what’s in a name?

“…that which we call a rose / by any other word would smell as sweet…” ~Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.43-44

photograph of stargazer lilies, which are various shades of pink and go from the deepest color at the center of the petal to almost-white at the edges
is this a play on the fact that the Hebrew name Shoshana once meant “lily” and now means “rose”? you betcha.

(cw: grief, complicated family dynamics)

I feel like I write one of these every few years at this point—a post in which I wax poetic about how many names I have and why I have so many and what they all mean and what I would like to be called, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam. so I figured, for once, I’m going to write that post not on Facebook and I’m going to archive it somewhere where I can just have a handy link for future reference. 🙂

why do I keep having to do this, you might ask?

the truth is that I was doomed from birth—I had been destined to be the third of my name, named after my grandfather (who had no sons) and his father before him, but then I was assigned female at birth and my mom had to get really creative really quickly and ended up saddling me with a host of names that have started many an interesting story.

buckle up and let’s go on a journey, shall we?

starting from the beginning…

legal name(s).

my legal first name is, and has been throughout my life, a bit of a curiosity. it is my mom’s first name in reverse; her name is Mariel, if you’re keeping track. (I’m not spelling my first name out to avoid the awkward search engine appearance of this post!) my first name rhymes with “lay down” and confuses the hell out of most people. (for how I’ve dealt with that, see the social name(s) section.) I’ve had a complicated relationship with my name because it has always seemed more like my mother’s than mine (and we haven’t always had the best relationship), because it was hastily chosen—and, because for the most part, no one in my family calls me it unless I’m in trouble. that said, you’re welcome to use it—if you can say it right. say it with me: lay-RAM. one more time: lay-RAM. it’s okay if you can’t roll your R. just don’t do anything with the first syllable that doesn’t sound like “lay” and we’ll be okay! this, and the shortened form “Lei,” is what most of my school friends from Puerto Rico know me as.

my legal middle name, Nahir, was chosen because it’s my mom’s favorite cousin’s name, if I’m remembering correctly? I’m fond of it because it’s what most of my family calls me (when I’m not getting the over-fond “Nana” of my youth… yes I’m aware that’s akin to “grandma” in several English-speaking countries, let me live), and so I used it socially throughout most of my life at home. I also love that it has that SILENT h in the middle because it is a common appearance in all of my father’s (z”L) six kids’ names; as a matter of fact, his youngest Yahir was named after me! mine is pronounced nah-EER and his is yah-EER and, again, the H is silent… with the last syllable sounding like you’re saying “ear” very quickly (it’s a short sound). this is what most of my non-school friends (and all of my family’s friends!) in Puerto Rico know me as.

my surname is where it gets juicy (and is why I’m sure many of y’all clicked on this post). the truth is, questions have begun swirling after I changed my surname on Facebook—so one of the purposes of this post is to clarify. In May of 2018, I surprised a lot of people (including myself!) by changing by name on Facebook (and then legally! which was a shitshow!) to my husband’s surname. whenever anyone pointed out that they were surprised by my decision or asked about it, my answer was the same (and almost rehearsed): I didn’t have a strong relationship with my dad; I was tired of answering questions about my name; I wanted my kids’ surnames to match mine without creating a new hyphenated monstrosity like the one I already felt I was carrying; I wanted a fresh start for myself. and the thing is, I really believed that. I was militant about it, policing the switch at work, with every account, in every space. I committed 100% and made sure that I really inhabited that name.

and then my dad died, and everything I thought I knew about myself and my relationship with him had to be reexamined.

as posts starting rolling in on Facebook and I started getting tagged in things, I realized I was the only person whose surname didn’t match—and I realized that actually upset me. as I kept having to answer questions about who I was and trying to explain to people when I added them on social media that yes, I am in face the deceased’s eldest daughter… I realized that my name had indicated a sense of belonging that I missed. I then also started thinking about how he wasn’t going to get to see me graduate with my doctorate, which we used to talk about a lot—and decided that it would be a fitting tribute to carry him and both my grandfathers with me by getting my name back. I want their names to live on through me and to be printed on my dissertation and graduation program and diploma.

now, my name change is tangled up in other proceedings now, and it’s going to take a while because of everything that’s happening in the world, but I want to make one thing very clear: I decided to return back to my birth surname in February, when I was home, as a tribute to my late grandfathers and father, none of whom would otherwise be “present” in my doctoral graduation ceremony.

