What’s in a name?

Although Shakespeare likes for us to think otherwise, names are important; they are an aspect of our identity that we had no control over but that we carry with us all of our lives.

Besides learning how to say “Mom” and “Dad,” one of the first things that we learn to say is our own name. In our squeaky baby voices, we proudly declare, “My name is BLANK.” We continue to do this our entire lives without thinking twice about it, but what we’re really telling the world with those words is “I come from somewhere,” I exist,” “I matter,” and “I’m an individual.”

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author

“I come from somewhere.” Someone, a parent or another relative, gave us our names. Maybe it was in honor of a family member or just because they liked the sound of it. Or maybe they just picked it randomly from a book. Our names tell the world that we came from another human, and that we have a history.

“I exist.” Back to Shakespeare for a moment. Maybe he was right about the rose. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether we call it a “rose” or a “cupcake” because the rose is not aware of itself and other things the way that humans are. The rose doesn’t introduce itself to the world with a “Hey, my name is…” It just exists. It’s different for us humans though. It’s not enough for us to exist. We have to see that we do. A name allows us to hold on to our fluid and ever-changing selves. It helps us identify ourselves in a tangible way.

“I matter.”  We know that we are alive by our breath and heartbeat. But our names not only reaffirm that we are alive but also tell us that we matter to someone because that person took the time to name us. Maybe your parents struggled for weeks or even months while trying to find the perfect name for you.

“I’m an individual.” Think about those sci-fi/fantasy films or books where the characters live in a dystopian society somewhere in the future. Many of them are assigned names by the government. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the main character, Offred, is stripped of her birth name and given a name that reduces her to something that belongs to someone else (Fred). Since her name immediately identifies her as a belonging, she is stripped of both her humanity and individuality. Some of these film/book characters don’t even have names. They are just known by a series of numbers. This is a way of making people into objects and to control them. But having a name that belongs to you (even if someone else happens to have the same name) says that you are an individual being that belongs to only yourself.

This month, we asked Macaulay students from a number of classes and campuses to tell us the story behind their first and middle names. We think that this is a great way to get to know some of your fellow students, and we hope that you enjoy reading the submissions!

Note: All submissions were edited for clarity and grammar.


Chrisinda Lynch (City ’15)

I’ve had several people ask me if my father’s name is Christopher and my mother’s name is Linda, but my name is actually my mother’s. Her father—my maternal grandfather—took the name from a horse he saw at the racetrack, changed the spelling a little, and gave it to my mother. When it came time to pick a name for her own daughter, my mother was unsure if “Chrisinda” was the right choice, but my father and grandmother convinced her. She also realized that fathers frequently pass on their names to their sons, so why couldn’t she do the same for her daughter?

Christine Marie Hirt (Hunter ’15)

My parents chose both my first and middle names. My first name, Christine, is a French/English name and the female version of the male name Christian. Christine means “follower of Christ,” but my name was not chosen due to its meaning. Rather, I was named after my father’s cousin, Kristin, who died at age twenty-one due to Hodgkin’s disease. My middle name, Marie, is another French/English name, which comes from the Biblical name Mary, most closely meaning “bitter.” My paternal great-grandmother’s name was Marie, and I was named after her.

David Zilberman (Brooklyn ’15)

The name David means “strong and beloved” in Hebrew. It was given to my great-grandfather by his mother. In Judaism, it is traditional to name a person after someone who has died. When I was born, my great-grandfather, David, had passed away. Hence, I was given his name.

Edward Simon Friedman (Hunter ’18)

As per Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, I was named after two family members who had recently passed away. My first name came courtesy of my maternal great-grandmother, Ethel. My parents took the first letter, “E,” and decided on “Edward” because of its regal heritage in England and the fact that it means “wealthy and prosperous.” They also liked the fact that it could be shortened to “Eddie,” a nickname that I still use to this day. My middle name was my paternal great-grandfather’s first name. It comes from the Biblical tradition and translates to “he who has heard the word of God.” I work hard to try and keep the memory of my two family members alive.

Marina Bardash Nebro (Queens ’16)

My first name was given to me by both of my parents. My father grew up in El Palo, a small town in Malaga on the Costa del Sol in Spain. His house, which he shared with his parents and three siblings, and which was often visited by the rest of his extended family, was located right on the sand/stones of the Mediterranean Sea. My name is an homage to where my dad grew up and spent much of his youth. Also, his family consisted of fishermen, and my parents met on the beach that he grew up on. My middle name, which is my mother’s maiden name, was given to both of my siblings as well. My mother never changed her last name after getting married, as she believed that there is no reason that the husband’s name should trump that of the wife’s.  She also wanted her name to at least carry through for an additional generation past her own.

Michael Baruch-Aydin Akyuz (Brooklyn ’15)

Back in 1993, when I was born, Michael was the reigning most popular name for a male. And besides, my mother liked it. In the Jewish faith, the middle name is given in memory of someone who has passed, such as a grandparent. My middle name, Baruch-Aydin, was given to me in memory of my grandfather who had passed away years before I was born. It loosely translates to “blessed beautiful,” or for a male, “blessed handsome.”

Slavena Salve Nissan (Hunter ’15)

I have two parts to my first name, Slavena (Славэна in Russian) and Salve, but everyone has always just called me Slavena because it’s easier than saying both names. I was born with the patronymic Vyacheslavna, but we chose to remove that part of my name when I became a US citizen. Slavena means glory/glorious, and as you might have guessed, it is of Slavic origin (given in Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, etc.). It also happens to be the name of a Bulgarian singer and a type of Bulgarian beer, although that’s not why I have this name. Many years before he met my mother, my father read a Russian translation of a Bulgarian book (he doesn’t remember which book it was) in which one of the characters was named Slavena. When my mom was pregnant with me, he decided that if he had a daughter, that’s what he would name her. Since my father’s birth name is Vyacheslav, some of his relatives teased him that he named me after himself, but he denies that and says that he simply liked the name. Salve, which is often mistaken for my middle name, is actually the second part of my first name. My father delayed my birth certificate for a few days because he felt that Slavena needed something to go along with it. He finally settled on Salve, a word that he saw in one of Plutarch’s works, because he liked the way that it sounded with Slavena and because he liked the meaning (“hello” in Latin). I’ve always liked that I have a “hello” peeking in between “Slavena” and my last name. In English, “salve” (pronounced differently from the Latin word) refers to a healing ointment, and in Spanish, it’s the conjugated form of the verb “salvar,” which means “to save.” Since I plan to become a physician, I find these two translations (which I think my father was unaware of when he named me) to be prophetic.

Just for fun: People always have a hard time pronouncing “Slavena,” so I’ve made a recording of the three “proper” ways to pronounce my name. Yes, there are three ways! These pronunciations all differ in how the “e” is said. The first is what my family calls me, the second is what almost everyone else calls me, and the third is what only two people in my life call me.

If you’re a Macaulay student who wants to contribute the story behind your name, please leave a comment below, email us at mhc.messenger@gmail.com, or contact us through our Facebook page. If enough people are willing to contribute, we would love to make this a monthly feature.

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