The Age of Flexible Names
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.
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.