Whimsy
comments 32

What’s In A Name? Living Two Lives.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo & Juliet.

Someone called me “Jennifer” today. It’s been a long time since I answered to that name. It’s been a long time since I introduced myself as “Jennifer”. 14 years to be exact. It’s typical to have a first name and a middle name. In my family, we took our Esan names first, and then our baptismal names. Odd, when you think that our parents did the exact opposite. Their baptismal names first, and then their native names. My husband’s family did the same thing. Baptismal names first, and then native names. It’s a thing of curiosity how we choose which takes priority.

For the first 9 years of my life, I used both names interchangeably. Osemhen. Jennifer. At home I was mostly Osemhen, except for a few aunts who preferred to call me Jennifer. In primary school, it was a 70/30 split. The teachers called me Jennifer. Some of my classmates called me Osemhen, especially the ones who were close enough to me to hear my siblings use my Esan name.

And then I got into secondary schoool and the split sharpened. I was definitely Jennifer, and only Jennifer in school. At home, I was definitely Ose. It manifested in a sort of split personality. Jennifer was the petite, light-skinned waif with eyes too big for her face. I was one of the youngest in my class so I was in a sense, the baby, the last child, petted by senior students and even some of my classmates. I can still hear them trilling “Jenniiii-fer.” And then at home, I was Osemhen. A stolid Esan name, none of that faerie-like stuff. The first-born daughter, with all the responsibilities that brings. Had to be strong. Had to be firm. Had to be my parents’ right hand, my mother’s confidant.

She chose the name “Jennifer” even though it wasn’t a saint’s name, as stipulated by the Catholic Church. I think they were not so strict then. She chose it because it was pretty and wafer-like on the tongue despite the many consonants. Jennifer means “white enchantress” or “fair one”, a very Caucasian name, so Caucasian it was the most popular name for newborn American girls from 1970 to 1984. And as I grew older, and my skin tanned deeper, I felt like it didn’t fit me.

And so in 2003, when I graduated from secondary school, I chose to stick only with Osemhen. I wanted to shed the identity I had. Enough of the effervescence. Give me stolidity. There were a few slips. Once in a while, I would introduce myself as Jennifer but by 2004 when I got into university, I was fully “Osemhen”. It also kinda helped that I didn’t stay in contact with too many of the people who knew me in secondary school. I moulted. I think it worked.

There’s also the thing about embracing  my African identity and uniqueness. I knew a lot of Jennifers. I didn’t know any Osemhens. I knew a lot of African Jennifers. I’ve never heard of a white person who answered to an Esan name. And I must admit that my name gives me an opportunity to discuss my heritage with foreigners I meet, an opportunity that I don’t think I’d have if they called me “Jennifer”.

I think I set a precedent at home. My youngest sister, Itasoha, never used her English name “Benedicta”. My other sister dropped “Winnifred” for “Uwa”, a diminutive of her Esan name. My brother tried to totally erase his Esan name and baptismal name from his identity, choosing to introduce himself as “Richard”, his confirmation name. What’s in a name, we (and Romeo Montague) ask? An identity. A personality. A prophesy? It’s why we have naming ceremonies. And somehow, on some level, we recognize this.

Sometimes, the old life crops up. I meet people who knew “Jennifer”, who call me Jennifer, who I respond to as Jennifer. The name “Osemhen” is awkward on their tongues and they wonder why I ever changed. And then there are people who witness this exchange and have only known me as Osemhen. They snicker, “Gosh, you don’t even look or act like a Jennifer”.

So what’s in a name? What do you think?

p.s. I gave an interview on my boring, everyday life on kacheetee.com. She runs a very active lifestyle blog and it was an absolute honour to be asked to write in. I also loved interviewing with ForCreativeGirls.com and discussing motherhood & creativity. And have you been to Blazers & Baby , recently? Do check it out.

32 Comments

  1. Oghenelucia says

    I am struggling with this too.
    I was baptized Charity so I answer that in church- everybody who knew me from First Holy communion class- confirmation etc calls me Charity.
    At home I am Eguono,
    because they couldn’t pronounce Eguono in Uni I became Charity too- (Cha-Cha)-_-
    Now I am using my confirmation name- Lucia.
    Eguono, Charity, Lucia are three different people and I am often confused as to which role to play. Depends on how you know me, and sometimes I don’t even know who to be.

  2. Kachee says

    You’re a Jennifer too! It was def a thing back then. I don’t think I ever fully embraced the name. I’d often introduce my self as Jennifer only if I didn’t want to keep in touch. I think names are important. I definitely want to think long and hard about the names I give my kids.

    And thank you for sharing a day in your work life. It was not boring in any way!

