What’s in a name?
As Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But is that really the case with all things? I’m not so sure. I mean would he have had the same career if Archibald Leach not changed his name to Cary Grant? Sure, the looks and talent would have been the same, but then, the arts are rife with stories of name changes for a variety of reasons.
But this week’s question isn’t about any of them, it’s about me, ain’t it
So, let’s think about this for a second. When I teach creative writing, I have a whole lecture on character names. We talk about how one of the first commandments God gave to Adam and Eve was to go forth and name the animals and thus have dominion over them. If you name it, it’s yours. Therefore, it makes sense that knowing something’s true name can give you power over it.
We see this play out in fairy tales all over the place. Look at Rumpelstiltskin. The entirety of the plot hinges on our heroine not being able to figure out what the weird little dude’s name is, and as soon as she does, poof, he no longer has control, and she does.
Pretty wild, right?
Furthermore, we know people are judged by their names. In that lecture I mentioned, I talk about the fact that William is not Will is not Bill is not Billy. Each of those monikers has their own distinct personality and character features. This is why we’re all enamored of those silly baby name books which give you the “meaning” behind your name.
(Short digression here: when I was 17 and dating the wonderful Gail Glass, that year, for the holidays, she got me a wonderful present, a baby name book…which I opened in front of my parents. I’ll never forget the look on their face and tentative “is there something you want to tell us?” they asked. When I explained it was for my writing, they seemed to breathe a bit easier)
And if you have a unique spelling of your name, you get to be the only kid who doesn’t get the souvenir bicycle license plate or personalized mug from Disneyland, which isn’t fun.
Nowadays, as people are getting more comfortable (and society, thankfully, more accepting) with who they are born as, we are often asked of our friends and family to call them by a new name, one chosen by them to reflect who they really and truly are.
All of which brings me to the fact that on my original birth certificate, my name was John.
Can you imagine? Me? A John? Hooker jokes aside, I just don’t see it. But that’s the story, according to family lore.
See, as I mentioned in my answer a few weeks back, I was named for my paternal grandfather, Jack. I’ll wager there was never any type of discussion about that, either. Mom gets pregnant, dad says “when it’s a boy, Jack it is.” (Dad was pretty sure I was gonna be a boy from the outset – that was the plan: boy first, then girl). Out I come with all the prerequisite boy parts, dad is proven correct, and off he goes to the registrar (or whoever it was at the hospital in those days who typed up the birth certificates). He stands in front of her (I’m not making a sexist assumption it was a “her” since a) it was 1967 and b) a female pronoun was always used for this part of the story).
Dad has now discovered his first child is a boy, he has marched down to the women who does the typing, and he proudly, and loudly (if you know my dad, you understand what I’m saying), proclaims: “I have a son, his name is Jack. I need a birth certificate!” (there might have been an anachronistic “Make it so” in there as well, we don’t know, it was a long time ago and you weren’t there). The woman nods and bends over her typewriter, diligently hunting and pecking out the appropriate letters.
As she finishes, she pulls the official document from the platen with a flourish, then, with grace and aplomb (she’s been dealing with new fathers her entire shift and then some) she hands it off to my dad.
Dad takes it and looks down to see his son’s name written out for the first time, a boy, to carry on the family name and honor his late father, only to read the four letters J-O-H-N above the line for “first name.”
“Umm,” dad says, looking at the paper confusedly.
“Yes?” says the woman, who is probably waiting to go on a smoke break.
Dad hands the paper back. “His name is Jack. J-A-C-K. Not John.”
“Jack isn’t a real name, it’s a nickname. Short for John.” The woman shakes her head, not sure why she’s dealing with this before she’s had her cigarette break (if you know my family history, I imagine this is something akin to a waiter telling my mom “it’s not my station” when she asks for a cup of coffee at 5am).
At this point, again, if you know my father, you can imagine what happens next. If you don’t know my father, Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces will substitute nicely. Needless to say, the first birth certificate was destroyed, and my name was officially “Jack.”
And it stayed that way for about 17 years.
See, here’s the thing about the name “Jack.” According to all those baby name books I mentioned above (now converted to baby name websites), while it started out meaning “God is gracious,” it quickly became very popular. According to Nameberry.com, “The name was so common in the Middle Ages that Jack became a generic term for a man.”
“Jack” is the everyman. This is why all of the fairytales feature a hero called “Jack.” You can just slot him in anywhere and, voila, the reader gets the idea that he’s just an ordinary Joe…named Jack.
Then, at around the age of 17, I realized, as most 17-year-olds do, that I didn’t want to be ordinary. But at the same time, I’d kind of gotten used to the name. Not only did I respond well to it, but there was a history, a lineage which I was proud of and wanted to maintain. I had a dilemma on my hands. My first solution was “Jax,” but it didn’t quite fit. Then I discovered “Jaq.”
That was it.
It worked. It fit me. I was the unconventional everyman. I could work with that. And I have.
I can’t imagine it being any different. Even writing “Jack” in this essay feels weird when I know I’m referring to myself. It’s like my folks gave me the utterance, but I took the written form and made it my own.
Sure, that may not answer exactly the question “how did your parents pick your name?” but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than merely stating: “It was my grandfather’s.”