IVP - Strangely Dim - Of Surnames and Pseudonyms

June 16, 2006

Of Surnames and Pseudonyms

I recently met someone with a famous name. I don't mean a bank teller named Thomas Jefferson or anything like that; I mean someone who is blood- and name-related to somebody famous. And now having talked with her, I have a new respect for pseudonyms.

There's all sorts of weight attached to your name. My mother's name was Grady; her mother's name was Brady. One look at her driver's license and you would have pegged her as Irish Catholic, and then you would have imagined her regularly overindulging in potatoes and whiskey while reciting the Rosary. Then my mom married a Zimmerman, took my dad's name, and encountered an entirely different set of presuppositions.

Now, imagine if my dad were famous, let's say for inventing Vitamin C. My mom would go from enduring irrational expectations of her to bearing the mystique of a famous spouse: "Oh, Mrs. Zimmerman, you must be so healthy. What's your favorite fruit? Do you miss potatoes?"

My mom would be spared all that scrutiny and false expectation if only my famous dad had taken a pseudonym. "Miss Potatoes" would be a good one.

I'm told that surnames originated out of people's vocation. "Zimmerman" means "innkeeper"; presumably someone deep in my family's history kept an inn, and the name stuck. Over time, of course, those connections became so distant as to be meaningless. Now our names are simply one way we organize our society--how we alphabetize our phone books.

But proximity to celebrity complicates our self-understanding. Fame transforms a name into a commodity; people are judged by their famous relatives, and their name becomes a brand that they must protect. Roger Clinton has lived a relatively normal life, but in the shadow of his brother, President Bill Clinton, that normal life starts to look pathetic. Even worse, Roger's foibles reflect badly on Bill's reputation, so the pressure on Roger amps up.

You can ride the right name into a supremely comfortable life. Names open doors that otherwise would remain closed; names grant us access to the most power and the best parties. But what if you're not interested in the life afforded you by your name? What if you're a Kennedy who wants to vote Republican? What if you're a Bush who wants to vote Democratic? What if you're a Gates who wants to use a Mac? What if you have something completely fresh and distinct to say or do, but all your advisors and even complete strangers are steering you onto a path carved out for you before you were even born?

So my new friend with a famous name (let's call her "Misty Meanor" just for kicks) faces a number of challenges, among them living up to the fame of her name while simultaneously carving out her own destiny. "Who am I, and what am I about?" she might ask. "What has my lineage contributed to the legacy I'm trying to produce? At what point does Meanor end and Misty begin? How do I handle my second-hand fame responsibly and ethically?"

I heard a song by John Lennon that proved especially poignant to me, because he sings about my surname--Zimmerman--in reference to a pseudonym, Dylan. When you peel back all the layers, Bob Dylan is really Bob Zimmerman, but all those layers are so important that to think of him simply as Bob Zimmerman is to not really know him. Lennon's song, "God," is an attempt to get past the layers to the core of who we are, and to rebuild from there. He sings from the far side of his career as a Beatle, and you can hear the tiredness in his voice as he deconstructs his lineage in search of a meaningful legacy. It's a sad song, really;I'll digest it to reflect what made me hit the brakes:

"I don't believe in Zimmerman . . . I just believe in me."

Ultimately, "me" is not all I believe in. I believe in God, for example--the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. Et cetera, et cetera. To believe in a God who is a Father, to assert my sonship as a foundation of my belief, is an audacious claim: in doing so I am positioning myself out in front of all of creation. But it's not just a power grab; it also prompts a great deal of responsibility: my legacy will reflect back on the Father I have so audaciously claimed. I call God Father; how then shall I live?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at June 16, 2006 11:52 AM Bookmark and Share


I'd buy a book written by Rodney Culpepper any day. :)

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about what a name means.

Surnames are funny things (even the word is quirky). With every last name, there are variables and there are constants.

Maybe the variables matter most. For example, each generation of a family chooses what their last name represents (Smiths work hard, go to college, love road trips to national parks, always lend sugar to neighbors, ect.). A last name then becomes a mission statement that communicates how a particular family, working together, will make a difference in the world.

And, maybe the thing to wear lightly is what everyone else thinks a last name means?

I nominate Dave Z. to write a book about it. :)

Comment by: Carolyn at June 20, 2006 12:43 AM

I like that--surname as mission statement. "This is who we are, this is what we do." I nominate Carolyn. Or Rodney Culpepper. Or Misty Meanor. Or anybody but me; I ran out of thoughts with the original post.

