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What’s in a name?

May 15, 2010

The other day, copies of my most recently published book flopped through the letter box. (They flopped as they’re paperback; quite a while since a tome of mine clunked its hardback route to the doormat!) I opened the package eagerly – I still get a buzz from holding a new book in my hands, even after having 60 or 70 titles in print. Instant reaction: great – yet another tome in the popular Scholastic Read & Respond series. To the teachers who use it in their classrooms, and to the children who enjoy the lessons, it will make not one iota of difference that my name is misspelt on the front cover. (I blame the magic wand of Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch, subject of the lesson plans!) But it made me realise how proprietorial are my feelings about my name. I think most people would feel the same.

I have always had a love-hate relationship with my first name. As an infant learning to write at school, I did not appreciate how good it is to have so few letters to form and sequence, but I am grateful retrospectively. It’s also easier to fit short names on to forms. But it’s a name that I still often have to spell for people, despite its age, and its appearance in Shakespeare, many songs old and modern, including Ben Jonson’s ‘To Celia’ (Drink to me only with thine eyes …). The name is quite ‘pretty’, I think, and my mother told me when I was young that it meant ‘heavenly one’ – that’s a difficult title to live up to, but a nice thought! The name was suggested by my mother’s school-friend, and settled upon almost by default. It’s a rather grown-up name for a little tot, and my parents called me ‘Posy’ till I was about four (my middle name being Rosemary). I don’t remember being called Posy, but when I was about starting-school-age, I do remember asking, “Why do I sing ‘a pocket full of Mes’ in Ring-a-ring-o’-roses?” and hearing the explanation.

Friends at primary school (except close friends) could not spell my name. I’d get Christmas cards addressed to Seelyer and such-like. Problems were not confined to children: one official, soon after my birth, wrote ‘Alice’ on a form and had to be corrected. He was obviously dyslexic, before the term had a name; it must have made his clerical job a nightmare! I’ve had people try and tell me the name is short for Cecilia. No, it isn’t. They are two separate names. I am frequently called Cynthia and Sylvia. Wrong again. At secondary school I gained the nickname of ‘Cess’ (I won’t go into the route to this end result – suffice it to say, it wasn’t flattering, but my friends were not intending to be unkind.) What else have I been called over the years? Diminutives and variations, not made through ignorance, but through fun and affection – Ceelie (grates a bit, though kindly meant!), Cee (well, why not?), Carelia (plain daft!), Weel (via Ceelie-Weelie – probably my favourite from long ago!) and, lately, I seem to be Ceels here and there. Celia is not an easy name to abbreviate, but that was why my parents liked it; my brother and sister and I all had names that couldn’t be shortened, but people find a way round that minor obstacle, and I do quite like Ceels. Reminds me of those lovely, gentle, whiskery dog-faced sea creatures, and sounds far less formal and severe than my Christian name.

Today my 90-year-old mother had a bill through the post for minor work done by a South  Devon service to the elderly and infirm. In addition to the bill was a covering letter. It explained that although they were still ‘Care and Repair’ they were changing their name to ‘Independent Futures’. I laughed. How sad. They’re losing a nifty name, rhymingly memorable, to something pretty meaningless. Their kind and efficient employees would not be doing the work if their customers had ‘independent futures’, not to mention ‘presents’. Is the name more PC? If so, why? They do care. They do repair. Perhaps they are afraid their old name implied that their customers were falling apart? I don’t think so, but, if that were the case, the old name ‘Care and Repair’ was spot on!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2010 15,05,10

    Celia, you’ve clearly been through the mill with your given name, lovely though it is, and beloved of Ben Jonson and Will Shakespeare.

    Maybe those experiences were part of what focused you so strongly and effectively on your life’s career as a poet and essayist and, yes, via Scholastic, a teacher.

    I could tell you a tale or two myself about what can be done with that most common of all names, “Mary,” and add a book’s worth of experiences I’ve had as a result of bearing the double name “Mary Eunice.” But that’s for another day! Great post, Celia!!

  2. celiawarren permalink*
    May 15, 2010 15,05,10

    Good to hear from you, Mary. You share my mother’s Christian name, as you may remember. My grandmother told her it’s a name suited equally to queens or to cleaners and everything in between. And, certainly, my mother has found that most people remember her name – though she’s never been either queen or cleaner. You must tell me more about your name experiences some time. Perhaps on your blog? We could start a trend … 😉

  3. May 16, 2010 16,05,10

    Maybe the name we are assigned should be regarded as provisional until we’ve found one for ourselves… I always disliked my first name, and changed it unofficially in my teens… ‘independent futures’ sounds faintly alarming, as though the future had declared UDI, leaving us trapped in the present. Oh, hang on…

    • celiawarren permalink*
      May 16, 2010 16,05,10

      Ha, yes! There’s also a kind of threat in ‘independent futures’ — like, we’ve down our bit; now you’re on your own!

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