Don’t wear it out.

We call it a rose. A remarkable number of languages have a word similar to the English, though of course some languages break the pattern. The Turks say gül, the Romance languages say rosa, except for Romanian, which rebelliously uses trandafir, and the Slovenians, like most Slavs, remove as many vowels as they can manage with their word vrtnica. While it’s true that the physical object of a rose would not change character were we to call it by any other name, we still call it a rose because that’s the word that belongs to it in English. A rose is a rose.

Not a rose.

The flowers may not care what we call them, but names mean more to us. Our names are linked to our identities in a much more complete way, to the point that when someone calls us by a different name, it feels wrong, like we are not recognized. How many times have we said, “He called me Stacey? That’s not right! I soooo don’t look like a Stacey.” If it happens enough, we might even feel insulted. Names – and the act of naming – are powerful.

Most of us also have strong feelings about whether or not we like our names to be shortened or lengthened or altered for the sake of familiarity. –“Is it Jon or Jonathan?” –“He’s okay with Rob or Robert, but don’t dare call him Bob.” –“No, please, don’t call me Steph because it reminds me of a bitchy cheerleader. I prefer Stephanie.

We either love or hate our names because of the power they hold over us, over how we feel about ourselves, or how we think others see us.

Leonore. Lee-oh-nore. You can call me Lee or Leo. But not Lauren. Not Eleanor. Not Lorraine. And certainly not Lori-nell. Those are all fine names. They’re just not mine. If you do call me the wrong name, it wouldn’t change me or my character, but it would make me feel like you didn’t understand me at all.

It’s not a common name, at least not in America. (In Portugal, Leonor is not in the “Most Popular Names” lists but it regularly appears on a more general list of names, which never happens in lists of American names.) It made its first appearance in the top 1000 baby names in 1881, and made 24 more appearances over the next 48 years, peaking at #724 in 1906. It made its last appearance in 1929 and hasn’t been seen since.

There were days when I was a child when I wished I had been named something as simple as Rose (I bet she was never called by another name.) Or Christine. Or Jessica. I didn’t have any special desire for any of those names, but just wanted one that I didn’t have to explain or pronounce five times before someone could finally mangle it into a more recognizable form. For a 5-year-old girl first going to school, my name was a burden.

Also not a rose.

Then things changed. I started to embrace the fact that it is an unusual name. It made me feel special. This helped me connect with other aspects of my life or personality that were different from the other kids at school. As I accepted my name, I also accepted myself.

At some point in those first years of school, someone decided that I was spelling and/or saying my name incorrectly and changed my official school record to Lenore. At the beginning of each new academic year, I’d instruct yet another teacher on the correct pronunciation and spelling of my name, and explain that the school office hadn’t yet fixed the error. In high school, I finally insisted that they put the correct name on record so that my diploma would not feature someone else’s name.

Lenore is more common than my name, but it certainly is no Jennifer or Elizabeth. It appeared in the top 1000 only one year before my name, in 1880, but remained in the rankings each year until 1973. Its top rank was #308 in 1915.

They both come from a common root, thought to be Helen, meaning ‘light’ in Greek and coming into English first as Eleanor and then as Lenore/a. Other variations are Leonore/a in German, and Leonor in Portuguese. (No, I have no idea why my Portuguese mother tacked on the extra -e to make my name German.)

English speakers seem to think that Leonore is pronounced the same as Lenore (leh-NORE), and this continues to be the single most frequent correction I have to make. Some people stubbornly hold onto the incorrect pronunciation even after I inform them of the difference. For a while, I would let it go because I felt too shy or awkward to speak up, but in more recent years, I’ve become more insistent about my name.

After defending my name for so long, I have become very protective of it. I have gotten strangely jealous at the idea of other people having the name Leonore (it should belong just to me!), but variations never bothered me. In fact, I have long been predisposed to favor women named Lenore. I felt like they could understand the relationship I had with my name without having to steal it from me.

Maybe roses are overrated.

It started in second grade. Lenore was the new kid in school that year. She was nice, pretty, and on her way to being in the popular crowd that was already forming. Still, I overcame my shyness and we became friends, bonding over our names. For once I got to know what it felt like for a teacher to ask us to both use the initial of our last names so she could tell us apart. Apparently the different spellings and appearances weren’t enough, but it didn’t matter. I enjoyed spending the year writing Leonore R. on my homework to distinguish myself from Lenore F. It was nice to share the usual ordeal of having an unusual name at that age.

