Playing the Name Game

2 10 2014

Evanny’s name was easy to create–sketched in pencil, doodled on scraps of paper at my desk, invented from bits of genealogical history and attractive syllables, spelled a little reluctantly but come to terms with through familiarity; we can’t imagine any other way of spelling it now, or any other sound to go with who she is. It was fun, too, the doodling; like being a child imagining your name with someone else’s last name, or inventing a nickname no one will ever call you by, but enjoying the fun anyway of experimenting with ways to spell it, imagining it scrawled on your school papers, comparing how it might look in all-caps, in script, in glitter on a door-sign, on a driver’s licence or diploma.

There was a fight to choose it, because Daddy had lists of names he liked, and Mummy had lists of names she’d always thought would be wonderful, and Daddy had known not-altogether-likeable girls by too many of Mummy’s names, and Mummy had either known distasteful counterparts for his or had other too-logical objections to their pronunciation or orthography, but eventually we’d sorted it out, lists in a little notebook, slips of paper scattered across a hotel bed; we made the final commitment to which middle name went with the first in the delivery room, when somebody asked what to write down on the sheet.  Here are some of the names Evanny didn’t have (but I won’t tell you whose were whose, or what the objections were to any of them, since some of you will surely consider those names for your own children, or know people who might use them, or happen to really like them yourselves, and there’s no reason for your liking to be poisoned by our long-since-over quarrels and associations: Celeste, Jorie, Rhiannon, Meriel, Lillian, Siobhan, Aiofe, Ember. (And, of course, the elements that would come to make up the rest of hers and her sister’s: Roisin, Tabitha, Brook.) Since then, her nick-naming has been primarily natural truncation: she’s 3 or 2 or 1 syllable of the same thing, Evanny, “Evvy,” or “Ev,” and then sometimes rhymes, like “Evvy-Bevvy,” which leads to being called “Bev” sometimes as well.

Tabitha’s name, both parts, weren’t just grabbed from what remained of the list.  They were decided long before she came, before we’d even conceived her, and so there was no fight: we’d agreed on Brook as a middle name for a boy or girl either one, and Matt (this is the only one I’ll tell about) had her first name on the maybe-list for Evanny, re-submitted time and again until I finally broke it down and said “Look, I’m not outright rejecting it.  I like the name just fine.  But it doesn’t mean anything special to me; I don’t like it enough to name my only daughter that.  So if we have another one, we’ll call her Tabitha.”  And here she is.  There were boy-names in the maybe-pile, but we hadn’t gotten selective before we knew we didn’t need them; if she’d been a boy, the list would have had on it Jude, Forrest, Eran, Finbar, and Duncan, so far, and there likely would have been more as that debate got heated–I liked “Eran” best, with “Brook,” so I’m sure Matt would have put that at the bottom of his list, just to keep it interesting!

Evanny has taken instantly to calling her “Tabby,” or “baby Tabby,” and Daddy and I do it too, but I haven’t loved it; I like the long form better, by far, than the short, but I don’t like being tied to long forms.  Orthography, though, has become a problem even separate from how I don’t love the sound (Matt says “Tab,” but that has no redeeming qualities at all for me: a tab is a computer-window element, a type of soft drink, a reverse-notch in a file-folder; it’s not my beautiful daughter). My mom was apparently picking on my dad the other day in text for spelling it that way: “like she’s a damn tabby cat,” which surprised me, because I thought the association with cats was part of why everybody was on board with it anyway, and I thought my cat-lady mother would like Tabby-like-a-cat better than anyone.  She only spells it “Tabi,” though, which I totally cannot stand, but as I don’t really like “Tabby” either, I can’t be too annoyed at her for the practice.  So I’ve been trying out other ways to shorten the name, like emphasizing the “Bit” part with “Bitha,” “Bitsy” (read the comments thread, where my friend Elise has explained the best possible pronunciation of going that route), or losing the middle syllable, which happens when you say “Tabitha” quickly anyway; I started with “Tathy,” like my aunt Cathy, who, coincidentally, is the female relative she looks the most like (I see my brother in her features a lot, and Cathy’s father, Tabitha’s great-grandfather Joseph, so when she cries I sometimes commiserate by saying, in the tone with which we called Evanny “Bruce,” “Aww, Joey!”), but the “y” isn’t working for me–it may be what I don’t like about “Tabby” out loud (those bubbly “b”s in the spelling account for themselves).  It doesn’t bother me in “Evanny,” but maybe one’s just enough.  When I put their nicknames together, I don’t want rhyming sounds.  I want them each to be elegant and self-contained on their own, full of the potential for spunkiness and ferocity, dignity and grace.  I like the “y” with the “a”: Evanny and Tabitha, and then following the same practice of cutting out the middle for the two-tone short form leads to “Evvy” and “Tatha.”

I kind of like “Tatha.”  It’s unique, like “Evanny” is unique–not impossible to imagine, spell, or pronounce, but not likely to ever encounter an echo, either, which feels more balanced to me than something there are hundreds of: there are lots of “Tabitha”s on Earth (in Barnes & Noble with Caleb today, I flipped through a Hallowe’en-themed chapter book picked up at random, and, of course, one of the witches–the young one, because one TV role type-cast the name forever–was named “Tabitha.”  Probably, if I’d kept reading, I’d have found that she can turn into a cat), and plenty of “Tab”s and “Tabby”s, but there are few, if any, “Tatha”s; all a Google search turns up is an art gallery in Scotland and a non-offensive Sanskrit word for “similarly” or “also” (which would be a lame name-meaning if that were the whole, but is fine as a nickname for something with a more graceful etymology: “gazelle” in Aramaic, where “Tabitha” was a biblical figure brought back to life).

