The Age of Flexible Names

Feb 23rd 2017

My father recently passed away. At a small service in his memory I mentioned that my father's father, who died long before I was born, was apparently known as both Isidore and Irving. After the service a friend approached me and said that her grandfather was also sometimes called Isidore, sometimes Irving. Then yet another friend said, "I was just about to say that my grandfather was also named Isidore, but sometimes went by Steve!"

Out of a small group of people, three grandpas who were sometimes-but-not-always named Isidore? It's a strange coincidence, especially since Isidore was never an especially common name. But the fact that the name in question is Isidore does make sense. That name is an emblem of an age of name self-invention.

Grandpa Isidore/Irving/Yitzhak


Isidore was a common choice for immigrants named Yitzhak (Isaac) or Israel who renamed themselves upon coming to America. For them it was a name of choice, adopted to represent a new identity and new possibilities. Change and flexibility were intrinsically part of that.

Even American-born Isidores, though, entered a world where names were far more mutable than today. The vast majority of Isidores were born in the 40-year period from 1885-1925. Nicknames were routine back then, and often went far beyond mere trimmings of given names. For instance, a great uncle of mine who was born in that period was named Richard but called Irwin by his family and Yi by his friends. None of my relatives seemed to find that unusual.

Compare that attitude to today's naming climate. We're more creative than ever before in our baby name choices, but much less flexible. Nicknames have become endangered species as parents insist that their kids be called Thomas and Catherine rather than Tommy and Cathy, let alone Buzz or Sissy. As for whole alternate names like Isidore/Steve or Richard/Irwin, they seem to have vanished. In my teenage daughters' cohort, name fluctuations only come up in cases of a shift in gender identification.

In short, while our baby-naming options are becoming ever more open, we're closing the door on self-naming options. We're treating our given names as, well, "givens." They're immutable objects, frozen in place as our parents imagined them before they ever met us. We don't adapt them to fit different situations or life stages, or let friends bestow new names on us to reflect the experiences we accrue through our lives. We don't reinvent our identities as my grandpa Isidore/Irving/Yitzhak did – or at least, not without a lot of soul-searching and ceremony.

Perhaps we could take some pressure off of ourselves in the naming process if we welcomed back a little of that old-time flexibility. By all means, keep searching for the perfect baby name. I'm the last person who would downplay the significance of name choices. But if we give our children, and ourselves, the space to play and experiment with nicknames, we may find that perfection doesn't come in a one-size-fits-all package. We all have many selves in many settings, and there's something to be said for a name that morphs along with us.


February 23, 2017 12:23 PM

I had a great-uncle named Levine who went by Pete his entire life. It was a really cute story, actually; as a little child, he was always following his big brother (my grandfather) around everywhere. They looked a lot alike, and people jokingly called them "Pete and Repeat." I guess technically he should have been Uncle Repeat, but Pete was what stuck.

February 23, 2017 1:00 PM

I don't know about immigrants to America in general, but to Jewish immigrants the names, given and surname, meant absolutely nothing. They were changed at the drop of a hat. The only names that were important were Dovid Ben Moshe and Rivka Bas Avraham. This makes Jewish genealogical research not for the faint of heart.

February 23, 2017 1:15 PM

My grandfather and all his brothers (five in total I think) would all refer to each other as John when they were together and no one ever knew why! (I think one of them was, indeed, named John.) I also know a man named Dennis whose whole family calls him Steve (I don't know why), and a man named Gerard who was nicknamed Sam by a friend and it stuck with that friend's whole family -- thirty five years later he's still Sam to many of us.

February 23, 2017 1:18 PM

Also Laura, I'm so sorry to hear of your dad's passing.

February 23, 2017 1:35 PM

What a thoughtful post.

My family tree is also full of North American Jews who used alternate names. Neither paternal grandparent went by the name their parents gave them -- though one of those name changes was basically forced upon him by the other. That's another story. My great uncle Irving (Israel) went by Ed (short for Edgar); his sisters and their descendants called him Irving, but even his wife called him Ed.

