriously overrated). Or maybe it was because the naming of children had gone full circle until the stranger the name, the trendier the child.

And I do so like to set a trend.

Last week, my landlord's husband called me Kris (spelling mine). He always calls me Kris and after the first six months at the (no longer) new address, I stopped taking note of it. This is a man set in his ways, which more often than not are blurred by too many Pabst Blue Ribbons. He's not gonna get it. But last week, it struck a chord. That's not my name. And I remembered that lonely girl who just wanted to be normal with a normal name.

That's not who I am anymore.


  1. First, glad you've been able to embrace your name. I personally love it, but I can see how it could be difficult growing up. I've always pronounced it Keer-sten in my head. Don't know if that's officially right or not, but you do NOT have a non-normal name, according to my experience. Sure, it's not Jennifer or Michelle, but I've seen some funky spellings and names as a teacher. And Kiersten is nowhere NEAR as weird as some of those.

    As someone who grew up with one of those common names, I can say it's not all it's cracked up to be. I even grabbed a pen name because my name is so dull. Plus, when it came time to name my kids, my husband and I decided to name our kids something to reflect their gender (obviously masculine or feminine, respectively), but not common. They'll thank me later. :D

  2. Hi Noelle!!! Yeah, "Kiersten" has definitely stopped being a non-normal name, but for a while there... It seems that it's always the names we don't have that we want.

    I suppose it fortunate that I never (wanted to) have kids; at a young age, I decided to call any daughters I might have Cassiopeia and/or Athena. But then, I did so love Battlestar Gallactia...

    1. I might have named her either of those, too, but not because of Battlestar Gallactia. More because of the constellations. :D In fact, my two novellas are based on those two - Cassiopeia and Andromeda. Great minds!

  3. Loved your post, Kiersten. I have a similar problem, in that my name is Cris. When people spell it "Chris" I respectfully tell them to please get the H out of there :-)

  4. Ha! Of course you did, Cris. I would expect nothing less from you. xoxo