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Out of the Blue

Identity Crisis

Losing at the name game

By Deborah Salomon

What’s in a name?

The answer, Shakespeare opines, is not much, since “that which we call a rose would by any other name smell as sweet.”

Sorry, Will, but I beg to differ.

My mother decided to name her only child Deborah, after her motherʼs Aunt Deborah, a farmer’s wife famous for her pound cake. She insisted on pronouncing all three syllables. No multi-spelling diminutives allowed, at least in her presence, not Deb or Debi or Debbie or Debby. Especially not Debra or Debora. Despite being instructed on its Biblical provenance — Deborah was a judge and prophetess in Israel — from an early age I was unwilling to assume the mantle.

In the ’40s and early ’50s, my classmates answered to Sally, Susan, Martha, Carolyn, Dorothy, Mary and Jane. I remember one Sharon. In high school there was a fittingly exotic Rachel.

How I longed to be an Ann. Three letters, no possibilities except Annie, which I would have embraced.

That’s not the worst. I also inherited Great-Aunt Deborah’s last name: Boyles, which until I got married made me Deborah Boyles Berney. Before bullying was outlawed, once this trio appeared on a school document the boys (all named Bobby, Bill, Jim, John, Charlie and Mike) taunted me with “Deborah boils before she burns!” That wasn’t half bad compared to a classmate named Emma, who they called Enema.

Somehow I survived. Once at college, out of my mother’s earshot, I became Deb or Debbie. Whew!

But I will say one thing for the original version, which means “bee” in some ancient tongue. All Deborahs were preordained “busy bees.” Right on.

Naturally, I was determined to choose simple, non-negotiable names for my children: Jill (Dianne) and Wendy (Sue) for the girls; Daniel for the boy — an especially good choice, since little Danny morphed into grown-up Dan.

The stonecutter suggested Daniel for his headstone, Danny for the footstone. And so he shall be remembered by his sons, Foster and Cooper.

Funny how names reflect the times. Emma came back strong. The female characters in HBO’s The Gilded Age are Bertha, Gladys, Agnes and Ada, still trailing cobwebs but not for long, I predict. The same producers chose Edith and Sybil for Downton Abbey. We’ll see.

Generations of Southern gentlemen bore mother’s maiden name as their given name: Wylie, Harrison, Tyler, Reynolds, Hunter, Gibson, Sloan. I suspect an inheritance issue. Also interesting, how show biz has come to value real names, no matter how unglamorous. Roy Harold Sherer became Rock Hudson; and Norma Jean Mortensen, Marilyn Monroe. Reportedly, Donald Trump’s ancestors changed theirs from the unpronounceable Drumpf. Yet Meryl Streep’s actor/daughters remain Mamie Gummer and Louisa Jacobson.

Sometimes, a name is played just for laughs: from the Tonys, Silvios, Vitos and Salvatores populating The Sopranos emerges daughter Meadow, a nod to the Earth-child monikers (River, Sky, Forrest, Willow) of the 1990s.

Unisex (aka gender-neutral or non-binary) names continue to puzzle. They are more popular for females, and include Riley, Casey, Avery, Logan, Cameron and Hunter. The very thought would make my grandmotherʼs Aunt Deborah turn over in her Guilford County grave.

But the ultimate philosophical commentary comes from Johnny Cash, in “A Boy Named Sue,” which relates the violent consequences of a name bestowed to toughen up a fatherless kid.

I never thought about changing my name. It sounds OK, even a bit retro-fashionable on a roll call where every third female is Catelyn/Kaitlin/Catelynne. But I did adjust my signature which, except on documents is, in the mode of e e cummings, simply . . . deb.  PS

Deborah Salomon is a contributing writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She can be reached at