We’ll see if it sticks.  For now, because of what’s stuck already, she’s called “Tabby” a lot by both the toddler and all of the grandparents here–we’re in our beautiful autumn glut of them, with my dad and grandmother still in town, and Matt’s mum too, and mine texting or popping up on FaceTime–and I’m not of a mind to argue anybody out of a habit, especially anybody hard of hearing anyway (Dad!).  But come winter, when it’s us girls day in and with just the boys day out, we’ll see what happens.  Babies, like pets, tend to name themselves in some ways; you pick things out, you try them out, you say them and say them, and then you find you’re saying something different, like Sejarez becoming “Piddy-the-cat.”  I clearly remember my friend Amy’s son Nicolas as a baby, being introduced to us as “Cole,” and then a few years later meeting her boy Nick, because what they thought they’d say and what came out of their mouths didn’t match.  Matt used to imagine that Caleb would be called “Cal,” but he isn’t–to me it seems silly to imagine that he would, when it’s only in writing that the one bears any resemblance to the other, but the derivations aren’t always direct, and abbreviating doesn’t always make any sense at all.  My friend’s little sister was called “Boo” right up into high school, and there’s no “boo,” not even a “b,” anywhere in her name.  Evanny’s best friend is interchangeably called “Nate” for Nathan, but no one would dream of calling his brother Andrew “Andy.”

It’s one of the more endearing qualities of naming, actually; that the name you’re born with is only a starting point.  Your parents give one to you, and then the communities that surround you–siblings, older family members, friends-of-the-family, and then your own friends, and then your friends’ families, your teachers, your classmates, your workmates–any of them can change it, maybe by leaning a little harder or one syllable or another, a familiar shortening “William” to “Liam” or lengthening “James” to “Jimmy,” a screwball offshoot like calling “Christophers” “Topher”–or they can stick a random moniker on you that becomes yours, sometimes one vaguely related to the name you started with, sometimes related to a deep-seeded attribute, sometimes related to no more than a flickering association.  One of my roommates once dated a man called Bagel–called Bagel by everyone, including this girlfriend, including, as far as I could tell, everyone except certain members of his family (I’m pretty sure she said some of them did it too)–for no reason more resonant than that he’d happened to be eating a bagel on the first day of a theater class in high school where the teacher had decided that, with three or four “David”s in the class to keep track of, she would give them new names instead, based on whatever they had shown up wearing or holding when they walked into the room that morning.  There was no reason in particular for that to stick beyond the parameters of that particular instructor’s whims, but stick it did, and Bagel was his name for the rest of his life.  I had thought, while I was pregnant, and practicing her name, that it would be easy for Tabitha to become “Tabby-cat” (exactly the thing my mother dislikes, apparently), only, because she was so small, it would be “Tabby-kitten,” or “Tabby-kit,” and she’d be called “Kitten” or “Kit” (Matt and I had both toyed with putting “Christopher” on the boy-name list, despite having grown up awash in a sea of “Chris”es, just to be able to call a kid “Kit” anyway, so we were both fond of that possibility), but it hasn’t happened at all yet.  Evanny, with her cat-obsession, her first word being “meow,” the seven stuffed cats she sleeps with (baby-meow, mama-meow, sparkle-kitty, grey cat, orange cat, a tiger she isn’t much impressed by, and the snow leopard she calls “Daniel Tiger”), the picture her dad just this minute sent from his iPhone to mine of her wearing pink cat-ears on her head while they’re shopping at Wal-Mart, I sometimes find myself calling “Kitten” (the name Caleb insisted we planned to give her, invented purely on his own, possibly just to make his mother think we were insane), but Tatha isn’t a kitten yet either.  We don’t really know what she is–she’s still too little, and there’s so much ground already taken, that it’s impossible to guess which parts she’ll carve out for her own.  And she–or her sister, or her brother, for that matter–could still come home from school one day, despite all the planning and conniving in the world that we might do in naming her–re-named “Petunia” because of some inside joke with a friend we haven’t met yet, and that will be what she–or he–is still answering to twenty years from now.  There’s no telling, no even guessing.  And that’s what keeps the name game fun, for pretty much forever.

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3 responses

3 10 2014
elise

Bitta? But soft, said almost like Bidda, which would be the pronunciation step between “Bitha” and the spelling “Bitta”? “Bee” for shorter (“Bi” but sounding “Bee” by which point the shorter nickname, being a nickname might as well be spelled the way it sounds)? That’s where I’d head with it, but my kids don’t even have nicknames or shorter versions, so not like I know from much.
Evvy and Bitta. Ev and Be. They sounds lovely together to me…

3 10 2014
elise

But Tatha is really pretty too…

4 10 2014
tyra

I’ve played with “Bitta” a lot–and that’s exactly how I pronounced it when I did (you’ve done a great job of describing the sound; I don’t think it would have sounded nearly so coherent if I’d tried it! But I had a roommate named Sangeetha, and that’s how the “th” was pronounced when she said it, somewhere between the t and the eth-or-thorn). (A) Because of said roommate, however, I’m already used to how it sounds grating when other people pronounce it with a hard commitment to either letter, and I’m annoyingly easy to annoy like that, and (B) the version with a strong “t” also sounds exactly like Megan Delong saying “you’re welcome” in German in response to every “thank you” uttered in the house when we lived together, and that seems like a silly name for a child. 🙂

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