It just so happens that my name is Marvin. I don’t use it much, only for legal and medical purposes.
When I got to high school I started calling myself “Jim” and have ever since. Only the IRS and my
doctor call me Marvin now. Actually, my doctor doesn’t. She calls me Jim, and I call her Katy because
she’s so much younger than I am that I feel a little silly calling someone the age of my children by their
honorific. I always know when one of her nurses is writing a message on her behalf because they call
me Marvin. Then I message her back as Dr. Katy so it doesn’t seem like we’re too familiar or anything.
That wouldn’t be appropriate, being familiar with my doctor, even though I am.
The question of names comes up because I’m thinking of changing mine. I never did before
because my mother gave me the name Marvin and I kept it because I rather liked my mother. If my
father had given it to me I’d have changed it a long time ago, probably to something like Luke or Max,
a name more appropriate to my personality. Do I sound like a Marvin to you?
I kept my father’s name even though it’s unpronounceable and unspellable in English. They tell me
it’s okay in Danish, but they also tell me I’m unable to pronounce it correctly. So I guess it’s a wash.
We both win, or lose, depending on how you look at it. Anyway, I kept it because my grandfather
insisted that the clerk at Whitehall spell it right when he immigrated. If not for that my family would be
called something sensible like Rasmussen since his first name was Rasmus.
One time when I was grown up I asked my father why he hated me so much. He didn’t say, “Don’t
be silly, you mean the world to me” or “My God, you’re my son, I love you” or even “Oh, get out of
your pity bag, you sound absurd.” Instead, he answered me instantly, “I hate you because you remind
me of my father, and I hated him.” Okay, Carl, thanks, I’ll remember that.
I’ve always appreciated my grandfather since that time. If it meant so much to him to retain his
name, the least I can do is keep it.
A name means a lot of things. It means tradition – I keep hearing Tevye sing “Tradition!!!” in
“Fiddler on the Roof” – and it means family, and that means emotional connections. I imagine some
father calling out, “Hey, Homer!” when it’s time for dinner, or a mother saying “My precious Boris”
when it’s time to go to church. Apparently, some people really have those names.
My name is fraught with hardship and consternation, or at least it was before I got to be 6 feet 4
inches tall and 220 pounds. As in, “Hey, Marvin, get your ass over here and polish my shoes – with
your tongue.” Or, “Nimrod, you’re as homely as a dog’s butt. Go fetch me a Coke. And you can pay for
it.” There’s more, but you get the idea.
I’ve always thought the Indian way of naming was better. People got called by what they did. If you
scalped your sister you got called Sister Scalper. If you looked up at the rain falling down with your
mouth open you got called Rain Gobbler. If you saw an effigy in the sky and on it was your future
written on stone tablets, you got called Moses. Later on you could change your name by standing up
before the tribal council, or whatever it was called back then, and saying, “I am Thunder!”
The chief would say, “Okay, whatever, I guess we’ll call you Thunder then. It’s a lot better than
your old name, Man Eating Rats.” Everyone from that point on called you Thunder. Your wife said,
“Goddammit, Thunder, get your ass in here to dinner. The soup’s getting cold.” And your kid said at
school, “My Dad got a new name. It’s Thunder.” And her friends said, “That’s nothing. My dad is
called Get Out of Jail Free because they can never keep him locked up for long.” “Big deal,” said
another. “My dad took the name Felon because he was called that so often. It’s a good name.”
Honestly, we’re probably never going back to that. If we did, people would be called things like
Pop Tart, Teflon, Subaru and Lenovo after the things they use very day. Let’s not go there, though.
How do you change your name when you don’t like the one you’ve got?
You could become a movie star, and instead of being called Marion Robert Morrison you could be
called John Wayne. Not Eric Marlon Bishop but Jamie Fox. Not Frances Gumm but Judy Garland. Not
Peter Gene Hernandez but Bruno Mars. Not Neta-Lee Hershlag but Natalie Portman. Not Henry
Charles Albert David but Prince Harry.
This might not be totally practical since all of us can’t afford to hire a publicity genius to help us
out. It might be better to go over the list of available names and try one out. We’d need a trial period.
You could stand up in high school home room and say, “Today I’m going to be called Mercutio.” Or
Dante Spardason, depending on what you’re studying at the time. Except your teacher would say,
“Sure, and I’m Thea Philopator. Sit down and be quiet.”
