The naming of kids is a difficult matter: Pick the wrong one, and the child could be scarred for life. Even a simple, non-controversial name can become a source of torment for a child when forged into a tool for ridicule. But, names can always be changed.
I’m named for both of my grandfathers and an uncle. That’s a lot of work for one name to do, so it remained at full strength—Arthur—up until junior high school (ages 12-13) when my science teacher (whose own name I’ve long since forgotten) suddenly decreed that I should be known as “Art”. I resisted at first, lamely—one simply didn’t argue with teachers about such things.
This had two main results. First, I immediately had to deal with other kids calling me “Art the Fart”, which I didn’t appreciate. Of course. The other result was that I was called Art for roughly the next 17 years, until I insisted people again call me Arthur. To this day, you can tell how long someone has known me by what they call me.
This comes up every year at my birthday when I get Facebook greetings from people calling me Art. They’re people who knew me prior to the late 1980s, like my family and oldest friends who still call me “Art”—as Jason did in a nice blog post on my birthday.
The people who have known me from the late 1980s onwards, including everyone I know in New Zealand, call me Arthur—as, indeed, I do. How did it come to be, this re-renaming of myself?
Part of the answer is that at some point in the late 1980s I simply got tired of a name I didn’t choose and never fully embraced. “Art’s the name of a plumber!” I declared, before quickly adding, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that—it’s just not me!” I’m not sure what, exactly, I meant by that, or what I was thinking (I never wrote anything down about it), but I was at the height of my political activism at the time and I think that I felt that Art just didn’t have the gravitas I was trying to project to elected politicians in my lobbying work.
The name also gave me problems at work. I noticed about this time that when I answered the phone, and people asked my name, I’d say “I’m Art” and the person would start calling me “Mark”. Going back to Arthur fixed such problems.
But, there was more going on.
It was also a period in which I was reinventing myself. An abusive relationship ended and I was beginning to reassert the ME who had been somewhat lost up until that point. Part of reclaiming my identity was reconnecting with what I perceived to be a more authentic self, and part of that meant using a name I chose rather than one imposed on me (although, logically, if I’d consciously chosen Art, it would have had the same effect).
It turns out, though, that I’ve been uncomfortable about hypocorism my whole life. When I was a very little boy, my parents nicknamed me Ace because they thought it was “cute” to have such a little guy called something so “big”. But one of my earliest memories was of the neighbourhood bullies, who I called my “eminies”, calling me “Ace From Outer Space”. I was furious and demanded that my parents stop calling me Ace, and they did. I wasn’t even in school yet.
Nowadays, I don’t really care what people call me, though I only use Arthur. I’ve revised (rather than reinvented) myself many times over the years, and have become more relaxed about a great many things, my name among them. Basically, I’ve decided what to call myself, and what others do is up to them.
Our names are the second thing that parents give us (after life itself), but if we don’t like it, we can change it (unlike our parents…). My name has now changed twice, but back to what my parents gave me in the first place, which is neither a deep nor inscrutable singular name.
With apologies to T.S. Eliott for the brazen theft in this post.