social name(s).

if you thought things were complicated before, let’s have a laugh now.

as previously stated, my first and middle names have been social names for me in different contexts—which caused many a laugh at occasions such as my quinceañero, as friends from church and school and my social circle all converged to celebrate me and sometimes did not realize they were talking about the same person because they were all using different names. I got so used to introducing myself using multiple names whenever I answered the phone that I even sometimes did it while at my part-time job in high school, which resulted in many a hilarious, awkward phone call. on a somewhat bright side, though, in most English-speaking contexts I’ve only had two names (unless it’s my aunt introducing me to a coworker who also speaks Spanish and then they introduce me to someone else and then we enter She-of-A-Thousand-Names territory again).

in most English-speaking contexts since I first got on the Internet, between 1998 and 2018, I went by “Lee.” yup, that was twenty years of my life. and let me tell you—I hated every. single. one. I don’t know how nine-year-old me picked “Lee” as a nickname or why she chose to spell it that way or why she thought it would be nice to pick a nickname that literally invited people to mispronounce her first name—but I did and I used it for twenty years and I hated it. but by the time I a- realized I hated it and b- had enough of a spine to say so, I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings… so I waited until I changed my surname post-wedding to transition to the nickname I’d been secretly testing since, oh, the late 2000s.

enter L (2008-)/Elle (2018-). while I might have started signing things as L earlier than 2008, that is the year where my Livejournal activity skyrocketed and I 100% remember that L became my moniker of choice. (I thought I was really cool, y’all.) it obviously started as a way to abbreviate my first name and my nickname without being super obvious, as there are so many names that start with L, and I liked the flexibility of being able to just sign things IRL with a big, curly L (which I still often do). I ended up going for a spelled version because it can be written all in lowercase as a palindrome and it can also work as a nickname for my Hebrew name (see next section). second only to my Hebrew name, this is my preferred name.

Hebrew name(s).

as a convert, I got to pick my own name—which was really exciting but also really nerve-wracking, as you might imagine considering that I’ve got such a complicated relationship with names. I knew I wanted a two-part name because I couldn’t choose just one, and I wanted to somehow reflect my secular names in it, so here’s what I ended up doing:

my primary Hebrew name, Eliava, means two things (depending on whether you take it as its own name OR as the female version of Eliav): either “God is my father” or “God has willed it.” as you know, I like things with multiple meanings, and they both resonated with me! due to my complicated relationship with my dad, and how abandoned by him I felt as a teenager, I found solace in the words of my childhood pastor: “why be so heartbroken over this mortal man when you can console yourself in the arms of your Eternal Father?” I also thought of how, for me, converting to Judaism felt like coming home, like I was doing something I was meant to do—like I was following God’s will. because it means so much to me, and because this is how I introduce myself in Jewish contexts—this is my most preferred name. it feels the most me.

sorority name.

this one is one I don’t use very much anymore simply because, due to a really bad depressive episode towards the end of my tenure in my chapter, and some really difficult situations exacerbated by issues with my bipolar disorder, I ended up drifting away from my sorority sisters after graduation. that said, I love my sisterhood dearly and will always be so grateful for the lessons I learned as I became a sister of Sigma Lambda Gamma—and I seek every day to conduct myself as a Woman of Distinction and to continue to feel pride in my culture.

my sorority name, chosen by my amazing Gamma Mom Xelajú, is Yauna. it is derived from Yauco, my late grandfather’s hometown, which is a taíno place name taken to mean “valuable place”; so Yauna was taken to mean “valuable woman.” (this is all taken with several grains of salt, as online name etymology is dubious at best and that is even more so when it comes to indigenous languages.) it is very special to me because that grandfather is the only other person in my family who belonged to Greek life and because my taíno ancestry is on his side (records indicate it might have been his great-grandmother). I have my graduation stole embroidered with it and two paddles—my crossing paddle, which was a gift from my Gamma Mom, and one a fellow sorority woman made me—that both say it and, at some of my lowest moments, they have been reminders that people have seen value in me and that I have been able to make it through odds that sometimes seemed insurmountable.

in conclusion, you can use just about any of the names here listed and be fine, although I would very much prefer if you didn’t use Lee—and, whatever you do, be kind, be respectful, be legit.

until next time!

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