When I entered the blogging universe, I found a blog called Lenore’s Thoughts Exactly, and of course I had to go poke around. As I suspected would happen, I was drawn in further and further the more I read. I followed her, started commenting, and shared a few emails. We discovered more things that we had in common beyond our similar names: a preference for simple strong coffee (hers black, mine with milk); skepticism about ever ‘upgrading’ to a smart phone (but mine has a keyboard); a large family (she has one more sibling); memories of our fathers’ distinctive voices and character (Boston vs European); and of course, writing.

We were alike, but also not alike. Leonore and Lenore.

I knew I would like her were I ever to meet her.

I was right.

We finally met in person over breakfast on her way back home. Facing a long drive down the Eastern Seaboard, she and her family generously interrupted their road progress to have some omelettes and chocolate chip pancakes while we got to talk face to face – instead of screen to screen – for the first time.

A daffodil is so decidedly itself.

“I might babble,” she said. “That’s good because I’m pretty shy at first,” I said.

“I’ll blush red like a beet!” she said. “I won’t, but I’ll probably stammer a lot!” I said.

None of those things happened, of course. Instead, we had some great conversation over yummy food, and there was a lot laughing. In no time at all, the hour was over and it was time to get back on the road.

But first, there was proof of our meeting and how well it went. Although she may criticize herself without makeup (nonsense!) and I complain about my roots (nothing a little touch up won’t fix!), it is a fantastic picture and I don’t even care how I look because of the good memory it will always evoke.

I will continue to insist on the correct pronunciation of my name because it’s so tied up in who I am. I don’t want another name, just the one that belongs to me. And besides, Lenore already belongs to someone pretty great, and she deserves the name that belongs to her.

A rose, after all, is still called a rose, but not all of us are roses.

How do you feel about your name?

35 thoughts on “Don’t wear it out.

    • Thanks, Georgette! I was glad we managed it, too. I’d originally had plans but then they fell through and that left me free to meet up when they were passing through the area.

  1. Great article – wasn’t quite sure where it was going at first but glad I carried on! Loved reading about your flying meet up with your namesake. As you can see, my name is also fairly unusual – & yes, I do have to confirm the spelling sometimes as people want to spell it with a J(?!!) but I like it. The only other Geraldine I shared lessons with was at university – the first time either of us had met another one – & we inevitably ended up in nearly all the same seminar groups etc. So that was my first (& only) experience of wondering if someone meant me when I heard ‘my’ name called out!

    • Thanks! Actually, your name is quite familiar to my ears. One of my mother’s best friends is named Marge and she named her daughter Geraldine. I was around her a lot when I was young enough that my mother had to drag me along whenever she visited Marge at her house, and of course she and her husband often came to visit us. She talked frequently enough about Geraldine that I felt I knew her well even though I’d only actually met her a few times. Marge has a very very thick New York accent, so when I read your name and immediately associated it with her, I “heard” your comment in that accent :)

  2. Great story. Yes, it IS unsettling when someone calls you by the wrong name. Recently, someone addressed me as ‘Karen’, and I spent the weekend worrying about how I could possibly look like someone with this name. My only real problem with my name is that it dates me pretty exactly. I couldn’t be under 55, or over 70. In England anyway.

    • That’s really interesting about how the name dates you. I know how some names seem like they belong to a particular generation, but I think there are enough younger Margarets in America that I wouldn’t have associated your name with that age range.

      How does someone get “Karen” from “Margaret”?

      I had a friend in high school whose father was an amateur portrait photographer and he liked to go to school functions and take pictures of all of us. He never ever got my name right. In fact, I think he called me something different each time. That’s where the “Lori-nell” came from. I think that was the only time I was truly amused to hear how my name could be mangled :)

  3. Oh my goodness, Leonore. I have tears in my eyes. This post is so personal on many levels, not least of which is my name.
    I feel silly saying this because it seems obvious, still – I can relate to everything you wrote here. I chuckled with your sentence, “… I wished I had been named something as simple as Rose (I bet she was never called by another name.)” True and funny. And, I share in the desire to protect my name, as well as feeling a bit of jealousy when I meet someone with my name.
    This was wonderful. As I’ve said numerous times already, I am so glad we met. Thank you.

    In other news, I know I told you I cringe when folks call me “Lorraine”, but I forgot to tell you that I cringe the most when folks call me “Lorna”. *shudder* Also, I get the sense I speak too quickly for some, because when I say my name is “Lenore” they return by calling me “Linda Orr”.

    • See, I was right! A Lenore and a Leonore always understand each other :) It was definitely good that we met!

      I’ve gotten Lorna too and it’s horrible! No offense to anyone out there named Lorna, but it’s just not a name that fits either one of us. My sister once introduced me to some of her friends when I was in high school, and she must have been speaking quickly too because they all thought she said “Eeyore!” These were guys that worked at the sporting goods store with her. A few months later, I also started working at the store and my nickname was Eeyore for quite a long time in that crowd! :)

      This one was dedicated to us :) I’m so glad you liked it!

