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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?