names, true and untrue

I got to thinking about this after some of the recent LJ discussions on pseudonyms, but it’s something I’ve been mulling for years, one way and another.

You know how in all the fairy stories, knowing someone’s true name gives you power over her? I’ve always felt a little weird about that; I’m not even sure I have one. The name on my driver’s license? I have three, a legacy of living in three countries in three years. Two of them have the same names, though people pronounce it a bit differently; one has a Chinese version of my name (see icon) and on the few occasions I’ve had to answer to it, it has taken me some time to realize they meant me.

I haven’t changed my name ever; I go by Paula, in person, which is one of the names on my birth certificate. There are four on there, or at least on one of my birth certificates: American first, American middle, Hebrew first, Hebrew middle. The Hebrew ones are actually Yiddish: my family was a little confused at the time. Well, not just at the time: my mom’s Hebrew name was not only Yiddish but was actually a man’s name, same as the uncle she was named for. She did adopt a female variant when she became Bat Mitzvah a few years ago.

Not too many people know my ‘Hebrew’ name, though it’s no big secret. No one’s ever called me by it except in Hebrew school, and not always then, because some teachers insisted on assigned a real Hebrew one – you know what teachers are like with names. (Then there was our first grade teacher, who called Brian C. “Byron” all year, despite the obvious lack of a y before an r in the sign on his desk. But I digress.)

I only ever use my American middle name except on legal documents, and my parents didn’t use it when they were mad at me. It belonged to a great aunt, though it’s not my favorite variant of her name, and I feel about it sort of like you do about close family: it is related to me, but not quite me.

“Paula” is the name that causes me to whip my head around when it’s called. It means “small”, which is certainly accurate, or in some of the modern books that want every name to be complimentary, “small but large in determination”, which is right too. I was names after my great-grandmother Pauline, though in her case that was a coming-to-America Anglicization; the Ellis Island records list her as Pole and Polly. It comes from a third-century saint, which always seems weird to a Jewish girl. The person I talk to most, my husband, hardly uses my name at all unless he needs to get my attention, which I think is telling. I use his much more, and really think of him with that name and no other.

Paula is the closest to a me-name I have, and I don’t dislike it, but if I had chosen my own it’s not qhat I’d have picked. (For one think, I’d choose something nicknameable.) But even if I called it my name, which version of it? The way my mother pronounces it is far from the way my husband pronounces it is far again from the way my Texan colleagues said it or my Dutch colleagues or my Taiwanese colleagues. Being mostly vowel, it’s a malleable sort of name. I’ll answer to any reasonable pronunciation, and I won’t get annoyed unless you try to tell me that my real name must actually be Pauline – a particularly stupid piece of officiousness, given that Pauline is a diminutive for Paula and not the other way around.

Paula doesn’t really lend itself to nicknames, except maybe for Polly which no one has ever called me. (I still find it strange that Polly is also a nickname for Mary.) The nickname I had longest was “Herm”, bestowed by my fifth-grade teacher – he nicknamed everyone. It derives in a convoluted way from my last name, and everyone in that class called me by it until we got to junior high school and there were a lot more people who didn’t know me by that name. (I have a feeling it would have stuck much longer, had the Harry Potter books been out then.) I didn’t mind it; it wasn’t generally used in a mean way and I liked feeling that people noticed me enough to have a special name for me.

My first online nom, one I still use, is Air Pilot Grant, used on the LordPeter mailing list and its spinoff, piffle. Some people there still think of me that way, though no one I’ve met in person has ever used it – it’s a bit cumbersome to say. When I joined the list, any person whose name you’d want to take was taken, and for some reason lost in memory I wanted a person rather than a phrase. And I’m a private pilot, and back then I was flying quite a bit. (Right now I don’t fly at all except as a passenger – there is no general aviation in Taiwan.)

The day I began my first blog, I was wearing my first pair of dichroic earrings. Being someone who does a lot of things (at the time I’d been not only rowing but also doing a fair bit of rock climbing, mountain biking, the flying, traveling, etc) and is not expert at any of them, I thought the idea of glass that reflected multiple colors was apt. Since then I’ve been Dichroic on four different blogs and a bunch of other sites like Ravelry. There are people I consider friends who associate me with that name as readily as with Paula, and I probably think of myself as readily with the one as with the other.

When I use Dichroic, it doesn’t feel like a pseudonym. It just feels like one of my names.

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4 Responses to names, true and untrue

  1. LA says:

    Since there are two Paulas in my life who I speak of quite often with Mick you are known as ‘NASA Paula’ whereas the other is ‘Pirate Paula’. For some reason your diary handles don’t stick, probably because Mick doesn’t read your blogs. He, btw, has a school nickname that students and teachers alike use and even his previous girlfriend used exclusively and I never do. We are always running into his students and hearing him called by that other name is weird. But he’s come to like ‘Mick’ and answers to it as easily as his school name or RL name. He thinks ‘Mick’ is cooler than Pat, even if it did start out as a slightly derogatory designation based on his being Irish. Mick the mick.

    As for your name’s pronounciation it’s ‘PAW-luh’ with us. The city inflection wins out and the ‘L’ goes with the second syllable. I imagine the southerners say, ‘paul-LAH’, yes? ~LA

  2. Melissa says:

    I’ve always pronounced your given name Paul-ah, but I have a confession to make on “Dichroic.” For some reason, the first time I read it I thought it was “Dichronic.” I swear, it must have been a year before I actually looked closely at the word and realized it didn’t have an “N,” and then even longer before I reprogrammed my brain to think of it as “Dichroic.”

  3. l'empress says:

    At our house, you are Dichroic Paula, to distinguish you from the others we know. It might have been Arizona Paula (’cause we do tend to name that way), but you move around too much 8)

    I have no given middle name, neither in English nor in Hebrew; I use my maiden initial most of the time. But I did put my maiden name on faceb00k, of all things, because I just might find someone who knew me by that name. And if my “famous” cousin thinks I’m cashing in on his name, I shall remind him that I had it first!

  4. That the use-name for a Hebrew (or Yiddish) name be the name of a Christian saint isn’t unusual. My mother’s “Hebrew” name, for instance, is “Hannah Manya” (no underdot that I can really on getting through), which becomes “Audrey Myrna” in English. “Audrey”, as far as I can tell, is derived from “Etheldreda”, the name of a sixth-century C.E. Saxon saint. Then there are all the Jewish Bernards. That at least has some rationale, as Bernard (who also preached the First Crusade) did protect some Jews once, and so there was a vogue of giving “Bernard” as a use-name. I’m Pesach, but my birth certificate says “Paul”, and I’ve never gone by anything else except when being called to the bima. Another popular theme is the use as given names of family names of powerful families in England; I have a cousin Seymour.

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