How to Choose Your Own Name

This is a letter to the past. It is meant for myself, years ago, when I was choosing my own name.

I don’t think I need to justify to you that you should like whichever name you choose. The real question is how you like it. You probably have some sense that this is something more than a Discord screen name or a D&D character. Cool, interesting, or mysterious are all adjectives that describe names that work in some circumstances. This name needs to work in all circumstances.

It needs to be something you’ll like hearing your boss and your partner say. It need to look right on your takeout receipt and your grave. It needs to dignify you even when someone is using it to scold you. All these cracks in life that your name seeps into, it must fit perfectly.

The adjective you’re looking for is “resonant.” In all those contexts, the name must shimmer with an ephemeral yet eternal importance. The feeling it sparks should be instantly recognizable, even if you cannot explain it with words.

The name should also be timeless. While you exist in this exact phenomenological moment (see, that philosophy class is still good for something!), your name will stretch forward and backwards in time. It will be applied to the present version of you making the choice, but it will also apply to all the future versions of you. The career person, the wannabe blog writer, the hopefully happy retiree must be happy with this name.

It will also be applied to the you of childhood: When you reminisce, you are going to speak of yourself with your chosen name, not your given name. Strange, right? To know this letter is deliverable to you only under a name you’ve yet to choose? No peeking at the envelope!

Finding a name both timeless and resonant is a rather tall order! Don’t worry though, you end up figuring it out. You make yourself a sieve for names and keep filtering names through it until you’re left with only one.

Here’s how it works: Take names you like, names you’re interested in, common names in your birth year, names of literary characters, whatever. Just get a list of names you think could be yours and dump them in the hopper.

Take the list of names. Turn them over in your mind. Drop the ones that have no luster or allure. They didn’t resonate.

Forget the list for a month. Come back to it. Laugh or cringe at all the silly names you thought for sure could be yours forever. Seriously, Cecil? What were you thinking 3 weeks ago?! Drop it from the list. It was not timeless.

Do this over and over for many months and take as many as you need. Is there a name that keeps floating to the top of your sieve while dozens of others fall straight through? Of course there is. It’s that name. You know the one. The one you were instantly enamored with when you first heard it at 10. The feeling never quite went away, did it. It’s the name that makes you glance furtively in its direction like it’s a crush you’re too scared to ask out, lest it turn out the name doesn’t like you back. Part of you knew from the start that it would be this one. Still, somehow you’re sitting here looking at what your sieve has left you, surprised but joyed. Congratulations.

Of course, you’re still the cautious type. This is going to be your forever name so you take it out of your sieve and you start testing it.

First test: Are there any infamous Nazis with this name? That would suck. Thankfully not.

Okay, so what famous people do have this name? When you say your name and somebody says “Like the ____?” you’d better like what they blurt out. Thankfully, one of the more famous figures with your name was a pioneering surgeon. Nice. Also a cool fact: There’s a silent film actress with the same name and her last name is your middle name. There’s also some instagram entrepreneur with the name and your same last name. Good. Let them soak up the SEO. You don’t want to be Google-able.

Next test: What year was the name most common in? You don’t want a boomer name because you’re not a boomer (hint: “Karen” becomes a cursed name later on). You also don’t want a name that’s up-and-coming because it would be hard to nail a job interview if your name makes somebody think of their fussy kindergartner’s classmates. It turns out that your name had its heyday at least a century ago. Don’t act surprised. You wanted something timeless.

At this point, you’re really plumbing the depths of this name and you start looking up what it means even though you never put stock in that kind of thing. Consider the meaning of this one. It ends up mattering more to you than you would expect.

You also look into potential nicknames. There’s TONS. And you love each and every one of them by their distinct quirks and flavors. There are quirky ones, cute ones, mysterious ones, and even the single letter initial has some allure. Your only fear is that they’ll never be used. It turns out that they ALL get used. Ask that boy out. He uses your favorite one.

You explore different spellings. Of the more grounded ways of spelling the name, there is an English way and a French way. You lean to the English if only because you think it would save you the hassle of always having to correct people. You’re not wrong, but don’t discount the French way. Isn’t there something pretty about it?

At last, you’re out of things to research. There’s no more stalling. You take your typesetting stamps and make a card, printing the name in silver ink on black cardstock. You look it over. There’s something materially real in the imperfections of the ink. Say it out loud. Show your friends. It’s your name now. But you already knew that, didn’t you.

Written on