  4. Well, this may come as a shock, but I hated my name growing up. I still don’t like it very much. I find the older I get, the less I hate it (ha!) and like you said, it’s unique so that counts for something. I’ve only met one other Darla in my entire life (a waitress about 20 years ago!) But can you believe people actually don’t know how to spell it? How else would you spell it?! And pronounce it…they’ll say, Dana, Darly, Dara. If people would just say what is right there–like your name. Leo-nore. If you say it like it’s written out, you’ll be fine. sheesh.

    How cool you met Lenore and you guys have such a great connection with the names! I personally love either name. I’ll trade you for mine?

    • Of course, Darla was the super badass vampire in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And wasn’t there that cartoon, too? I think it’s a really cool name, actually, though I do see how it can too easily be turned into Darlin’ and that would probably get annoying. It boggles my mind how people can mispronounce it! I mean, I’ve always been more of a visual than an aural person, so if I were hearing the name, it might take me 2 times to make sure I got it right, so I have a bit of sympathy. But if your name were on my roster, I don’t see how I could get it wrong. It’s pretty much as straightforward as it gets :)

      Come to think of it, that’s how I think of the personality that would match the name. Straightforward, cards on the table, this-is-me-and-this-is-what-you-get. That’s the feeling I’ve always gotten from your writing as well, which is probably why I like it so much :)

      How’s this for a deal: whenever we feel like messing with people we’ll never see again and have to give a false name to facilitate the false persona, you can use Leonore and I’ll use Darla. We can be each other’s aliases!

      • But has anyone ever serenaded you with “I’m in the mood for love” with soap bubbles coming out of his mouth? :)

        It’s official then. Whenever I need to give someone a fake name, I’ll be Darla. And make sure no one mispronounces your new alias :)

  5. I always liked my name (Clare), especially the particular spelling. I only knew one other Claire when I was growing up – the name is much more more popular now. I was named after a woman who was important in my mother’s childhood, when I was born on her birthday. My name is commonly spelled wrong but at least it is never mispronounced. That must have been annoying to have your high school records wrong!

    • Clare is a lovely name. I don’t think I even registered that it was spelled differently until you mentioned it, but now I notice it. I can’t help but think of Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show. I’ve always thought that Clare belongs to a woman who is gentle and charming.

      It was quite annoying that they changed the records. I’m sure it was a thoughtless secretary who just assumed it was the more common Lenore. It happens to me all the time with my last name, which is spelled with an -s at the end, but I’ve watched people write or type -z even as I am spelling it out for them and emphasizing the “esssssssssss” *smacks forehead*

  6. What a lovely post! It strikes a chord too..
    I too grew up hating my Sanskrit based name – Pradnya (which has a lofty meaning – wisdom :) ). Not only was it difficult to spell in English (because its actual pronunciation is slightly different, so people would write it incorrectly all the time), but also due the fact that it would be pronounced differently by people whose mothertongue wasnt Marathi (my mothertongue). As a result, based on the mothertongue of the speaker, I have been ‘called names’ – pragna, prajna, pragya, pradannya, pradhnya are more popular variations. Since most of the Indian languages are Sanskrit based, these variations hold true in those respective languages. Eg : What they mean by ‘Pradnya’ in Marathi is same as what they mean by Pragna in Gujarati! As a result, there have been times when people actually offered to ‘correct’ me and inform me that the correct way to pronounce should be say ‘Pragna’ and not ‘Pradnya’ etc etc :)
    Over the years, I too have come to love my name :) and for similar reasons :)

    • I guess I had more problems because my name is pronounced the way it would be in Portuguese, but it’s spelled the way it would be in German. And I’ve heard of people who spelled their name the same as I do but pronounce it the same as Lenore.

      I cringe when I hear about someone telling you how you are “supposed” to pronounce your name. I get that sometimes with my surname: Rodrigues. I was once chastised for “ignoring my heritage” by not pronouncing my name with a Spanish accent. Fortunately for this man, the exchange was over the phone so he could not see how murderous my look was. I don’t take kindly to people telling me what I’m “supposed” to do. I simply said, “Well, why would I want to claim a Spanish heritage when I’m Portuguese?”

      Speaking of which, I looked up the area where Marathi is spoken, and I might have to learn a little bit because if I ever visit India, I want to start in Goa because of its history with the Portuguese.

      I’m glad you like your name, which I think is quite pretty. And thanks for commenting! :)

    • That’s a great idea. One of the things I love so much about teaching foreign students is how interesting discussions like this can be. We all have such an intimate relationship with our names and it gives us lots to talk about.