Comment by: dave at June 20, 2006 8:05 AM

This week's theme for A Word a Day from wordsmith.org is last names based on jobs. Some are obvious like Baker, Smith, Carpenter, Butler. Others are not as obvious but still make sense - Sawyer is a lumberjack. (Any significance to the fact that on Lost season one Sawyer cuts down a tree and is called a lumberjack?) Yesterday's word was chapman, which means peddler or merchant (the equivalent of Kaufmann in German) and today's word is baxter, which means baker, especially a female baker - also related to such words and last names as backster, backmann and becker.

In Chinese culture, as well as Hebrew and other societies throughout history, naming is a profound act of theological significance, as a name is thought to imprint a destiny upon one's children. Which is why a lot of Chinese kids have names that mean prosperity or happiness, and why so many Christian Asian American girls have English names like Grace or Joy. I think it's significant that Bill Clinton's middle name is Jefferson, and that Martin Luther King Jr. wears the name of a 16th century reformer. Names are important! And it's sad that kids these days get named things like Pepsi, Lexus or Ikea.

Comment by: Al Hsu at June 20, 2006 10:32 AM

Thank goodness surnames aren't usually contrived from genetic traits (one of the constants of a last name).

Otherwise, my family would be most likely be linked to our freakishly long second toes. Really. If anyone ever claims to be a "long lost" member of our family, a quick glance at the feet will reveal all we need to know... if the name matched the toes, we'd have a hard time making it through kindergarten unscathed.

I loved Al's post about the importance of a name. The Freakonomics chapter about names was fascinating... definitely an interesting subject.

Officially changing my nomination to Al...

Comment by: Carolyn at June 20, 2006 3:36 PM

Al must increase, I must decrease. Here's a line from Carolyn's brand-new theme song:

"Simple as something that nobody knows:
that her eyes are as big as her bubbly toes
on the feet of a queen of the hearts of the cards." (Jack Johnson, Bubble Toes)

Comment by: Dave at June 20, 2006 3:43 PM

Timely conversation!! I'm taking my 15-yr-old on a father & son hike this weekend. Just the two of us walking, talking and swatting mosquitos... He's not much of a talker, so our conversation needs assistance, and HIS NAME is exactly what I had planned to talk about!
--Why I gave him his name.
--If I could give myself any name, what would it be?
--If he could choose any name, what would it be?

We had a special family occasion last week. I pronounced a blessing over each of the kids (see my blog). A key part of the blessing was the meaning of their names, and the blessing of each child was tied in to that meaning.

One daughter's name means "bitter." We laughed, but figured out how to connect a nice blessing to her name.

Comment by: Craver VII at June 20, 2006 4:47 PM

I agree with Carolyn - the Freakonomics chapter on baby names was very interesting, saying that what are upper-class names in one generation become middle- and lower-class names the next generation, reflecting people's aspirations for status. I remember in high school "Brittany" was a hoity-toity name, but this was before Britney Spears, and now it's commonplace.

It's interesting to look at my aunts' and uncles' names - one uncle's name is the Chinese words for thunder and lightning, and he has quite a temper. One aunt's name means something like "glamorous," and that fits her personality. Something that's kind of spooky is that one aunt's name means something like "the end," which might have meant that her parents thought she would be the last kid, and she died of cancer in her 40s.

Today's Word a Day name/word is mercer, which means a dealer in textiles and is from the same root as mercantile, merchant and commerce.

Comment by: Al Hsu at June 21, 2006 8:49 AM

I've heard that unlike Williamson or Stevenson (son of William or Steven obviously), Peterson was often the last name given to the bastard children that were wards of the Church, sons of Church with the heir of Peter as the head of the church. cool huh?

we had a game at youth group awhile ago where the kids had to figure out the meanings of each other's names - it was amazing how many kids had no idea what their own names meant...

Comment by: emily at June 25, 2006 3:56 PM

What about the names stars are giving their kids?
Apple, anyone?

Comment by: Margaret at June 26, 2006 11:42 AM

Two corrections to my last post: I miskeyed my son's age; he's 16. And we were not swatting mosquitos, we were dodging poison ivy--it was everywhere!!

The discussion about names? It didn't go anywhere; we just had a fun time observing creation and trying to stay hydrated.

Comment by: Craver VII at June 27, 2006 8:53 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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