I became Liz in kindergarten. Only recently my mother told me she doesn’t like the name Liz. When I was little, she wanted my nickname to be Libby. Instead, one day I came home from kindergarten and announced that my name was Liz (as my mother tells it). And Liz stuck. Libby could have stuck, if Mom ever called me that, but she never did, to my knowledge. That’s how nicknames work. You’re given one, or you pick one, people start addressing you by that name, and it sticks. If my mom wanted me to be called Libby, she should have called me Libby. Instead, I’m Liz.
If I ever have kids, I will give them names that cannot be nicknamed. Being an Elizabeth has given me an identity crisis.
Most of my life has been split between Elizabeth and Liz. On every official document, including school registrations, exams, papers, and assignments, I wrote my name as Elizabeth. Because that’s what’s on my birth certificate. (Side note: my mother who named me forgot how to spell my middle name. It’s Ann with NO ‘E,’ Mom.) On the first day of school though, when the teacher called my name for attendance, I said, ‘Here, but I go by Liz.’ Every class, from first grade through college. Yet in every concert program or award ceremony announcement, I wanted to be listed as Elizabeth. I created for myself two identities: Elizabeth was my public, formal self, and Liz was my private, day-to-day self. It wasn’t until graduate school that I finally dropped Elizabeth. Not legally, but in life. I don’t want to be split; I’m just Liz.
Clearly I put much more stock into given names and nicknames than most people, but Elizabeth comes with so many options!
You know that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer learns his middle name? (D’oh-in’ in the Wind) He says something like, ‘From now on, I will no longer be Homer J. Simpson; I will be known as Homer. . .JAY Simpson.’
He imagines what his life would have been like as the hippie Homer Jay Simpson, dispensing the ultimate wisdom of: lather, rinse, repeat.
I imagine a parallel universe for myself, where I’m Libby instead of Liz. Libby is bubbly and works in PR, married young, and has a small brood of children. In another universe, Liza got mixed up with the wrong people and became a heroin addict. Bessie became a nun. Beth teaches elementary school. Maybe Eliza became a man and changed his name to Eric. I don’t know.
When you’re a child you can try on different nicknames and then change your mind, without fear of the implications of that kind of change. Could I just announce one day, at 27, that I’m now Libby? Or is that luxury and fluidity of identity reserved for children? I’m not saying the name determines the person, but I do wonder the kind of affect it has. When I make a choice, I can’t help but consider how another choice would have created a different life, a different me. Not, like, if I got peanut butter ice cream instead of a twist (always get the peanut butter). More like, what if I had transferred to Franklin Pierce instead of staying at UConn? In the multiverse theory, there are hundreds of other me’s walking around, living completely different lives. I can’t help but wonder who Libby might have been.
I have similar questions for authors and academics who have nicknames: James in publications, but Jim in the classroom. Why? Maybe they want the split identity, or at least the illusion of a split identity. That their public, author self is different from the at-home-with-the-wife-and-kids self. For more articulate thoughts on author selves, check out Amy Jo Burns’ post on the Ploughshares blog: I’m Not a Writer, I Just Play One on TV.