Dilemmas: What's in a name?

Gertrude hates her name - given her by her late mother in her grandmother's memory. She feels it's stupid and people smile when she introduces herself - even if she calls herself Gertie. She wants to change it to Stephanie. Should she? How can she insist her friends call her by the name she wants?
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Since everyone who favours the name of Gertrude is long dead and six feet under, there is no dilemma here. Gertrude can call herself what she wants and she can train her friends by refusing to react to the name of Gertrude, even if they are screaming for help in a burning house. When they introduce her as "Gertrude" she should simply frown angrily and say: "My name is Stephanie."

Oh yes, they'll kick and scream a bit, but they'll get used to it and soon she'll have a new set of friends who have never known her as anything else.

Her name is what she is known by, and as soon as her friends get the hang of Stephanie (or "Steff" as they will call her - has she thought of that?) Stephanie will become her name. With an icy look, she can even prevent "Steff" from getting hold. I turn into Medusa if anyone ever calls me "Ginny".

But changing your name is a big step, and Gertrude should think many times before she embarks on it. People change their names when they get gripped by the power of compelling gurus. Many is the David and John I know who has changed his name to Malachi or Osiris when their brain is addled by a new religion.

Changing the name is seen as a surrender of the whole self. And indeed it was the moment, when I married and became Virginia Grove-White that I realised that, for me, something was deeply wrong with the institution of matrimony.

It was at the wedding of another Grove-White where I was surrounded by other Mrs Grove-Whites in white cardigans and pleated Terylene skirts that my sense of self-identity, never sky-high, really plummeted. Where had I, Ms Ironside, gone?

Gertrude should think many times before committing herself to a step that, while reinventing herself as a new person, will also bury something of the past, something that only too late might she realise is something to cherish.

Who has not, at some point, thought of changing their name to change their life? I have often thought that changing my embarrassingly ornate first name to Harriet - my middle name - would make me into a more sensible person, reflecting my good sense. And it must be terrible to been christened, say, Abracadabra by groovy Sixties parents and then find that your career lies in legal accounting.

The reverse side of the coin is the New Age hippy I know who has changed her name from Mary to Sparkle. Changing her name to something interesting, has not had the desired effect. It has only made her dreary personality appear even drearier, like a saddo who dons a crazy hat to give herself personality.

However, I am one of the lucky ones. For all I have balked against "Virginia" as a christian name, there is no question that the name "Virginia Ironside" is a fine and memorable combination, a blend of the romantic and slightly sexual first name, with the gritty, tough, Scottish surname.

This is why I wonder if Gertrude shouldn't think twice about her name. Gertie is coming back into fashion, along with other rather quaint names like Mavis, Mabel, and Hannah. Many would give their eye-teeth to be Gertie. But if she really wants to change, why change it to Stephanie, an acceptable but anodyne name that says nothing about its wearer, and totally devoid of personality?

Perhaps the only advice I would give to our Gertie is that, yes, she should change her name if she wants. But, please, change it something a little less drear.

READERS' REPLIES

A way to deal with depression

I'm 31 and two years ago started using my middle name because I'd never really liked my full first name. It lasted about a month and yes, it was very hard explaining to people why.

I reverted to my old name and now I know that I really only wanted to change it because at the time I was a bit depressed after losing my job and splitting up with my girlfriend.

My life is so much better now - I'm at university and have a great social life and feel that even if I had the most ridiculous name I would still be OK.

Les

London E4

For me, there's no looking back

You have every right to call yourself Stephanie if that's what you want. As to respecting your late mother's choice of name, could you have allowed her to select your future husband for you? Of course not. So accept that you can't always please your parents, indeed to develop you shouldn't have to; please waste no time in becoming Stephanie.

I speak from experience. My parents christened me Jean, perhaps not realising the difficulties it would cause. Like Gertrude, I suffered from the stigma of having a name that brought forth connotations of "old woman". School was predictably a constant stream of taunts such as "Auntie Jean". I felt a freak. Relief only came when I became Anna Leigh almost two years ago. OK, I share my new name with a second-rate TV detective, but it's far better than Jean and I don't use my middle name much anyway. I now truly feel like a 22-year-old.

Anna

Rayleigh

Gee up

Gertrude could use her initial G, and extend it to the arresting, pop- personality-type name of Gee. Why not? Plenty of people are called Bee, Dee, Jay, Kay, Em & c.

Philip

Princes Risborough

Some courage and a few pounds

Stop worrying, and start using your new name! I grew up with a hearty dislike of the name I was given at birth, and it took me to my 30th year to find the courage to change it, but it was remarkably easy once I made the decision.

It costs only a few pounds to swear in front of a Commissioner for Oaths (which you will need to do if you want to change bank accounts and so on, they always want to see a document).

Francis

London N17

Out with the old - and have a party

Have a name-changing birthday party with a big cake with "Stephanie" on it and invite all your friends and family. Don't be at all apologetic and be firm with anyone who criticises or won't fit in with your wishes.

And write a note to your mother and granny explaining your feelings, burn it and think of them with love - they didn't mean to burden you in any way.

Linda

London N6

Don't worry, Gertie. Be proud!

How I sympathise! All through my school days I was nicknamed Gertie and I hated every minute of it. As soon as I could I changed my names, and then changed it again when I left that partner and met the man who was to be my husband. And then changed it again when I left him - back to my original name of Gurton. I am now remarried again, this time for good, but I'm not changing my name again.

Changing names is not difficult - people do it all the time when they get married. Changing Christian names takes a little longer, but if you correct people every time they use the old name, they very quickly make the transition. But will you regret it?

When I was in my teens and twenties I hated being called Gertie, but now I am nearly 50 I am proud of having an unusual yet familiar surname. It is not a complex name that has to be laboriously spelled out, yet it is memorable. Gertie is a friendly, unpretentious, unusual, lovely name which is special, unique and has family memories. How nice that people smile when they are introduced to you. Be proud of it!

Annie Gurton

Penzance

NEXT WEEK'S DILEMMA: MY HUSBAND SMACKS THE CHILDREN

Dear Virginia,

I have always had arguments with my husband about disciplining our children but because we've had two girls there hasn't been much problem with smacking. Though he's smacked them occasionally and I have thrown a fit, it hasn't happened often. Clearly, he has different values when it comes to boys and he is getting quite aggressive with our three-year-old. He says he was beaten when he was small and it never hurt him, but though he would never beat our son, he argues that the odd smack is a perfectly acceptable way of showing right from wrong. I feel any violence towards children is unacceptable, and we're really falling out about it. How do your readers discipline their children without smacking - or do they agree with my husband?

Yours sincerely, Edna.

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate.

Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, the 'Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293-2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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