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How Did You Get Your Name? November 8, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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I could have been named Susan or Barbara, but the relatives in California nabbed those first. So, I was named Janet. When I got married my husband started calling me Jan. I was fine with that. Because I was such a happy child, my nickname was “Jan-ny Gay.” But that was back before…oh, you know.

When I was in LAUSD’s District Intern Program, (but that was back when there was one), one Saturday morning, our class was asked to stand in a circle and tell how we got our name. It was fascinating exercise, as it was a diverse group.

There were two people whose parents had taken their names from rock ‘n roll songs. Several others had been named after a character in a book or movie. There were the usual biblical names, the juniors, and family names. One man had been named after his father’s best friend who had died.

Several Asians had decided their names were too hard to pronounce, so they chose an “American” name. I’m afraid my Susan, Barbara, Janet story seemed pretty lame in comparison. Why couldn’t my parents have been more creative? Years later when I was a sub in San Gabriel, I smiled whenever I met Elvis Wong (and there were FOUR of them). It reminded me of the book The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. The main character’s American name is Shirley Temple Wong.

Any teacher can recite an exotic list of names of the students they’ve taught over the years. There were twin boys, D’wayne and D’won, and twin girls, Eunique and Especial. Klinsmann.  Toshiba. Cinnamon Jade. I could go on and on. Maybe it’s an urban legend, but teachers always swear they’ve heard of a girl named Chlamydia.

Several teacher friends are hoping to get pregnant. They want to do so before every name carries with it the image of a child they’ve already taught.

Recently, I did an art lesson on lines for my third graders using their names. This must be something that third graders have done since the dawn of time, because I remember doing it when I was in third grade. The pharmacist had typed my name as “Janette” on a prescription label. (That was back when the pharmacist typed.) I thought “Janette” was was way cooler than “Janet,” so that’s how I wrote my name. My teacher was surprised. My mother was not happy. And me?  I reminded that I was just Janet.

For the “Names” art lesson, students first draw a border the width of their ruler on 8×10 paper. Next, they write their names and color them in with black marker. They use a variety of lines to fill in the background. Diagonal. Wavy. Zigzag. Organic. Have them fill in the lines with colored pencils, as using markers is overkill and you don’t get all of those cool details and colors.

This year, I decided to take the project a step further. We’d just finished reading Angel Child, Dragon Child about a little girl who comes to the U.S. from Vietnam. It was hard, at first, for the students to pronounce the Vietnamese names in the story, but they got better. I always tell children that it’s a sign of respect when you call someone by their given name.

My students’ homework was to find out how they got their name. I wasn’t concerned about the origin of their name. I just wanted students to talk to their parent/s about why they chose that name for their child. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, ” Your parents spent a lot of time choosing your name, so you can at least write it on your paper!”)

The form I sent home is below. I was surprised that every child actually talked to a parent (this year every child is living with a parent) and returned the form the next day. Okay, one girl told me her name meant “African princess with chocolate colored skin.” She was so busted!  But by the time I called home the next day, she was in the midst of a conversation with her mother about how she really did get her name. It’s a fun project. If only I had that girl Chlamydia in my class this year!

How I Got My Name

Last week we read “Angel Child, Dragon Child.” The main character was a girl named Ut, who was from Vietnam. We learned that “Ut” was her “at home name,” or nickname. We also learned that in Vietnam, people say their surname, or last name, first.

How did you get your first name? You need to talk to a parent and find out why they chose this special name for you. They had thousands of names to choose from!

1. Were you named after someone in your family?

2.  Were you named after someone famous?

3.  Does your name mean something special?

4. Or, did your parents just like the sound of your name?

Find out how you got your name and write about it below. Do you an “American” name or a nickname? Use the back if you need to.

Photo Credit:  Mark Shaver for The Times


1. Catherine Sherman - November 8, 2009

I’ve always loved names, and when I was a girl I probably wasn’t the only girl scribbling names of her future children on the blackboard. I was going to have one for every letter of the alphabet. Glad I got over that! When the time came, I couldn’t come up with anything very dazzling, as you know. But I told myself that they had a hard enough burden to bear with their difficult last name (which is not Sherman…)

Recently, I commented on a blog devoted to names about my own name.

