A Rose by Any Other Name

by Katherine Cline | 1/9/19 2:05am

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by Bella Jacoby / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

William Shakespeare wrote the words spoken in Juliet’s impassioned monologue centuries ago. The colloquial idiom, later popularized as “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”,  has permeated our conscious and lexicon. The quote appears to mock the absurdity of names, or rather, mock our obsession surrounding the sanctity of our names. Why do we care so much about what we’re called? Why would we care enough to change those names?

Actors rebrand themselves all the time. Have you ever felt more deceived than when whatever late night host informs the general public that your favorite starlet, heartthrob or superstar has bamboozled you? Emma Stone is in fact an Emily, Brad Pitt is a William and Reese Witherspoon is actually Laura Jeanne.

Hollywood isn’t the only place where names appear to be fluid, if not ephemeral. College is a time for people to rebrand themselves as they diverge from family, childhood friends and, ultimately, the prior versions of themselves.

Why do people choose to change their names? Is it about recreation, rebirth or simply convenience? I have two middle names that both start with J. After one particularly unproductive study session with friends, I was christened JJ. Not the most creative, I know. (In my defense, I didn’t make it up.) Some people know me exclusively as JJ, others refer to me as Katie. Even the name I’ve gone by my whole life is just a shortened version of my given name, Katherine. I’ve always been okay responding to whatever people call me. I don’t put any particular weight on my name. (That being said, please don’t bring back JJ. It’s time for that one to die.)

The decision to claim one name over another is something that takes place before we are even born. Our parents pick our names, and we grow into them. (Trust me, no baby is born looking like an Ethel or a Herbert.) But what if as you grow into your name you find it lacking, inappropriate or cumbersome? Have you ever been told, “You don’t look like a … ”? I have. It’s a weird feeling to defend your name. I don’t feel strongly enough to argue with someone over whether or not I “look like a Katie.” Some people do.

Hyung Ju Nam ’21 is attacking the herculean task of legally changing his name to Hugo. Changing one’s name is not an easy task and takes time. However, as most of his friends already refer to him by a nickname, he felt it made more sense to make a complete change.

“Hyung Ju was hard to pronounce, so most of my friends had to resort to HJ,” Nam said. “After discussing this with my family, I decided it could be offensive to call someone by an abbreviated name instead of their real name. Since it seemed really inconvenient to go by Hyung Ju, I decided, for the sake of convenience, to change it to Hugo legally so it would be easier to introduce myself and go about in society.”

Hugo makes the compelling point that his name was changed long before he picked a new name for himself. Friends used the abbreviation out of convenience. The new name quickly became ubiquitous in his day to day life. Hugo’s decision to change his name hinged on the perception of “HJ”. The nickname thrust upon him out of convenience is incongruent with how he wants to be perceived.

Charlie Plumb ’20 has foregone the legal avenue by allowing word-of-mouth to work in her favor.

“I had wanted to change it for a while, but I didn’t think it was realistic,” Plumb said. “The winter of my sophomore year, I decided it was a ‘Why can’t I?’ kind of thing.” 

It was a similar schism between name and self, one that Nam also noted, that motivated her to make the change.

“Charlie was the name I would have been given had I been born a guy. It’s a family name. I’ve always really liked it and thought ‘oh I wish I had been named that,’” Plumb said. “I’m gay, and I’ve always been more comfortable and happier being called that. It was the right kind of gender performance, whatever you want to call it, that I liked.”

Though some people change their names in totality, others, like Emily Kim ’21, switch between given and chosen name depending on context. An exchange student, she quickly found that English speakers tended to mispronounce her name.

“When you pronounce [my name] in Korean, it sounds very short and brief,” Kim said. “I realized that two vowels connected in English sounds very long and drawn out.” 

Emily’s experience with chosen names started earlier than most. She picked the name Emily at 7-years-old, just after she first began to learn English.Though two names have been present for the majority of Emily’s life, she has not felt the need to pick one. She notes that she recognizes how two names can affect her behavior and the contexts that necessitate this high-level code switching.

“It really depends on where I am and who I’m trying to be,” Kim said. “If I’m trying to be an Emily, then I’m a little more confident in what I’m saying [and] sardonic a lot of the time. The Korean Chae Yoon [tries] to go with the rules but is not completely different from Emily. There is no full-on transition.”

Ultimately, Emily ascribes a certain advantage to having two names, not despite, but because of the dichotomy they provide. She has come to view the names as useful in their separate functionality rather than dictators of her personhood.

“Name-wise, I like Chae Yoon better because it’s unique in Korean,” Kim said. “I, belatedly, think Emily is an overused one. But in terms of personalities I’ve associated with each name, I like the Emily side better.”

  Names determine not just how we act in the world, but also how it reacts to us. To influence that interaction is difficult but necessary for some. Whether the reason be convenience, difficulty or simply preference, changing your name is a decision entirely your own. According to Shakespeare, you won’t smell any worse, so that’s good.