I’m trying to help you out here. Get a list of best names and choose one you really like. How
about Agafy, Grusha, Gleb, Boba or Yego? Perfectly respectable if you live in Siberia. How about
Hanohano, Heepuenui, Kaleoikaikaokalani or Poeiva, which are all great if you live in New
Guinea. Olivia, Charlotte, Sophie, Liam and James currently are the most popular names in the
United States. That begs the question of who would want to be called Grusha or Heepuenui or
Charlotte, though you might want to change it when you got the chance. After all, it’s your name,
not anyone else’s.
People change their names for different reasons, usually through marriage, divorce, or by filing a
name change in court. The process involves filling out court forms, appearing before a judge and
notifying third parties. Many times, people change their names for perfectly good reasons:
They want to feel more part of a new family, maybe a step-family.
To honor or recognize somebody, like calling yourself Rasmussen.
As part of a change of gender, which in this day and age should not be overlooked.
The fact that you really hate your current name.
To separate yourself from a person, time or event in your life.
To keep a former partner from finding you.
To Anglicize your name, like changing Chrzan to Radish.
To de-Anglicize your name, from Kelsun to Kjeldsen.
As a condition of a will or inheritance, like your rich grandmothers will bequeath you everything if
you will just call yourself Barbie Doll, which is more akin to your true self.
Then there’s the marriage thing. Women traditionally have changed their names to match their
husbands, and 71 percent of them still do it. It used to be that women at tea parties were referred to as
Mrs. “And pouring was Mrs. Thomas Backbender,” that sort of thing. When I got on a newspaper staff
and started calling women by their real names, like “Matilda Backbender,” I almost got fired for it.
Today, some fifty years later, women still struggle with “to be or not to be, that is the question.” By the
way, Shakespeare stipulated that conundrum 400 years ago. It’s not exactly a new question.
When women get married, they have the option of using hubby’s name or not. It’s tradit-i-i-t-t-t-i-
ion! And when they get divorced, they have the option of reverting back to their true identity. It must
be a tough decision judging from the angst that floats around a divorce like a mob of mosquitoes.
The act of changing your name has many emotional and psychological repercussions. It can
improve a person’s sense of empowerment and agency. People can take charge of their identity by
changing their name. They have a greater sense of agency that results in better emotional health and
self-assurance. Changing your name can spark personal growth and transformation. It provides a fresh
start, relieving you from negative memories or connections to your previous name. Embracing a new
name nurtures resilience, optimism, and a renewed sense of purpose as you release the past and
welcome the future. It says that on the internet, so it must be true.
Transition is the process of a transgender person changing their sex. If society permits that, why not
put name-changing under the same rubric? We can transition onto Rasmussen, or Smith if that’s your
thing. Smith is a hell of a lot easier to spell than Chrzan. If you hate your old name or simply get tired
of spelling it slowly and carefully, then doing it again when the person says, “How was that spelled?
Never mind, what’s your identification number?”
The problem is what to change it to. Smith has its drawbacks. Your email would become
Smith301475652@xmail.com. And John Smith isn’t ever going to be found in this lifetime during a
google search. Searchers would give up after the 7 millionth try.
So, maybe there are pluses to keeping your name as it is. When I think of my grandfather at
Whitehall in New York reaching across the counter and grabbing the clerk by the lapel, saying in
broken English, “That is not how it is spelled,” I have to admire his chutzpah and his bravery. The clerk
probably said something like, “Okay, mister, if that’s how you really want it, but your descendants
aren't going to thank you for it. Here it is then.”
Here it is. After a lifetime of slow and painful spelling during every phone call, of trying to get
English speakers to reverse the alphabet and spell it “kj” instead of “jk,” of having people pronounce it
phonetically as “Kajiddleson,” of having me congratulate the one person in 10,000 who actually has
been to Aarhus and can pronounce it correctly, of forgetting all those j’s and d’s, I’ve come to admire
my grandfather’s fortitude and just plain guts.
On second thought, forget it. I don’t see any reason why I should change my name after all. My
father was right, I am exactly like my grandfather. I guess that’s worth remembering and marking as
historical precedent by erecting a name in his honor and spelling it out slowly and carefully over and
over again to mark the occasion of his life. And I still like my mother a lot. If she named me Marvin,
she must have had good reason. There’s nobody else in the family named Marvin, so I’m just going to
go ahead and make it a tradition. Then I can get into a musical and sing right alongside Zero Mostel.
Jim Kjeldsen started writing on April 4, 1974, in the student union building at Western Washington University looking out at a view of Bellingham Bay. Fifty years later, he is still hasn’t finished that first story. But he has written twenty novels, mostly historical fiction. He now lives in Wabasha, Minnesota, with a view of the Mississippi River. His identifier is the Mandarin Chinese pronoun Tā, which basically means human being.