Cathy – I think you were “Sherman” to me even after college. I remember making a conscious effort to call you by your first name. Someone once asked what your last name was and I said “Sherman.” So her name is “Sherman Sherman?” they asked. LOL A child’s for each letter of the alphabet? Oh, that’s right. You were in Catholic school. 🙂 Jan


2. bev from england - November 8, 2009

Facsinating stuff….really makes u wonder….

i was named bevereley cos my sister who was only tiny at the time kept saying she wanted a baby bellaby …mum thought beverley was as close a name as she could find. My middle name, joy , was given to me because i was the first baby born after my aunty joyce (called joy) died. I think joy is a beautiful name.

The receptionist at my dentist and a ward aid i used to work with are both named gaye…. ” But that was back before…oh, you know.”

keep these coming !


Bev – That’s so cute that your sister ordered up a baby bellaby and your mother tried to deliver (how’s that for a double entendre?) Jan


3. tina - November 8, 2009

My parents started out naming their children with beautiful long, family names. To the best of my recollection, this is how it all played out: Francesca Kay, my oldest sister, was given the feminine form of my dad’s name and my mom’s middle name. My second oldest sister, Anna Maria, was named after my father’s aunty, a talented artist. In high school she dropped one “n” and became Anamaria. My third oldest sister, Lisa Luise, was named after my dad’s youngest sister and possibly Nat King Cole’s Mona Lisa. My parents had married in Vegas and Nat sang “Making Whoopie” to them on their wedding night. My turn was next. I got Perry Como’s song Tina Marie. Next up came my brother Francis Gerard. He got Francis for my dad, first son gets that, and Gerard for the patron saint of lost causes. After four girls my parents weren’t terribly hopeful. Next brother was named Paul Joseph after Pope Paul and Grandpa Repetti.
Last up was Angela Terese. She arrived 4 years after the parents thought they were done. She was named for the angels and St. Terese, The Little Flower.

Tina – What an amazing story each name has! Having Nat King Cole sing “Making Whoopie” to you on your wedding night is one of those stories that could only happen when the stars align. Since my parents were Methodists, we didn’t have access to those saints’ names either. 🙂 Jan


4. CZBZ - November 9, 2009

“Maybe it’s an Urban Legend, but teachers always swear they’ve heard of a girl named Chlamydia.”


My parents named me Carolyn which is probably why I married a narcissist.

What a great assignment, even for adults who might not know why their parents named them “Carolyn”, for example. I am gonna call mom and ask her.


CZ – I’d be interested in hearing what she tells you. My oldest son is Taylor and for some reason thought he’d been named for James Taylor. He seemed relieved when I told him no. I always liked those names that could be first or last names. I used to look at the name of counties on a state map and pick out a name I liked. Boone, for example. I liked Taylor, but at the time, knew of no one else with that name. Then I saw an “Officer and a Gentlemen” directed by Taylor Hackford. It was official. I’d also heard of the writer Taylor Caldwell, but it wasn’t until I saw her obituary that I realized THAT Taylor was a woman. Jan


5. moxey - November 9, 2009

We read “Angel Child, Dragon Child” this year too. It was hard for Spawn to grasp the whole story, particularly since we don’t have much familiarity with Vietnamese names here in Podunk. I think the kid made a D on the quiz. Oh well, onward and upward.

My name is a family name, though since I was born in the 60’s it would also seem to be a hippy name (think “virtues”), except my parents were about as far from hippy as you can get. If I had been a boy I would have been William, because that was the first name of both of my grandfathers. As it is, my name was my great grandfather’s middle name.

Spawn got monikered with the family name, too, as a middle name. The first name came to me in a dream. A crazy pregnancy dream.

