My name is the name I tell you it is.

Recently I’ve once again been meeting a lot of new people. In many ways this is wonderful, and definitely better than being bedridden. But there’s one thing that’s beginning to grate enough that I’ve decided to write a blog about it: the reactions I keep getting to my name.

My name is Hel. You know that, because we’ve just met, and that’s what I’ve introduced myself as, so that should make it reasonably obvious that it’s the name by which I wish to be addressed. Yes, I know, it sounds like “hell” – and believe me, I have heard almost every conceivable variation on the jokes you could tell.

I’m sure that people with more obviously “foreign”-sounding names get a worse time of it – for example, I know far too many people with Eastern European names who have been pressured to change them to something more “English”, to blend in. I am very much aware that in the grand scheme of things, I am not bearing a great weight of oppression when it comes to unusual names. I have white privilege, a passably middle class accent, and a name that – while it’s hardly “Sam Jones” – isn’t too obviously connected to a specific ethnicity, and still conforms to Anglophone ideas about pronunciation. So, I know it could be a lot worse for me, and I hope I’m not minimising the struggles of others by discussing my own. But yes – when you ask me if it’s my “real name” or if it’s “short for something” – I really, really don’t understand why. My name is the name I tell you it is.

I’m not sure why it matters where my name comes from: whether my Old Norse-speaking dad named me after a formidable goddess as a nod to his Viking heritage; whether it’s a name formed from the letters of my initials; whether it’s short for Helga or Helena or Heloise or even Ethel; or whether it’s just a phoneme with no particular meaning or history that has still come to signify the person who is standing here talking to you. (I’ve also said ‘yes’ to most of the above explanations in discussion with curious strangers at some point – mostly because I feel like it’s easier to give an answer, any answer, than to say “why do you need to know?”)

I’m aware that it sounds like a curse-word. I’m aware that it’s rather uncommon even in Scandinavian countries. I’m aware that I could just use a different name. I have gone by other names in the past, and was considering using something else for the world of writing,* but honestly – Hel is the name I keep coming back to, because (to rather labour the point here) it’s my name. Every other name I’ve used has turned uncomfortable and ill-fitting, or felt like a temporary pseudonym. Not that I’m against naming oneself afresh  – I think it can be incredibly valuable, and someone’s chosen name should always be respected. But I don’t feel like I can just pick one and know it will stick in the same way ‘Hel’ does. Perhaps because the movie version of The Hobbit is still reasonably fresh in my memory, this quote sums up how I feel: “I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means… me!” It’s the same here – Hel is the name I answer to, the name I think of myself as, the name which ‘means me’. It’s weird and awkward and unusual and I don’t even really like it that much, but there we go. It’s my name, because it’s my name, because it’s my name. Please stop asking me if it’s my “real” one.

Further reading:

Rose Lemberg, co-editor of Stone Telling, writes on the persistent erasure of her co-editor Shweta Narayan by people who write only to “Rose Lemberg”, whose name reads as Anglo-Western. Even though both are immigrants (see Rose’s article), an Anglo-Western name affords privilege: an Indian name does not. [This text edited 21/03/12 to reflect further discussion with Rose about the history of her own name.]

Galatea at Lashings of Ginger Beer Time, on the racism and anglocentrism in the treatment of Quvenzhané Wallis.

CN Lester on “real” names, in the context of being trans.

A collection of different perspectives on naming and trans identity,  submitted by various people to The Self Made Men.

Flyover Feminism has just begun a roundtable discussion of names: the first one, by Nikki at ‘Are Women Human?’, discusses her experience  with names from the perspective of being transracially adopted; the second, by Soulamami, discusses having an ‘ethnic’ name, and the complexities around naming her daughter.

Edited to add: @AutistLiam on Twitter went searching for names containing ‘hel’ on BabyNamesPedia and found 338 names offered for boys, and 599 offered for girls!

*I’ll probably end up using a mix of “Hel Gurney” and “H. L. Gurney”, depending on the context, but to me that’s essentially the same name anyway.


20 thoughts on “My name is the name I tell you it is.

  1. When someone introduces themselves as — let’s say — Deborah, that’s their name. And yet I’ve actually seen more than one Deborah called “Debbie” when that is clearly NOT what they want to be called. There are certain kinds of rudeness I’ll never understand and this is one of them.

