I became a professional name developer because I love studying names and creating new ones. But I fell in love with names because of one name I hated: my own.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think my name was a mistake. When I was about 3 or 4 I’d introduce myself to strangers by saying, “My name is Nancy, but call me Judy.” I have no idea where “Judy” came from; at that age I’d never met anyone by that name. But I definitely didn’t want anyone calling me by the name I’d been given at birth. I didn’t like the way it sounded: those nasal consonants never sounded pleasant, and Nancy was uncomfortably close to nasty. Besides, something about Nancy just felt … wrong. The name wasn’t me; it chafed like an itchy, ill-fitting sweater.
Then there was my name story — or the lack of one. My brothers had been named, in the Jewish tradition, after beloved dead relatives; the names came straight from the Old Testament, with no tweaks or embellishments. But when I asked my mother about my own name, she answered, vaguely, that I was named for an unspecified dead male relative of hers whose name began with an N. Maybe it was Nathan, maybe it was Nahum or Noah. She had no anecdotes to tell about Nathan/Nahum/Noah, no photos in an album, no explanation for why I was named after a man rather than a woman. I suspect she’d just had her heart set on Nancy and reverse-engineered a dead relative to justify her choice.
(My father wasn’t part of this history; he didn’t appear to have a vote in any of our names. Much later, I learned that he’d been overruled on his choice of a name for me: Judy.)
My mother gave me a name I disliked, but she also gave me an escape from it: her college dictionary, Webster’s Collegiate, fifth edition. It was one of the few books our family owned, and I spent a lot of time in its company almost from the moment I learned to read.
One of the marvels of this dictionary was that it had an appendix devoted to personal names — a “pronouncing vocabulary of common English Christian names.” (“Christian names” was puzzling to me, but I figured it was just some grownup mumbo-jumbo I’d understand when I…