We learn early on that our names are serious business. One of the main questions we’re asked as toddlers when out in public is “What’s your name?” Growing up, our parents address us by our full names when we’re in trouble. (Otherwise they’re more likely to use nicknames or endearments.) Once we go to school we put our names on assignments and tests day after day. Sometimes our peers use our names to taunt us. Our names are right there for the world to see on diplomas and resumes and emails. The names we’re given can affect the way people perceive us and even our career success. Sometimes I feel as if the potential our parents saw when they breathed our names aloud for the first time is diluted by sheer overuse.
So I play with my name. If I don’t absolutely have to give my real name I use any other name that occurs to me, entirely on an inspiration basis.
When leaving a name for reservations at a restaurant, I usually make one up. It adds a little levity to my life. It’s also a decent short term memory exercise. If I’ve given the name “Snape,” I have to remember they’re talking about us when they call, “Snape, party of six.” Not as easy as it sounds. Try it some time. My default name for restaurant reservations is Ferdinand, in honor of the classic children’s book about a peaceful bull. It’s a quiet homage to the book and, of course, a secret acknowledgment that the name I’ve given is technically bull.
I use alternate names for mail order items, too. Sometimes I give myself a new first or last name, sometimes an item comes addressed to one of our farm animals or dogs, sometimes I use a name I’ve made up. I have a magazine subscription that comes addressed to Sarcasm Collective, Netflix envelopes arrive for Angelic Presence, and catalogs arrive under all sorts of monikers. It’s a remarkably effective way to track who is selling your information. For example, when ordering a piece of camping gear for one of my kids, I gave myself the first name “Spelunker” out of sheer silliness. The next few months I got camping gear advertisements addressed to that name, as expected, but also advertisements for motocross racing, yoga supplies, and silk underwear.
I bestow my love of alternative names on others too. My friends and family are accustomed to getting a card, package, or voice mail with something added to their names. At last month’s food co-op, the treasurer complained that her kitchen drawers seem to be taken over by twist ties. When I sent in the check for my order, she got an envelope addressed to her in care of Institute For Twist Tie Preservation. Not the best example, but it is the most recent. I’ve sent packages to my son’s college mailbox with odd additions to his name as well, both on the return address and the way his name is written. (You may want to avoid this if your friends or family aren’t likely to appreciate it.)
I also find it provides a moment’s amusement to use nonsensical names, fictional names, or the names of long-dead luminaries when writing something non-essential. I’ve recently signed for packages as A. Earhart, Scout Finch, and Hubert J. Farnsworth. I filled out a farmer’s market poll as Susan B. Anthony. I put my name down on a waiting list as Beverly Crusher. I added myself to a mailing list for local arts events as Virginia Woolf.
Maybe my name games are in reaction to the stress we all face in an uncertain world. Or maybe I simply find that a little silliness keeps me more gruntled than disgruntled. Just remember, if you’re meeting me for dinner I’ve probably given the name “Ferdinand.”