Funnily enough, my great uncle Isidore (Yitzhak) went by Isidore (Issie to the family) :) 

February 23, 2017 10:29 PM

My daughter made a friend this year whose name is loas and pronunced as Ick-ma-knee, only when writing do they call her gigi.

My son dylan has a group of friends not all just a group of about 6-8 that call him Tyrone, somehow on the first day of high school it was misheard and stuck even after learning that its actually Dylan

February 23, 2017 10:35 PM

I had a great-Aunt named Ruth whose nickname was Polly. Her sister was named Alta Elsie but was never called Alta (at least when I knew her, I didn't even know that was her first name until I saw it in the family bible), she went by either Elsie or her nickname, Gippy.

In the next generation, my dad was named Lee, partly because my grandmother didn't want him to have a nickname. All the neighbor kids called him Jake.

February 26, 2017 2:29 AM

My great-grandmama was named Gertrude, but as a kid she hated her name and decided she would rather be called Bob. I don't know if her parents ever obliged, but her childhood friends did call her Bob.

Also, many of my family members, especially in older generations, went by/go by their middle names.

Here's a real kicker! Another great-grandmother didn't have a name on her birth certificate until a few years ago. She got out her birth certificate and noticed there was no name on it, just "baby girl Surname," so she filled it out herself. When she was young, her parents disagreed over whether her name was (not these actual names, but you get the idea) Mary Edna or Edna Mary. She always went by "Edna," but she wrote in "Mary Edna" on her blank birth certificate.

February 24, 2017 6:01 AM

I'm sorry for your loss, Laura. The one good thing about memorial services, though, is all the interesting information they throw up on the family!

My family seems to have mostly played by the rules with nicknames. I only have one grandmother who went by her middle name (to the point that when someone came to the door asking for Edith, her husband said "never heard of her!")

My child has a completely unintuitive nickname (it is in fact the same name in another language, but no one not fluent in both would ever know). At the beginning, it was really difficult to enforce use of the nickname, but I've noticed that people are loosening up and allowing themselves to think more bilaterally.

February 24, 2017 9:19 AM

My condolences on the death of your dad, Laura. 


katjsh, could you explain this sentence? It makes no sense to me but I'm very intrigued: "My daughter made a friend this year whose name is loas and pronunced as Ick-ma-knee, only when writing do they call her gigi."

February 24, 2017 7:28 PM

I think we have some of this flexibility in naming, but now we create social media identities instead.  So "Sophia" in person might be "blue kitty" on-line.  I have students who have created online personnas or avatars whose identity they work on intensely.

February 24, 2017 11:15 PM

The friends name is Loas in origin, not sure what the spelling is...the name is pronunced Ick-ma-knee but when they write notes and text each other they refer to her as gigi.


February 25, 2017 6:22 PM

Ooohhh! I thought that her name was Ioas (that your lower case L was a capital I... the perils of a sans serif font), but that Ioas was pronounced Ick-ma-nee! What you're actually saying is that she has a Laotian name whose spelling you don't know, but whose pronunciation you do.

February 26, 2017 1:44 AM

Laura, I'm very sorry about the loss of your father.

My great, great grandmother was named Sarah but was always called Kate (and her gravestone reads Sarah Kate).  It was explained to me that after she was married, she met her husband's brother for the first time.  He declared that she looked like a Kate & not a Sarah.  I guess everyone agreed with him because she went by Kate for the rest of her life.

It was also very common for my ancestors on both sides of the family to go by their middle names, or common nicknames for their middles-to the point that their own children did not know the full given name.  It's made geneaology a nightmare.

February 26, 2017 10:47 AM

I had a Great Aunt Loraine who's real name was Dorothy. Her twin brother was Louis so her nickname matched his. 

February 26, 2017 11:11 AM

When I did genealogy, I found my grandmother as. Etta, Yetta, and Ida in varying documents. I had only known her as Edith in my lifetime. 

