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What’s in a Name? Reflections on Who We are and What We are Called

When you think of a name — or your name — what story or memory comes to mind?

The first thing that many of us are ever given is our name. They are words that identify us, worn on everything from our personalities to neatly filed documents in a doctor’s office.

Our names may be reflections of sounds that appealed to an ear or living memories of a loved one that has passed. Some of us grow into our names — maybe we like the way they roll off the tongue, or maybe we just get used to them. And some of us decide that they just don’t fit.

Those name changes can mark a shift in identity, or a new chapter in life. Last year, one of the NBA’s most beloved players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, wrote about shedding the name Lew Alcindor, the name he made his basketball debut with. He called the transition “not merely a change in celebrity brand name — like Sean Combs to Puff Daddy to Diddy to P. Diddy — but a transformation of heart, mind and soul…I’m Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the manifestation of my African history, culture and beliefs.”

Our names can reflect the histories that we want to hold on to, or the histories that we want to erase. The transcendental literary icon and luminary of the high school required reading list, Nathaniel Hawthorne, changed his last name by adding the letter “w” to his original family name, Hathorne. It is said that he was trying to escape his family’s association with the Salem witch trials, particularly his relation to John Hathorne, the only judge involved in the trials that never apologized for his actions.

What we are called can have heavy connotations beyond the histories they carry — sometimes it’s just the meaning of a name that can be troubling. During my own experience in Morocco as a student abroad, I met someone named Abdallah, which in Arabic, translates to “servant of God.” While Abdallah eventually moved past the Islamic beliefs he was raised with and now considers himself agnostic, he shared that his name is something he feels trapped in — it doesn’t reflect who he is now, and it’s difficult to change it in an Islamic kingdom.

While some may struggle with their names into adulthood, others may choose to make a statement by retaining the name they have grown comfortable with. After rejecting the institution of marriage for most of her life and throughout her career as a leader of the second-wave feminist movement, Gloria Steinem wed David Bale in 2000. Steinem kept her last name though, while Beyoncé, an icon of the current wave of emancipated femininity, fused her name with her husband’s, becoming a Knowles-Carter in 2008.

Big names like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gloria Steinem, and Beyoncé weren’t the only ones to discuss and play on identity with their titles. The changing or retention of a name, the most outer part of ourselves, is a powerful means to share our internal selves with others.

So often, the search for a reason behind what we are called serves as a gateway to the past, and we fall into the lap of discussions that took place before or around the time of our birth between people that named us. So I’d like to invite you to be part of a project that explores identity through names:

When you think of a name — or your name — what story or memory comes to mind?

Share a story or a memory about how your name — or any name — has (or hasn’t) been able to shift, reflect, or grow with you over time.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for the stories you share and I will reach out to some of you for On Being’s Your Audio Selfie project.

Share your reflection