Juliet famously said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet . . .”
. . . But was she right?
Well, this was a question we pondered in my creative writing class on the theme of family stories. I was inspired to do this assignment after digging through my old university papers and finding a composition in which I explored my own identity by deconstructing and analyzing my name.
This subject has obviously been one that has long interested me. When I look back on the books I wrote a kid, I’m amused by the fact that each of them seems to have a different name assigned to it:
As you can see, there are a lot of variations . . . maybe I was having an identity crisis! And, as you can see in the illustrations above, even my last name was in play. That’s because I was born with “Fodey,” but learned at a young age that the true Hungarian spelling of the name should be “Födi.” The corruption of the name happened when my grandfather immigrated to Canada. Upon arriving here in 1926, his name was anglicized—common practice, I think, back in the day. So I often used that spelling on my books. I’ve always been a very visual person, and I think I just wanted to see how the different letters looked in comparison to each other.
Eventually, when I was in my mid-twenties, I took the legal steps to formally change the spelling, and to reclaim that Hungarian spelling. When I was first professionally published, I decided to go with “Lee Edward Födi.” It was a name that was decades in the making!
So, for me, there is a lot of power in names, and I think that’s true for all of us. Next to how we look, our names are perhaps one of the most significant aspects of our personal identities.
Any author knows this, of course—we tend to spend a lot of time on developing and choosing character names. As a fantasy writer, I often invent names, but I do so ever so carefully. When it comes to borrowing names from our world, I still pick them carefully.
The go-to factors for me when it comes to naming characters are, in this order:
Of course, that is the process I use for naming fictional characters. But what about how we ourselves are named? Are we named and then grow (or shrink!) to fit our names? Or do our names get mutated to fit us? Because so many of us have multiple names and types of names:
- Given names (first and middle)
- Last names
- Nicknames (usually given to us by others)
- Names that are chosen (many people give themselves an English or Anglicized name when coming to an English-speaking country)
As part of the process for this assignment, I had my students follow these steps:
Identify all your names: first, middle, last, nicknames.
Explain why or how you were given your names.
Define the meaning and etymology of each name and explore the feelings you have about them.
Of course, I had the benefit of having already done this assignment in university, so was able to tell the students about my personal analysis . . .
STEP 1: My names
First name: Lee
Middle name: Edward (named after my father)
Confirmation name: James (picked because I just liked the sound of it)
Original last name: Fodey (anglicized from Hungarian Födi)
Current last name: Födi
Nickname: Mr. Wiz
STEP 2: How I was given my names
My parents didn’t know what to name me upon my birth because for some reason it never occurred to them that I wouldn’t be a girl. My name was supposed to be Jacqueline. I went unnamed until my father decided “I looked like a Lee.”
I was named “Edward” after my father (his first name).
When I was confirmed in the Catholic church I picked the name “James” because I liked the sound of it. It upset my grandfather severely, since he was my sponsor and wanted me to be named after him. But I didn’t want “Thomas” as my name because it was already my brother’s middle name and I wanted to be unique. I regretted this decision almost immediately. But I like to think I did the more important thing, which was to eventually change my last name to the Hungarian spelling.
As for my nickname, “Mr. Wiz”, well this developed organically, as many nicknames do. When I first was published, I had a friend who called me the “Wizard of Words” and there was a magazine article with that title, too. Many of my students called me by that title. Of course, it’s long and it eventually got shortened to “Mr. Wiz.” It became a very easy name to use when I started spending a lot of time in Asia, where the most common last name is “Lee.” From that sensibility, it is absolutely incomprehensible that I would have a last name as a first name. Plus, in Asia, you list your last name first, so it is extra confusing! So, Mr. Wiz became way easier.
Step 3: The meaning of my names—and my feelings about them.
“Lee” means “shelter from wind or weather provided by a neighboring object.” The feminine version, “Lea”, means “a meadow, pasture, or arable land.” My name, therefore, means both “nature” and “structure”!
This reminds me of a story from my childhood. When I was about ten, I found a mouse trapped in the grain bin of our feed shed. It scurried around and around the smooth, synthetic slopes of the plastic bucket where we stored the chicken grain. I knew my father would kill the mouse if he discovered it, but I did not have the heart to report the thief. Instead, I scooped the infiltrator from its plastic prison and set it free in the long grass behind the chicken run. So, if you think about it, I acted as a “lee” or “weard” to protect the mouse from the dangerous storm of my father and set it free in the lee (the meadow)! However, I did not guard the fortune of our grain, so failed the “Edward” part of my name (and also my father, Edward).
So I am a person in conflict: “nature” versus “cultivation.”
My father and grandfather were both good at sowing and reaping crops. But, as a kid, I reaped trouble—like the kind you get when you unleash hordes of gluttonous mice on the farm your father is trying to guard. The only thing I ever successfully planted was an idea.
So I have decided that I am a gardener, too—just of a different sort. It’s at this point that I think of the Apostle Paul, who famously said, “You reap what you sow.” (He underwent a name change, too—just like me!)
Another aspect to consider in my first name is the “Ly.” A completely different spelling, of course, but with the exact same sound as “Lee.” “Ly” is a suffix, meaning to have “the qualities of.” For example: Brotherly, angrily, happily, mostly . . . or, in other words, a name that causes other words to change! I feel like this really fits me; as a creative writing and art therapy teacher, my task is to inspire change.
“Edward” comes from two old English words. “Ead” means wealth or fortune. “Weard” means to guard. Together, the name means “to guard wealth or fortune.” I like to think you can morph the word “guard” into “gardener”—this really fits my father because he is a farmer.
As for my last name, Födi, The “i” at the end of Hungarian names means “to be from”, which means my family must have hailed from the area of “Fod.” I can’t find a place called “Fod” on any map of Hungary . . . but it could easily be a corruption of the village of “Fót” in Pest county.
* * *
So there you have it: the quick cheat sheet to the exploration of my name. I explained to my students who I was, then asked them: “Who are you?”
Even though many of them struggled with this activity, they also discovered new things about themselves.
Incidentally, that paper I wrote in university? I received an “A”!