    • It was a popular American name in the 80s. Lol. I’ve met a few Nigerian boys called “Brad”. I’m just 🤦🏽‍♀️

  3. What’s in a name? A lot. My name is Jimi, short for Olujimi, a very Yoruba name, but I am not Yoruba. I am Ogori, I am from a small tribe on the border between Kogi State and Edo State. Historically, we are supposed to have migrated from Ife years ago.
    However, the people who are ‘Ogori’ right now are not Yoruba in my opinion. According to historical records, most of the party that left Ife for where we settled did not make it to Ogori, wars and disease decimated the numbers, also, a large of number of people from other tribes who joined the travelling party along the way.
    This explains why the Ogori language (okó) has more similar sounding words to the Akoko Edo and Idoma languages than Yoruba.
    There are some vestiges of our Yoruba ‘heritage’ though, some old families have Yoruba names like; Akande, Inukan, Omole, Arogunmasa. Also interestingly, most Ogori people pick up the Yoruba language quite easily even if they have never lived in a Yoruba speaking community. So for me, my Yoruba first name and odd surname- Osheidu is a conversation starter even with Nigerians. My kids are definitely getting Ogori names.

      • I do fluently, went to secondary school there so I speak the ‘proper’ language. I draw looks when I speak it in public because it doesn’t sound like any of the popular languages.

  4. Omozele is my name, so is Vivian. I have always been Omozele Vivian… I had issues with people who found it so hard to get the pronunciation of “Omozele” right and it usually sounded like “omo cele”. This was why I decided to stick with Vivian. I don’t think Vivian as a person is different from Omozele.

    What is in a name? Sometimes, I feel like my name is a blame game the adults played: “Because of this child…”

    • It’s interesting you say this. My full name means “The one that wishes me well, will find it well.” It’s a sub from my grandfather. Lol.

    • Kachee says

      Just yesterday my husband said some people name their child based on what position he was in the womb- i.e there’s a name if he was in breech position! That I thought is so unfair to the child. I also don’t like the idea of children being named based on particular circumstances. Esp if they are negative ones.

      KacheeTee.com

      • I heard that Yoruba people born with the amniotic sac intact are called “Oke”. Interesting.

  5. Loooool.. I can definitely relate to straddling two names to some extent. My dad has often told my siblings and I of a time when I was in kindagarten where he wrote to my school teacher insisting they call me by my native name- Notey pronounced /nortae/. It’s a running joke now that I use to break the ice now when I first meet people and introduce myself. Back then though, my dad was very serious. He didn’t want anyone calling me by my English middle name which strangely he gave me when I was born.

    We can say my dad won. Despite how difficult my name pronounces versus how it spells, I’ve never thought to introduce myself by any of my other 5 names, except Notey. In fact when I write my full name on official documents and someone calls me by my English middle name, I cannot relate. I would probably look around to help the one calling locate the true owner of my English middle name… ( notice I don’t even want to type out my actual middle name here right now… Loool)

    I believe a name is important to the extent that you can relate to it. If you have two or even three active names that you use, all the best. If you feel like you want to stick to one, God speed.

    In time past I’ve wished my dad gave me a more common native name. These days however, I hold my own. It’s a great way for me to get the conversation started when I meet new people…

  6. So I was christened Markus, which is the Hausa/Arabic version of Mark at birth, but somehow I have never introduced myself as Markus. It has always been Mark. I always joke that the -us fell along the way.

    However, I was registered in primary and secondary school as Markus, and it is what my dad still calls me by (well, no be him gimme the name). Other people that call me that are nursery/primary schoolmates and close friends because that is almost like my mumu button.

    Might switch back again for political reasons, you know, to identify with the people more 😀

    • Haha! Markus. Pronounced like “Marcus”? I’m going to edit your contact details on my phone.

  7. I have only ever answered to one name all my life, but yes I definitely agree that a name is an identity; a prophecy if you will. Although my name Ife means “love”, it’s full meaning can either mean “love of God” or “the will of God” and my mom named me with the intent of the latter in mind. I also think that’s why it matters to my dad a lot that I’m called by my full name. “Ife alone lacks meaning, significance” he always says. But whichever meaning: love, or love of God, or the will of God; they have all been some sort of prophecy in my life. And somehow, I have and my life has always been an embodiment of all those things.

    • I believe strongly that our names are self-fulfilling prophecies because they’re in a sense, blessings.

  8. Edwin Okolo says

    I really have missed your writing. So lush, like a childhood home. Only you and Adebolarayo really do that for me.

    I have four, or seven names depending who you ask. I go by my English name now. Because when I was 11 or 13 (not sure the exact year) my mother chose a list of English names and put them in a raffle and asked me and my twin brother to pick one each. I picked Edwin, and liked how it suited me. He chose Edward, a contraction of the same name, Kismet.

    People from Secondary school know me as Hassan and they are often flubbered by the ‘Edwin’ they see on cable tv with 18 inches of hair and clothes Hassan would have never known existed, let alone worn. I think I’m still moulting.

    Chukwudi is starting to wear well on me, maybe I have one more change in me yet.

