What’s in a Name?


Naming babies has been a hot news topic lately.  Maybe it’s the season, what with Mother’s Day and the rebirth of life that we associate with spring.   And while I’m no longer a potential mom with babies to name, I may be consulted (or allowed to comment) as I was with my grandson, Kyler, so it’s good to know the latest on the subject.  Also, I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know that a gal named Jeffee has a few opinions on the subject.

In naming news on CNN, I was surprised to hear that Jacob tops the list of boy names for the 13th year in a row.   If the name is so popular, why do I still envision a Jacob with a tall hat and long, floppy sideburns?   As for girls, Sophie moved to No. 1, supplanting Isabella, which moved down to No. 2.  I don’t have much reason to oppose the name choice of Sophie (despite it being a great name for a poodle), but are all those Isabellas destined to be called “Izzie?”  (Personally, I would hate that.  I can already hear cruel kids yelling out, “Fizzie-Izzie!”)

In keeping with the political season, NPR reported on a significant red state/blue state divide on names.  Ironically, more progressive communities favor more old-fashioned names, while parents in more conservative areas come up with more creative or androgynous names.  The reason lies in the age of the mothers.  Red state mothers are much younger and tend to be more imaginative than the women who wait later to have babies.

From a psychological perspective, journalist Faith Saile had a commentary on CBS Sunday Morning about baby naming and how names matter.  She advanced the concept of “name as destiny” and the research about children with “unfortunate” names having more problems in life including drug use, discipline problems, and failure to get job interviews.  She also cited to a recent poll on “name regret” showing that more than half of parents wished they had chosen a different name for their children.  (Maybe those red state mothers?)

Ms. Saile’s point that names influence who you become makes sense to me.  After all, have you ever met an Oscar who wasn’t a “perfect” Oscar?  While I’m no psychologist, it seems likely that the reactions of other people to a particular name, influences and shapes an individual’s personality in subtle but significant ways.  In other words, the child Oscar himself absorbs and incorporates the Oscar stereotype as he grows up.

Being named something unusual, I escaped the Oscar phenomenon; no one had any Jeffee stereotypes to apply to me.  But my name has presented me with certain challenges to overcome.  I remember many first days of school where I was  pre-seated in the boys section, if there was one, or in the middle of two girls if we were seated boy-girl-boy-girl. It was guaranteed to shine at least a sliver of extra attention on me that first day, attention that this painfully shy child had to learn to tolerate.

On the positive side, my name has always been a guaranteed icebreaker.  Upon meeting someone new, it has always given us something to talk about because, invariably, the first question is “Is Jeffee a nickname?”  And then “So, where did that name come from?”  I can then respond with the prolonged explanation that Great-Grandfather Gaddis (and presumably great-grandmother, Sarah Campbell Gaddis) wanted to honor southern Generals Jefferson Davis and Andrew Jackson by naming their third child, hopefully a boy, Jefferson Andrew.  Instead, the third daughter was named Jeffee Ann.   It wasn’t until their eighth try that my grandfather and only boy, Jack Campbell, blessed the Gaddis household.  Grandfather and grandmother Madeline would name their first-born daughter after great-aunt Jeffee, with middle name Kay.  When I came along — Jeffee Kay’s first-born daughter — it was decided that I’d be Jeffee Lynn in this short-lived family tradition.  Needless to say, by the time I’ve finished this explanation, the new acquaintance and I are old friends.

The biggest challenge has been one I still face.  Apparently, Jeffee and Jessie are impossible to distinguish on the phone.  I’ll carefully spell my name (specifying “f” as in Frank) but they will invariably say, “Okay, Jessie.”  I’ll stop them thus:  “No, it’s like the boy’s name, Jeff with two e’s on the end.”  That works only about half of the time.  For those who insist upon Jessie, I then ask whether they are familiar with the actor Jeff Bridges.  Since that generally rings a bell, I’ll walk them through the exercise of taking the first name of actor and adding two e’s to it.  Usually that approach will work, but it can be exhausting, particularly if you are just trying to make an appointment or phone in a to-go order.

Sometimes, I’ve gone so far as to choose an alternative for Jeffee, some name that is easily understood.  For example, at the sandwich shop near my office, when I mostly used the pick-up window, I was known as Jamie.  Eventually, I started going inside and interacting a bit more with the staff and had to come clean about my name.  It was a bit embarrassing to tell them I’d been lying about my name for so long.  Although they acted like they understood, I could feel them wondering, “What kind of a person does that?”

There is a whole other set of problems when you share the same name with another person you live with, in this case, my mother.  Unless you knew the caller, it was a time-consuming ordeal for me to respond to, “May I speak to Jeffee?”  But it was a real minefield for the caller:  Did they want old Jeffee or young Jeffee?  Big Jeffee or little Jeffee?  Jeffee Kay or Jeffee Lynn wouldn’t work because neither of us used our middle names outside the family.   My mother was probably more diplomatic at sifting through the callers than I was.  We eventually got separate phone lines.

Dagan & Dax

Needless to say, my two sons, Dagan (like Reagan) and Dax (like Max), were not named after anyone, although their names are sufficiently unusual that they often have to spell them.   They have managed to grow up  free of any preconceptions about what a Dax or Dagan should be or look like (see picture at right for a “perfect” Dax and Dagan).   Our parental naming efforts were rewarded when my older son told me that he was glad we had named him Dagan, because it made him feel special.  He said he liked the fact that he could use his one single first name instead of needing a last name like all the Matthews and Jasons at school.

So, as I write this on Mother’s Day, I am struck with the awesome responsibility mothers (and fathers) have in naming their children.  If the studies (and my instincts) are right, the single act of naming your newborn may shape his/her development as much as anything else parents do.  And just in case anyone ever considers naming their daughter Jeffee, I would advise them to choose Jessie instead.  It will be much faster and easier in the long run.  Not that I suffer from name regret.  As the sole Jeffee survivor in my family, I’m kind of like Elvis now.  No middle or last name needed!

About nowandthenadays

Observer of life who writes about Austin, women's issues, history, and politics. I worked in the Texas Legislature for 9 years, moved to the State Comptroller's Office where I worked for 9 years, then went to work as an Assistant Attorney General after graduating from UT Law, for more than 20 years. Since retirement in May, 2013, I've identified myself as a writer, a caretaker, widow, grandmother, pandemic survivor, and finder of true love.
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