  2. I’m kind of a nerd for the history of names, so I always ask people with names I haven’t heard before what their names mean or if they’re family names or short for something. Even if they’re names common to my culture, I often ask about the spelling or stories because I love names. And I only don’t ask meaning from them because I already know the common meanings. I’m sure I’m not the only one who means no disrespect, and who genuinely finds all names interesting because as you said–it’s what you call yourself. It’s a big part of identity and I think showing an interest in someone’s name is showing an interest in who they are.

    Although I would never call anyone by a name they didn’t want. I go by Adi and am Adrianne ONLY to family. I’ve had people tell me they’d prefer to call me Adrianne and I find that extremely rude.

    • Hi Adi, thanks for your comment! I absolutely agree that names are fascinating – I too am something of an etymology nerd, and can definitely understand the instinct to ask. But I think there’s a difference between asking a friend about the history of their name, and meeting somebody for the first time and saying (as one of the first things you ever say to someone!) “is that your real name?” or “is that short for ____?”, which is what I’m primarily talking about in the above post. For a start, both of those contain an implied denial of legitimacy – as though the name that’s been provided somehow can’t be “real” in and of itself. I think questions like that are different from (and definitely worse than) “that’s an interesting name, what does it mean?” and similar questions, but it’s part of the same continuum. You’re right that names can sometimes tell you a lot about someone – but sometimes the things that it tells you aren’t things that person is necessarily comfortable revealing to a stranger. Sometimes people have complicated or difficult histories with their name – especially if there are racial, cultural or trans – and I don’t think it’s an appropriate thing to bring up with a complete stranger, because you don’t know what sort of things you might be bringing up. To draw a comparison, at an event very recently, somebody I’d only just met kept asking me about why I walked with a stick, even asking “is it degenerative?”. I’m relatively open about my health problems to my circle of friends, but from someone I’ve just met, I think that personal questions are deeply inappropriate.
      So, in short, my view is that it’s probably alright to ask a friend about the history of their name, but asking a stranger about their name (especially in a way that implies it’s weird or not “real”) is not. I hope that makes sense!

      • Thanks for clarifying! I see completely where you’re coming from. I never saw my interest as invasive but I think I might try to be a bit less forward now. Though the “real name” bit is infuriating. I would never ever degrade someone’s name by insinuating it’s “fake”. Anyway I enjoyed this post, thanks.

    • I cannot reply to your comment below, so replying to this one with some further thoughts re: invasiveness.

      A question about a name is not unlike a question about an accent. Some people don’t mind being asked, so one’s mileage may vary.

      Yet, compare:
      Person A: “So what is your accent?”
      Person B: “It’s Russian.”


      Person A: “So what is your accent?”
      Person B: “It’s composite.”
      Person A: “What do you mean?”
      Person B: “Well, I was born in Ukraine, but I am from a Yiddish-speaking family, and we lived in Russia too, and then I lived in Israel for over a decade, and then Berkeley, California, so it’s really a composite of all those, but I am also a linguist, so my accent is relatively not pronounced.”

      Meanwhile, Person A checked out by the time I got to “Yiddish-speaking family,” and is mildly annoyed that I am relaying so much personal information when they asked a simple question, but yes, my accent is complicated, the history of my name is complicated, this is a part of my identity, I’ve just been interrogated on my identity by a complete stranger, and there is no short answer, so I am going to give a full answer that will make Person A slightly uncomfortable.

      It happens every week. Sometimes every single day.

      The more complicated a person’s identity is, the more there is a chance that your curiosity will be added to a long list of curiosities from complete strangers this person is subjected to because there is something different about them.

      On the other hand, friends – people who respect one and view one as a person – tend to rarely ask the questions one might like them to ask – questions about origins, family, immigrant or racial or gender or sexuality experience – whatever marginalization makes them different.

      This is easily remedied – people should gently and mindfully ask friends, but allow strangers their privacy. If a stranger is forthcoming and you’re having a blast talking about books or birds or whatever, that might be fine? Though it also might not be.

      Just my thoughts.

  3. I get the ‘what’s it short for?’ quite a lot. Sometimes people will just assume and call me what they think it must be short for (it isn’t. The name I generally use is the one on my birth certificate). I like that my given name is technically gender neutral.

