A Rose by Any Other Name

Do you look at the posts about names on this site and ever ask yourself, what is the big hullabaloo about names? It’s not like there are a lot of people changing their names out there. Right?

Well, the truth is, there are a lot more name changes going on than you realize. I think it’s a bit like buying a new Mini-Cooper and feeling so unique until you start passing one after another out on the road. Name changes are like this. I thought I was so strange when I decided to change my first name. I thought I would be the laughing stock of my friends, family, community, work, etc. It took a lot of courage for me to take the leap, but once I did, I was surprised to learn about so many other people who had changed their names. People I never suspected!

Popular Name Birth Name
Jon Stewart Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz
Elton John Reginald Kenneth Dwight
Barack Obama “Barry” Barack Obama
Maya Angelou Marguerite Ann Johnson
Gene Wilder Jerome (Jerry) Silberman
Sugar Ray Robinson Walker Smith
Gerald Ford Leslie Lynch King Jr
Whoopi Goldberg Caryn Elaine Johnson
Bono Paul David Hewson
John Wayne Marion Robert Morrison
Sigourney Weaver Susan Alexandra Weaver
Freddie Mercury Farrokh Bulsara
Tori Amos Myra Ellen Amos
Elle MacPherson Eleanor Gow
Alice Cooper Vincent Damon Furnier
Elvis Costello Declan Patrick McManus
Michael Crawford Michael Patrick Dumbell-Smith
Bing Crosby Harry Lillis Crosby
Barry Manilow Barry Alan Pincus
Meat Loaf Marvin Lee Aday
Queen Latifah Dana Owens
Gene Simmons Chaim Witz, and later Eugene Klein
Sting Gordon Matthew Sumner
Tina Turner Anna Mae Bullock
Shania Twain Eileen Regina Edwards
Stevie Wonder Stevland Judkins
Billie Holiday Eleanora Fagan
Babe Ruth George Herman Ruth
Spiro Agnew Spiro Theodore Anagnostopoulos
Malcolm X Malcolm Little
Joseph Stalin Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvilli
Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens
Frank Lloyd Wright Frank Lincoln Wright
George Eliot Mary Ann (or Marion) Evans

Name changes are woven throughout the fabric of our nation as well. For example, getting a name right is crucial—even for fictional characters. Margaret Mitchell in writing the book, Gone with the Wind originally named the heroine Pansy. At the editor’s request, the author spent months going through names for the feisty main character—everything from Nancy, Peggy, and even Margaret, before finally settling on Scarlett. Getting Scarlett’s name right was an important first step for one of the most successful novels in history.

The thing is, you may not realize how prevalent name changes really are, because you may not realize how many people have changed their name. The table at left demonstrates the pervasive nature of name changes in our culture. In the course of my research, I’ve talked with people around the country about their names and also conducted an online survey. One respondent indicated that she never liked her name, but she didn’t feel comfortable changing it. So she chose instead to give her daughter a name she would have liked for herself. Maybe parents are searching for something more than a unique name for their baby; maybe they’re looking for something unique within themselves as well.

I was in the check-out line at Macy’s recently when three nearby women (all of a similar age) noticed they had the same name, Rosemary. They talked about nicknames, spelling, and their frustrations about the name. I was left thinking about the name Rose. It reminded me of the words of Shakespeare. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The name Rose hit a peak in popularity in 1960 and has plummeted since then, leaving women with that name anchored to a certain age and image.

Why couldn’t a rose change her name? It worked for Eileen Edwards who changed her name to Shania Twain. It worked for Leslie Lynch King, Jr., who as a young adult changed his name to Gerald Ford (yes, the US. President).

What’s in a name? Apparently a lot.

Updated by Marly · Permalink

2 Responses to A Rose by Any Other Name

  1. I remember reading somewhere that Sigourney Weaver picked her name from someone on a party guest list in the novel “The Great Gatsby.” Fitzgerald’s classic is one of my all-time favorite books, so this tidbit about Sigourney Weaver stuck with me.

  2. Thank you for writing this! I have been searching the web for support around a possible first name change. Even at a young age, I was strongly aware that I did not like my first name, “Cathy.” More importantly, this given name never felt like who I really am. Every time I hear “my” name I have the sense that it’s not right. It makes me feel uncomfortable inside, but it’s certainly bearable..

    The idea of changing my first name is scary to me. I’m afraid of hurting my mom’s feelings – and I am 41 years old! I’m 5 years into my job – and I feel really nervous when I imagine having to explain this change to everyone. I hate to admit these fears, but they are real – and they are in my way.

    I really wish I would have changed my name earlier in life, or at least before I moved to the place I live in now. I have talked to other people about changing my name, and they simply say, “Why don’t you just do it?” Or, “What would it be?” Or, “That would be weird. You’re Cathy!” That seems to end the conversation, and in turn, I have always ended the conversation in my mind, deciding that I can “live with it.” Since my real name was never clear to me; I had no idea what I would change my name to, I just dropped the possibility. Hence, I have spent many years with the conscious intention to embrace my “Cathy.”

    It’s not working.

    Last night I went out to dinner with a friend and the topic came up for the first time. She was so supportive. For the first time, I am beginning to seriously consider making this change. After dinner with my friend, later that night, I woke up at 4am and felt like I had an epiphany. My mother’s middle name is Rae. I think this might be my real name. It’s a name that I absolutely love – and I love that it provides a connection to my mom (if I decide to adopt it). It’s minimal, beautiful, unique, and strong: qualities that I admire and resonate with.

    I’m not sure if other people have had a similar journey with a first name change, but I can’t seem to find any relevant stories/examples online…I’ll keep searching. At some point though, I will need to turn off the computer and look inside. Many people face bigger changed than this and survive, and I know they are happier to feel the balance on their inner and outer worlds.


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