Personally Speaking/Making a Name For Yourself

We all have one: the name that was bestowed upon us at birth. Those parents of ours didn’t know anything about us yet, and still they carried out some kind of decision-making process to arrive at a label for us. Of course the name selected would have to carry meaning, because this given name would be part of this new person’s identity … forever. This word would be hurled at, whispered to and cooed to this person thousands of times over the course of her life. But how to decide? What do we know of this little lump?

Some parents take the “Junior” path. I’m not sure if all of these parents envision Jack Jr. to be the younger essence of Jack Sr., but I think there might be certain expectations riding on his name. Other parents take the unique route – “we want our child to be the only one in her class to have this name.” The uniqueness strategy can be effective, but it can also backfire. Where did all of these Olivias come from, anyway? Of course, there are always parents who are quite happy to stick to traditional names associated with certain character traits depicted in the Baby Names books. One can only speculate that these parents are hoping their child will possess those same character traits.

And then there are parents, like mine, who went for emotion. How does a baby end up being named for a feeling? According to my parents, it went like this: One day, when my mother was tending to her 4-year-old son, Jay, who was running circles around his 8-month-old baby brother, Jon, a call came in: “Congratulations, Mrs. Stevens. You’re expecting!” Was this news met with jubilation? Quite the opposite – which would not surprise any busy young mother. By the time she gave birth, my mother was convinced that this child would most certainly be another boy, so when she and my father learned it was a girl, the name Joy presented itself. (After all, the name Shock was a bit edgy for 1963, plus it didn’t have three letters and begin with a “J”).

So, what is it like to be named for an emotion? Do people treat a person named Joy differently than they treat other people? As a social scientist, I should study this, perhaps. However, I have not, so I will simply share my observations. Yes – I think when people meet me, they have an expectation that I will spread my name on them somehow. I try to oblige! Some might view this as an unreasonable expectation. “You cannot possibly be joyful or joyous all the time! Come on!” This is true. I am not. That would be humanly impossible; however, I do tend to be extremely optimistic, and this (fortunately) can pass for joyfulness in a pinch. In fact, I am lucky that a friendly smile can often suffice. But here’s the twist: I think that the expectations others have of me help me live up to my name because, before people encounter me, they are already anticipating some kind of positivity, so they treat me positively.

Who can resist that? Well, maybe some. I distinctly remember the first time I met someone else with the name Joy. I was 16 years old, and I was playing in a summer basketball league against girls from various small towns around the Mankato, Minn., area. Other Joy was not only not joyful, she was downright negative! I have to admit, her behavior was so upsetting to me that it put me off my game. Other Joy was tarnishing the name – my name! Of course, being the optimist I am, I chalked up Other Joy’s crabby attitude to her having a bad day; it couldn’t have anything to do with her normal disposition, after all!

So much brings me joy: having a conversation with my husband that only the two of us can appreciate; watching and listening to our two children thoroughly enjoy one another’s company; reading the work of a student who has made a fascinating insight; sharing a favorite story with friends, family or students and knowing that they really get it; unexpectedly hearing from an old friend or a former student because they want to share something with me; making an amazing curling shot (and it doesn’t matter if I am the deliverer of the stone, the skip calling the shot or one of the sweepers of the stone, it all brings me joy).

Two of the most joyful people I know are my father and my daughter. And their names are Bill and Chloe. These two amazing individuals manage to spread joy around, even without an emotional name as a cue! I cannot imagine either one of them being any more joyful with different names. But still, the way I see it, my parents gave me a great gift when they bestowed my name. They gave me a leg-up on joyfulness.


Oct. 31, 2018