  4. I suppose quite bizarrely I get the same thing for Joey. It’s not the name that’s on my passport or my bike licence but it suits, but some people won’t have it.

  5. Thank you for writing this post. It resonates so deeply with me.

    I get the ‘is that your real name/what is it short for?’ all the time. It’s incredibly frustrating; no, it may not be my government-legal name YET, but it is who I am, what I wish to be called, and how I introduce myself. But since it’s not what people think of as a ‘real name’, I constantly get the questions and, in my family at least, a flat refusal to call me this or mockery when they do (like, ‘haha, you’re such a silly little kid, wanting to be called something other than what we adults think of you as’).

    Anyway. Again, thanks for making this post. 🙂

  6. Oh, yes, so much. I’ve had far too many people attempt to expand my given name to Samuel, which I have only ever used on the most official of forms. I’ll happily answer to Sam, or Somhairle, or Sorley, or Somerled, and I’m happy for someone to have a preference amongst those, but only amongst those. I am really not interested in being sorted into someone else’s boxes.

    Having a gender-neutral name is good sometimes, but when I’m not there to give other clues in person, I’ve had people ask what it’s short for specifically as a way to find out a gender, which is a pain for every possible reason!

  7. Nothing more constructive to say than “WORD”. I’m aware that “Clouds” sounds like a hippy name, and I don’t care. Not even my dad uses my full first name any more.

  8. Surely a name is what we are called, not what we call ourselves. Yes we may be invited to suggest names that others may call us, but most often we are introduced by others to others. We are often referred to by others. People need to talk about us as well as to us.
    A name means ‘you’ as well as ‘me’. It also is descriptive and has a context within a culture and so places the ‘named’ somewhere within the culture.
    We do not so much choose names as recognise them, then attempt to convey that recognition until a working understanding is settled on.
    Names have power; ‘Speak my “real name” and you may control me.’
    ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’; but would it. There is more to a rose than its smell or its thorns, it has a rich place in our stories of life.

    • “Surely a name is what we are called, not what we call ourselves”

      Um, surely it’s both? I would disagree that “most often we are introduced by others to others”. Just as much of the time we introduce ourselves, are asked our name, see our name on documents (if that applies to us), write our name on documents, in our diaries, sign letters and forms and cards with it…

      and names *do* have power – they can affect how we see ourselves. As Hel said in the post, they don’t even particularly like their name, but it’s *their* name. It’s who they are. I am a Koel. Although people have been calling me it since childhood, it’s not on my birth certificate; it wasn’t my legal name ’til I was 18, but everything about it, down to the shape and sound of the word feels like me. School reports that used to come home referring to me as my other name always felt like they were talking about somebody else.

      The point is, who is anyone to make a distinction between what other people are called and what they call themself? You say that most of us are being introduced by others, but where do those others hear our name to begin with? If we’re adults, usually from us. Every single person should be the ultimate authority on what their name is, and for other people to assume and suggest different names for them is the height of rudeness and arseholery.

      Besides, every human being should have the right to grow and change and develop throughout their life (or be in a better position to express who they were all along), and changing their name / being the ultimate authority on what their name is / telling you what their name is (even if that name is different to the one you expect, the one you assume, or the one you heard from their parents fifteen years ago), has to be fundamental to that right.

  9. Pingback: Trans names, elf names, ‘silly’ names | Hel Gurney

  10. (“for other people to assume and suggest different names for them is the height of rudeness”

    And by that I mean strangers being told someone’s name and then assuming it’s something else, obviously, I don’t mean giving your kids a name to begin with.)

  11. Pingback: Upcoming things! | Hel Gurney

  12. I get “….Judy?” a lot from people who assume they must have misheard (because the person wearing a skirt & purple tights couldn’t possibly have a “boy’s name”). it’s not a “boy’s name”, it’s my name. (in my case) it has nothing to do with gender.

    if anyone is interested*, it was chosen by a genderqueer friend after I said my [birth] name didn’t feel like “me” (and hadn’t for as long as I could remember). it felt more “me” and right and special almost instantly. I love them for giving it to me.

    *I get how it’s not ok to ask. please, if you’re reading this, I’m making a personal choice to explain which does *not* override my (or anyone else’s) right to not explain the thing you’re curious about.

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