Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

What’s in a Name?

Illustration by Payton Davies


After a few moments of relaxed banter, all of my interviews start the same way:

Thanks so much for offering to chat with me about this topic. To kick things off, how would you like to be referred to in the article… names, pronouns, class year?”

Our names are the first things we share with new acquaintances and are labels we carry throughout our lives, whether we keep the name our parents gave us or choose a new name down the road. Names hold power and stories that can span generations and cultures, while also marking a new beginning as we embark on our own lives. Names encapsulate who we are and who we want to be. They are our identity, ever-changing as they collect new memories and meanings. 

When I reached out on the student listserv for interviewees, I didn’t expect the response I received. Emails flooded in, excited to share the histories and perspectives behind respondents’ names. The stories I heard varied dramatically. Some names came from relatives, others from book characters and others from flowers and nature. Some names were rooted in English, while others came from different languages and countries. Some interviewees kept their given names, others created their own. Each name is complex and layered and personal. 

Senior Sueli Gwiazdowski responded to my email with interest, writing that sharing her story “would make [her] mom happy.” Gwiazdowski’s mother chose a name that unites both sides of the family. There is an especially compelling history behind Gwiazdowski’s first name, which she shares with her late grandmother. 

While Gwiazdowski’s grandmother passed away before they could meet her, they have heard stories from their mother. A key piece of Gwiazdowski’s heritage is her Brazilian ancestry; her grandmother and mother were born there and keep their country with them through the language, name and traditions they pass down.

“My name is a reminder of my connection to Brazil … my culture, my heritage and my first language being Portuguese. I think it’s a beautiful thing that I get to have,” Gwiazdowski said. She explained how she feels fortunate to share a name with her grandmother, who made a massive impact in her community and continues to inspire her descendants. 

However, Gwiazdowski did not always view their name in a positive light.

“[Growing up,] I did not like my first name. I pronounced it wrong on purpose to people in elementary school because no one can pronounce it around me,” Gwiazdowski said.

When she went to sleepaway camps, she seized the opportunity of being with a group of kids who didn’t know her name, and would try to convince the other campers that her name was Sue or Sarah… anything that was common and easy to pronounce in the United States. 

Over time, Gwiazdowski’s relationship with their name changed from one of annoyance and dislike to one of love and gratitude. One of the driving forces behind that transition was the community they discovered in their English as a Second Language classes, where many other students had names that Americans struggle to pronounce. 

Even though Gwiazdowski’s relationship with her name has changed, she still faces mispronunciation and misspellings. She explained that, on the whole, the Whitman community has been good about pronouncing and spelling her name correctly; however, she has still had bad experiences. 

“I’ve had people literally argue with me about how my name should be spelled at this college, and I always just kind of shut them down and I’m like … you’re weird for that,” Gwiazdowski said.

Depending on where people are from, they may add an accent to Sueli, despite this being the incorrect spelling in Gwiazdowski’s case. This is frustrating, but Gwiazdowski no longer blames their own name for mispronunciations. Instead, they choose to celebrate their name and its power and meaning in the face of other people’s beliefs of what their name should look and sound like.

Like Gwiazdowski, sophomore Linnea Krig’s name has many meanings and connections. However, rather than paying homage to a culture or relative, Krig’s name honors strong women, science and flowers. Her mother imbued Krig’s name with a passion for botany and biology. The linnea flower conjures images of nature and also has ties to Carolus Linnaeus, who is considered the father of modern taxonomy. Additionally, Krig’s middle name, Megan, is derived from the character Meg in “A Wrinkle in Time,” chosen specifically for her strength. 

Krig loves her name and the meanings woven into it. As a STEM student herself, Krig believes her mom, “kind of manifested [her] academic future, like STEM and bio.” 

Krig’s name is interwoven with several aspects of her life. It connects to her studies and interests, and she even has a linnea flower tattooed on her arm. As she showed it to me, she said her name, “was a really easy way to decide what my first tattoo would be ‘cause it’s something so steady and cool.” Krig finds a strong sense of identity within her name and all it represents.

Sophomore Juliana Frame emphasized this point.

“Your name is the first and foremost part of your identity,” Frame said.

Identities are complex, and this makes names complex too, especially when the names our parents give us don’t fit. 

Frame has spent a lot of time thinking about her name; in fact, she chose it herself around two years ago. As a trans woman, Frame grew up with a name that did not match her identity. 

“Having a name that doesn’t sound like you, which I had for 18 years of my life … it’s dehumanizing, almost, because as a human, you’re supposed to have a name and you’re supposed to go by that name and you’re supposed to recognize that name,” Frame said. 

Choosing a name that fit her identity and made her feel comfortable allowed Frame to further embrace who she is and represents, “the ultimate self-expression of identity.” She selected Juliana because it was the name her parents would have given her if she was assigned female at birth, and chose Violet as her middle name for its connotations with Sapphic love.

Several other interviewees discussed the trans experience when it comes to names and identities. Senior Banyan Moss is also trans, although they have kept the name their parents gave them. Their name is rich with nature and personal stories and is something of which Moss is proud.

Their first name, Banyan, comes from a specific banyan tree in Hilo, Hawaii. Moss recalled climbing the massive banyan’s branches when they were younger, sharing memories of the nearby swimming hole and the place’s importance to the locals. Their connection to their namesake shone in their expression and voice as they recounted stories of the tree. The nature imagery doesn’t end with Moss’ first or last name; their middle name, Rain (an ode to both the weather event and the Patty Griffin song), creates a name wholly intertwined with the natural world. 

“From a young age, I was like … I have this super cool hippie name that’s very nature-focused and all of them are real words that you could find in the dictionary,” Moss said.

However, while Moss loves their name, it does not match every identity in which they inhabit. Years later, Moss became a drag queen and spent a considerable amount of time thinking about what name they wanted to use for drag. They eventually settled on Kaleo. A year ago, Moss’s mom asked them if Kaleo was an intentional choice. Moss was confused until their mom reminded them that Moss’ name was almost Zoe Kaleo. 

“I had completely forgotten about that … I somehow found that name again probably 16 years later,” Moss said. Kaleo felt right, and Moss has embraced the name.

Now, they go by Banyan and Kaleo and feel that both names are equally part of who they are. They feel proud and safe within their names. 

Our names shape how we feel about ourselves and we also infuse our names with meaning, creating a bidirectional bond that forms part of who we are. We seek comfort in our names, whether it be in the stories that live within them, the culture or people they honor, or the moment of self-expression that led to their creation. 

“A name can be identity, it can be power, it can be security and validity,” Gwiazdowski said. 

We often inherit memories and meanings with our names, but one of the beautiful things about identity and growth is that we have the power to add our own meaning and depth to our names. While names often come from a moment in our lives when we did not have a say in our own identity, they do not have to stay that way; we can remake our names as we make ourselves, growing and changing, making mistakes and learning new things about the world and our place within it.

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