      I like the name Elizabeth but it sounds even prettier in Polish :)

  7. Aaah! So awesome that you got to meet Lenore! The rest of the post was, of course, also a delight to read.

    I was “Debbie” through middle school. There came a point when that felt too chipper and not me at all, so for years I was “Deborah.” In college, I had a couple of friends who called me “Deb” but I didn’t really adopt it until I started writing lots of work emails. Now I’m much more comfortable with “Deb.”

    It was a joke at my office that no one wanted to be around if someone called me “Debbie,” but I feel a little mellower about it the last year. A very little, but still just enough that folks know that no heads will go rolling if someone inadvertently calls me that. I still take it as a marker that someone is not friendship material if they call me “Debbie” more than twice (and are not either my best, first girlfriend or my first Little Sister from Big Brothers/Big Sisters).

  8. Omigosh! How weird! A whole entire post devoted to names…and that was what I’d just written about. I love your name, Leonore. I think I told you long ago that one of my oldest friends’ name was Leonore. We still cross paths once in a while. I remember singing her name to sleep: “L – E-O-N-O-R-E She is a good friend to me.”

    Weird? Maybe. But that’s how I immediately connected with you.

    Once you shared your name, of course.

  9. Nearly a year ago to the date of your 8.9.12 ”name post,” Lenore, on August 13, 2011, I wrote about names on my blog,The Last Leaf Gardener, a blog as I’ve told you before that (mostly) gives voice to what lives in a garden.

    So my “name” narrative was in relation to what grows in my urban (NYC) garden. This year, on August 13, 2011, I posted a follow up to my ”name post,” and now I’ve discovered your name posting! I have not visited your pages in a while and I\’m posting a comment to let you know I enjoyed your post, so much show that I sent you a tweet (I’m thellgardener on Twitter) the other day to see if I could quote you, if, and when, I complete a project that I am doing in relation to names of things which grow in a garden on indiegogo. Actually one of my plants would be quoting you which we would discuss if we have a convo about this. How can I reach you?

    Meanwhile, hope you\’ll come check out The Last Leaf Gardener\’s post @ http://www.thelastleafgardener.com/2012/08/one-year-later-whatever-happened-to-my.html

    • I loved your update post, as well as the original one from last year. I hadn’t seen your tweet until you just told me (I kinda forget to check Twitter sometimes!)

      I’d be delighted to be quoted by one of your plants! You can reach me at asalinguist@gmail.com. Or, WordPress lists your email address on my “manage comments” page and I can shoot you an email there.

  10. I loved this entry. it struck a key with me, especially bc I used to dread the uniqueness of my own name as well (although my middle name is Rosa). It’s nice to know that I am not the only one who sees the small differences that can make someone or something special.

    Take care.

    -Y

    • Yolanda! How great to hear from you! Glad you’re still reading and enjoyed the post. I always thought Yolanda was a lovely name, but I can see how people would give it different pronunciations from the one you prefer.

      Hope you’re doing well!

  11. I’ve never liked it when people shortened my name, Brianna, and called me Bri. However, its also annoying when people mispronounce my name and I have to correct them. One summer I was a camp counselor and knew I would be meeting a new group of kids every week and would have to deal with the mis pronunciation thing a lot. So I went for the lesser of two evils and just told everyone to call me “Bri.” It was actually really fun. It was almost like an alternate identity. I was myself, of course, but I was also someone slightly different than myself. I was a fun, care free, energetic camp version of myself. All because of a simple name change.

    Thanks for writing and keeping up with your blog. I love reading it.

    • And now you’re Bri the Blogger! I think I might also not like Bri too much because it would always remind me of the cheese, brie. And Brianna is a lovely name. It’s hard to imagine how people would mispronounce it, but I’ve finally stopped being amazed at how many people can screw up simple things ;)

      I never thought of it, but you’re right about the way a different version of a name can feel like a different identity. I think ‘Leo’ is a bit of a different person than ‘Leonore’. Hrm, I can have fun with this!

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I haven’t been that great about keeping up the blog in these past 2 weeks, but the start of the semester is always kooky. Luckily I’m finally settling down and should be posting in a few days :)

      • It absolutely reminds me of the cheese, as well, which is why I always hated it as a good. If it was a cheese I thought was tasty it might be a different story, but I don’t like Brie cheese so have the nickname of Bri always annoyed me. People mispronounce the middle “a” sound. It’s supposed to be a short a sound, like “anna” but some people pronounce it like a short “o” sound. And then there is the occasional person who really isn’t paying attention and they pronounce it like the boys name Brian but with an “a” at the end. Crazy!

        Looking forward to reading your next post :)

  12. Pingback: Quid plura? | “I bit off more than I can chew, only so much you can do…”

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