Mox – Do you mean to tell me there are TWO “Chastitys” in the world? LOL I still haven’t been able to figure out if Spawn is your son’s real name, or if that’s his on-line moniker. Cool either way. If you’re in lockstep OCR mode, he should be reading “City Critters” this week! On a final note, those Asian names can be hard. When I was a sub at a high school there was a boy named Phuoc Yu. If anyone needed an “American” name, it was him. 🙂 Jan


moxey - November 11, 2009

We’ve read “City Critters” already — in fact, we’re almost done with Unit 2. This unit has been a breeze, considering most of the stories are animal related and right up the kid’s alley. No problems with comprehension here!


6. elissestuart - November 11, 2009

When a student comes to me with a name that I cannot even pronounce let alone spell, I always figure that she (the mother) had a really good anesthesiologist (the drug czar) and when the labor delivery nurse asked the name…she couldn’t understand the patient.

ES (Can you tell it’s been that kind of a day?)

Elisse – LOL For the record, I was tempted to name my first son Javier Mercado after the anesthesiologist who put me out of my misery! Jan


elissestuart - November 15, 2009

LOL Jan!!


7. Marly - November 15, 2009

I’m passionate about the topic of names – it’s why I have a site called NamelyMarly! I love your post. I see a lot of expectant parents looking for the latest trendy name for their child. I suggest that they either pick a name that reflects the child (i.e., waiting until after the baby is born and seeing what name fits) or picking a name that has a story behind it. That sounds so much better than saying my name was from the “Unusual Baby Name” book, or something like that. Thanks for your post.

Marly – I’ve actually known several people who named their baby, only to change it a few weeks later, because the baby just didn’t look like a (insert name here). I went to get a mammogram last year and there were two women ahead of me, both named Janet. I had to laugh. I’ll check out your site, as I, too, love names. BTW, Marly is a way cool name. I’m sure there’s a good story behind your name. Jan


8. Michelle - November 24, 2009

My brother is Michael Anthony, and I am Michelle Ann. Yes, they are the exact same name. My name is the feminine form of my brothers, and right there at birth with my name, started the whole sibling rivalry thing between us. I have spent my whole life trying to get out of the golden boys shadow. Suffice it to say, Mike and I have always hated having the same name.

For a brief period, we both went to UCLA at the same time. When you look at either of our names quickly, you can’t tell them apart. Whenever either one of us went to the student health center, they would constantly confuse our records. The doctor would walk into my room expecting a boy, and would see me… And that was long before, well… you know.

I vowed that I would never do that to my own children… until I had my own children. My daughter is named Charlotte after my grandfather who was Charles. I also like Charlotte because it is not a popular name and is very old fashioned. Then when I was pregnant with my second child, I wanted to name him Charles… I thought how cute. Well, my husband wouldn’t let me, and we couldn’t decide on a name. He wanted Coty… I should have known then it wouldn’t work out between us. But finally we settled on Noah. I love it and it suits him completely. Both my kids live up to their names. I let them both have their own identities instead of trying to make them clones of each other… And I like it much better that way! 🙂

Michelle – I loved “Charlotte’s Web.” That might explain why I have a pig, like spiders, AND love the name Charlotte. I’ve got a nephew named Noah. At first, I thought it was a little TOO biblical (like Moses), but not so any more. Both are great names! A, Jan


9. Janelle - November 27, 2009

A famous name change in my family happened in third grade. As the story goes, my Uncle Clee hated his name, and when my grandparents moved he told all of his new third-grade classmates his name was Scott. My grandparents didn’t find out until parent-teacher conferences, when my grandmother had to interrupt the teacher and ask, “Wait, wait, who is Scott?” But the name stuck, and he never went back to Clee.

Janelle – I don’t blame Clee either. Every year I read my students all three Wayside School books. One of the chapters is about a boy named Benjamin Nushmutt who lies the first day and tells everyone is name is Mark Miller. There’s also a boy named Nancy who trades his name with a girl named Mac. (My Wayside School post will eventually see the light of day.:) My father was never particularly fond of his name Rollin Clarke. Children would cross the two “L”s in his name on the board at school and turn it into Rottin Cluck. Jan


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