    • You’re always so kind, Edwin. Thank you. Your mum is the real MVP. That’s such a casual thing to do. Lol! “Here, pick a name for yourself.” Imagine if we were all nameless till say age 10 and then we got to pick a name. I’m curious about how your name is also Hassan and Chukwudi. That must be an interesting heritage.

      • Edwin Okolo says

        Both of my parents are multi-ethnic. Grandparents from both sides just gave their traditional names for twins.

        Parents ran with it.

  9. I have an Igbo first name that’s typically considered to be male. I hated it as a child.

    These days, I embrace it wholeheartedly as its meaning defines my life (God leads/helps me). Plus it’s a conversation starter of sorts. “Chinedu? *insert disbelief* Isn’t that a man’s name?” 🙂

    I remember correcting people who conveniently defaulted to my Baptismal name when they saw my full name. I’d simply tell them “That’s not my name”. Truth be told, I never felt like a “Gloria”, an airy-fairy sort of person.

    • 💪 for strong Nigerian names. But do you wonder like I do why Nigerians prefer to call fellow Nigerians by their English names? A foreigner will try to pronounce your first name. A Nigerian will ask, “Do you have another name?”

  10. Elohor says

    My dad gave me two names Elohor and Princess and called me which ever one he likes (Princess of course would not work when he wants to be firm). In nursery school I was called Princess, in secondary school in was called Elohor infact after 6 years in secondary school I almost forgot about princess. Got into university my dad ensured all my documents carried my two names and surname. My cousins in University knew me as Princess too so in university I was called Princess till I started working and insisted I wanted just Elohor on my ID card. I guess am used to the both names now, I hear Elohor I turn my head, I hear Princess I turn my head.

    • Elohor is actually my Urhobo name. Only my maternal grandmother called me that, though. I toyed with changing my middle name officially to Elohor but I couldn’t imagine having to change all my bank documents. It’s interesting that you respond to both names. And that you switched again when you began working. It wasn’t too late?

  11. Heyyy! I just discovered your blog yesterday from your interview with Kachee and I’m pretty sure I’ve read all your posts between yesterday and today.

    Your’e such an amazing writer!!!!

  12. TM.Lucia says

    Ohhhhh! I’m just so excited reading all the comments right now! I feel like you all going through this “name identification” phase are family!

    My name identification story, sad!

    I was born to Yoruba and Tiv parents who lived in Warri and dared to name me Tracey (with an ‘e’). May I just add that I look NOTHING like a Yoruba girl, I speak NO local language (except Waffi pigin counts), and then my surname is Luseyi (which I hear is Ishekiri).

    So when I introduce myself as Fadeke, that’s certainly a good conversation starter.

    PS: I am Coco to close family and friends, Mimi to mostly Tiv people. #sigh.
    I need a ‘real’ Yoruba man to save me. 🙁

  13. Taiwo says

    I can definitely relate. At home I’m called Taiye ( Yoruba name for the first born twins) , primary school I was called Azeezat (my Muslim name), secondary school I was called Taiwo. Fast forward to uni ( Taiwo it was except for my Muslim brothers and sisters who chose Azeezat) Now it’s Taiwo ( Taiye /Taiwo ) . I also get called by my twin sisters name cos some people can’t tell us apart.

  14. I know quite a lot of people that go through this name change when they transition from Secondary school to tertiary education. I have a theory that many people are expressing their need to make their own life decisions (as they grow into adults) by changing the name they have been stuck with as children to something they chose. It might not even be that they necessarily prefer the new name. It’s just the feeling of choosing. I didn’t consciously start introducing myself as Isu till I entered university. I can’t remember what i introduced myself as prior to this but most people already called me Isu (my surname) so i just went with it. Right now i think i just prefer the reaction i get when people hear my name; their need to find out the meaning and my state of origin. Also the confusion when they find out Isu is actually an Edo name that’s just three letters seeing as there aren’t very many of those.
    Name are supposed to reveal identity i guess and ‘Isu’ unintentionally leads to me revealing quite a bit of mine.

    • Dolapo says

      I was reading this and thinking “wow, I need to ask this person what State they’re from and how to pronounce their name”. 😂

  15. Simisola says

    What is in a name? I am known by just one name generally, Although as a Nigerian, you have several others. Simisola is a very yoruba name which means “rest in wealth”. Heads up for the last child.

    Growing up in Nigeria it wasn’t such a common name, so i always got complements about how unique it was until i grew up to realize there’s a million and one other people bearing the same name.
    I now live in the US and i have difficulty getting people to pronounce my name right, but my professors really do try (especially the ones that call for attendance regularly). I now go by Simi for short so they don’t curse me unknowingly.
    Having a native name helps start conversations, because i have to explain with my hands touching my eyes as “see-me” and back it up with the meaning.

    Then we go from “where are you from?” To “what does your name mean”.
    I would rather give my kids Muslim names with beautiful meanings and easy pronunciations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *