What’s in a Name? Everything.

I was born a nameless child. My birth certificate reads “Baby Girl Winters.” The nuns at the hospital listened to my heart through my mother’s belly and declared that since my heartbeat was slow, I was a boy. My parents had named my brothers Donald and Dean, so they knew they had to pick a “D” name. They decided to name me Darrell.

Out I came, and they were surprised with a girl. This was a good thing, because they were hoping for one, but what to name me? Can’t use Darrell. Dawn? No, sounds too much like Don. Diane? No, that’s my cousin’s name. Hmm…what about that girl in Mom’s class? Delynn? They wanted a name that had a certain rhythmic cadence: da-DUM, DA-dum. Delyn Winters. And several hours after I was born, I got my name.

When I was a kid I hated my name because nobody could say it right. I always figured I could judge people’s character by how willingly they learned and said my name. Once people got a little practice, it became a pleasure to hear my name spoken out loud, as if it were any other name. But sometimes things didn’t go so well. A playmate in my neighborhood told me once, “Your name’s too hard. I’m just going to call you What’s-your-face.” Every time we played together, she called me that, and I hated it. I felt stripped of my identity.

The first day of school was always a challenge. I was excited to be back at school, waiting for our teacher to let us into the classroom. We’d go in and find our seats, and the teacher would call the roll. Since I was a Winters, I knew I’d probably be called last. I sat there listening to names like Lisa, Jason and Jennifer trip off the teacher’s tongue, dreading when she got to the end of the list. Some teachers would give a halfhearted attempt at pronouncing my name, saying “DELL-in” or “DAY-lin” most of the time. I hated correcting adults, especially teachers. I appreciated those who at least tried, but by far the worst was the teacher who would get all the way down the list and stare expectantly at me, pencil poised over the attendance book. I was the only kid whose name hadn’t been called, so I had to be that one she couldn’t pronounce. And she waited for me to do it. I would grow more and more uncomfortable as the silence grew. The longer she waited, the more shy I became as the spotlight focused on me. After several similar introductions like this, I became ashamed of my name. If no one wanted to say it, if nobody could remember it, I didn’t want it anymore. But a nickname like “De” or “Lyn” was only half a name, and even as a child I knew that wouldn’t solve anything. I wanted people to make the effort to spell and say it correctly.

As I got older, if any teacher hesitated to say my name and waited for me to fill in the silence, I turned the tables, making them squirm. “You brought this on yourself,” I would say with my eyes. Then I would grace them with the correct pronunciation when they had suffered enough. I still didn’t like my name, but I learned to live with it. When I was in high school I started capitalizing the L, and that helped.

My fur still gets rubbed the wrong way when people mispronounce my name. Sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, I dread the nurses coming out and mangling it loudly front of a crowd. I don’t like correcting them, and they probably won’t remember it anyway, so most of the time I don’t bother. I have grown into my name, though. It’s what makes me special, especially since I married a Martineau, another hard-to-say name. That’s been a double challenge for almost 25 years. My husband has a similar problem to mine, only slightly different. His name is Darcy, and he equates it to growing up as “the boy named Sue.”

Having a unique name (and it is unique, try Googling it) is part of what makes up my personality. It took years to learn to like my name, especially since Dean’s nickname for me growing up was “Duh-Lyn.” It’s become a kind of social barometer: a way for me to distinguish who wants to get to know me, and who doesn’t. Those who care will ask me to say it, and will test it out to make sure they get it right. That shows me they are willing to invest in me. Most people, after hearing me pronounce it, say, “That’s pretty” and are more willing to engage in a conversation.

I try to be less judgmental of people who can’t, or won’t, say my name. I try to put myself in their shoes. After all, I’ve been teaching for 26 years, and I’ve come across some really weird names (Gixaly was the weirdest: starts with an H sound) but I always try. When it’s my turn as the teacher with the attendance book, I always look my students in the eyes, try pronouncing their names, and then ask to be corrected if I’m wrong. I know what it’s like to be on the other side.

There are some good things about having a unique name. Think about automatic protection from identity theft. I’m not saying someone might not try to steal my identity, but my name is unusual enough to deter most thieves. My name is also musical. Say it three times in a row, and you’re singing the William Tell Overture. Most audible answering machines or phone directories mangle it so badly it’s hard not to laugh. And even though Darrell would have worked as a woman’s name (Daryl Hannah), I am glad my parents didn’t name me that.

So what’s in a name? Everything. Romeo may have been trying to get Juliet to think names don’t matter, but I think names help shape who we become. Naming a girl North or Hashtag may mean growing up with a social stigma. On the other hand, naming a boy Michael or Jacob may mean a life of obscurity. People choose names for their kids for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of what influenced them at the time of their child’s birth. I like my name, and I like how it has helped guide my interactions with people. It’s like a musical caress when someone says it right. Being proud of my name was a long time coming, but I am glad I’m not a plain Jane.