February 26, 2017 11:58 PM

I remember the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had the main character named Louise, but she found out later, after prevaricating that her name was Mary in order to get a doll, that her name was actually Mary Louise.  And her little sister was named Anna Laurie or something like that and was called Laurie. 

My grandfather was venerably named Shirley (just before Ms. Temple) and soon began going by his middle name, or by his initials, and I think he was relieved to be called Grandpa by everyone.  He always forcefully said, don't you EVER name a child after me!

Sorry to hear about your father, Laura. 

By Amy3
February 27, 2017 2:33 PM

Laura, I'm so sorry to hear about your father. 

My grandfather, Anthony, was called Tony by his siblings, but friends gave him the nickname Bob when he was a teenager and that's how I always knew him. He was even in the phonebook as A. Bob LASTNAME. :)

By mk
February 27, 2017 4:17 PM

I am sorry about your father.

I love "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and it has lots of nicknames. The main character is actually Francie, for Mary Frances. Her sister is Annie Laurie after a song their father sang, but she is mostly called Laurie in the book. Their brother is Neeley, for Cornelius.

Some of my older Italian relatives went by the English version of their names.

February 28, 2017 8:13 PM

Laura, I'm sorry to hear about your loss. But I agree with the previous poster, it's so interesting what kind of family info turns up at a funeral.

When I was in high school, I was part of a theater tech group that had a very strong internal culture. One of the rules was that if you joined as an underclassman, and you had the same first name as an upperclassman, the upperclassmen got to rename you and call you exclusively by that name. These names were sometimes quirky but never mean, and often along the lines of "you look more like a George."

Some of those nicknames stuck and people used them for years, even to this day.

March 2, 2017 3:06 PM

PJ, that reminds me of naming in teh British and colonial boarding school environment. Or the gentlemen's context in the PJ Wooodehouse world. Finknottle and whatnot, although I think that example was just the character's last name. I was just watching the BBC mystery Endeavor, in which the main character is named Endeavor Morse, but just goes by Morse. His Oxford friends know him as Pagan because, in effect he doesn't have a Christian name. 

March 3, 2017 1:05 AM

My grandmother reinvented herself in her late teens and called herself Susan. Her name was Fances June, she was June to her family growing up. According to my grandfather he thought her name was Susan until, to his surprise, the preacher called her Fances June at the alter. They named my mother Susan June (she obviously liked the name Susan.) My older sister named nick named my grandmother "Marnie", a mix between mommy and the name of a babysitter she once had. I called her Marnie my whole life, even cousins born much later called her Marnie. Eventually everyone in the family called her Marnie. She had many names as her life unfolded and she evolved. I am named Katy, partly because my mom hates nick names. But I became a step mom recently and I have let the kids call me what they want. It started formally with Miss Katy, then it ws MK. Eventually they settled on Emmy, using the M of Miss. I love the Emmy nick name because it is closer sounding to mommy.  I also think that when I have bio kids they can call me Emmy or Mommy, no big deal. So now I answer to Katy and Emmy

By JayF
March 6, 2017 12:40 PM

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante does a good job of showing how nicknames were used in Italy in the 1940s. I had to keep referring to the opening pages to see who was who!

My Italian grandmother had lots of nicknames for my family members and an Italian-American friend of mine also had lots of nicknames in his family.

Partly because so many people in our families were named for someone who was still living or who married someone with a similar name.

So, my friend and I had an Aunt Sugar and an Aunt Cookie between us and we thought they should have met. I grew up thinking that WAS my aunt's name, and so did he!

I know a lot of people who go by their middle names today...


March 8, 2017 12:34 AM

I have a large family, of scottish & russian mixes 

We all end up with weird names! I'm Rosie, born Laura. My brother was given Steven at birth but goes by Oliver. There's no rhyme or reason for it but there it is.

March 28, 2017 7:18 PM

"We have known a grandmother who succeeded in turning Theodore into Gnon" - Victor Hugo