Names, names, names
In the last two weeks I’ve gotten into at least three conversations with friends and acquaintances about names. Then a long-distance friend explained his names in response to a writing prompt, and I figured the universe was trying to tell me something.
I’ve had a bunch of different names, some given names, some nicknames, some family variants of names, and then there’s an interesting twist on the legal names. Probably best to start at the beginning.
When I was born, my parents named me Paul Eugene. Paul was my dad’s first name. It derives from a Latin family name derived from a word meaning “scarce, humble, or small.” Dad’s a Junior, thus Paul was also my grandfather’s name. It’s an old family name, so there are various cousins and other relatives who shared the same first and last name with me. Eugene was the middle name of my Mom’s biological father (not my grandfather; I consider my mom’s adoptive father my actual grandfather, but that’s a tale for another time). It is a Greek name meaning “noble or well-born.” My parents were always quite insistent that I was not Paul Breshears III, because I had a different middle name than my dad and grandpa, but it didn’t stop everyone from school officials to payroll clerks trying to enter me as “the third” in official records.
Paul is a perfectly serviceable name—common enough that it’s virtually never mispronounced, boring enough that it doesn’t engender more teasing than other names. There were just too many of us, so there was always at least some confusion as to who was being addressed. Eugene is less common, but at least in America while I was growing up, it has been a nerd’s name. If fictional characters have the name, they’re either nerds, jerks, or it is the secret middle name or something that is revealed and commented upon in a humorous way by one of the characters’ colleagues.
The plethora of Pauls in Dad’s family led to two different strategies for distinguishing us.
Some, particularly those who had known my dad as a child, called me Paulie, as they had called Dad when he was little. I despised that name (and so did Dad), but couldn’t completely obliterate it. At best it sounds like something you would call a very young child. At worst it sounds like the girls’ name, Polly, and is incredible fuel for teasing and bullying. It was particularly difficult in Middle School, because we’d moved back to the town Dad had grown up in, and a number of the school employees had known Dad. Having the principal, one of the bus drivers, the school secretary, and two teachers frequently call me Paulie in front of the other kids was the source of some of my misery in school.
Others simply started calling me Paul Eugene, but sort of rushed as if it were a single name, Pauleugene, with the emphasis on the Paul, and none on the Eu. My beloved Great-grandma S.J. was one of the few who pronounced it a little slowly, somehow managing to put emphasis on all three syllables. She liked to tell people she did that because when I was three, since so many of my grandmothers were around, I had taken to always addressing her as “Great Grandma Saint John,” which she thought was such a big mouthful for a three-year-old, that she had to return the favor.
After one of the Paulie debacles in Middle School led to myself, my best friend, and one of the kids teasing me being sent to the principal’s office for fighting, my best friend decided I needed a nickname. He started calling me Euey. Yes, take the first syllable of Eugene, and then add the -y sound, and it rhymes with Huey, Dewy, and Louie. Surprisingly, a number of my classmates picked it up, and not as a new way to tease me.
Sometime before that I had been surprised to learn that one second cousin, whom I’d always known as Tom, was actually another of the Pauls. He’d simply been called by his middle name since he was a toddler. Since I was tired of the Paulie issues I started trying to get people to call me Eugene or Gene. I didn’t really have much success until my parents divorced, and then Mom, my oldest sister, and I moved 1200 miles away. The school district where we wound up already had the official forms set up for a Legal Name and a Goes-by Name. The Goes-by name appeared on most of the official paperwork from the school, including the official class rolls sent to teachers. Finally, I became Gene.
In the spring of Sophomore year in High School I was cast as one of the elves in the school play of The Hobbit. Then in the fall of Junior year a weird little game called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was first published, and my nerdy friends and I jumped in with both feet. One of those friends started calling me “Elf.” When I was offered a chance to have a regular opinion column in the school paper, I decided to call it “Elf’s Etchings.” Despite that, I think no one other than the one friend ever picked up the nickname. I think I should have just been happy to finally be called Gene by almost everyone.
Unlike most kids, I didn’t get called “Paul Eugene” by Mom when I was really in trouble, probably because many of the family had been calling me by both names already. No, my mom went with the full “Paul Eugene Breshears!” with the most biting emphasis on the last syllable of Breshears. My last name is not a particularly common one, nor is it close enough in spelling to any common ones that strangers ever feel confident that they’re going to pronounce it correctly. So people are always frowning at the piece of paper or screen when my name comes up, then hesitantly try to sound it out.
It’s uncommon enough that when I was traveling with the touring teen choir, and we had a gig in Tulsa, Oklamhoma, several others on the bus started freaking out after we drove past a big store with a sign that said “Breshears Carpets and Flooring.” The sensation had not quite died down when we went around a corner and saw “Breshears Brothers Appliances.” I got to explain how my grandfather was born near there. Later, someone had to show me the local phonebook, where there were more than a dozen Breshearses listed.
Despite having to explain to people how to pronounce it, I like my last name. When people ask, I pronounce it for them, and whether they pronounce it the same way I did afterward (it’s amazing how many can’t quite get it, as simple as it seems to me) or not, I usually say, “That’s pretty good!” because as long as it’s close enough for me to know they’re talking to me, that’s good enough. Because I’m in the tech industry, I work with a lot of people for whom English is a second or third language, and I try to learn to pronounce their names the way they do. I suspect that my pronunciation is often way off (I have a couple currently who have rolling Rs in their names, and I’ve never been able to do that). If they can put up with me mangling their names, the least I can do is be happy whenever someone gets close on mine.
When I was thirty I finally legally got my name changed. The court papers say “Gene Paul Breshears.” Which is what I asked for. It was extremely easy getting my driver’s license, credit cards, voter registration card, et al switched over. The feds, however, sent me my new Social Security Card with the name Eugene Paul Breshears. When I called to report the mistake, they said that what I would need to do is bring all the paperwork and myself to a Federal Office and get the card manually changed. It didn’t seem worth the trouble at that point, because everything else was handled. And any time I needed to show someone both IDs, they would go, “Oh, yeah, Gene is short of Eugene, that’s fine.”
But lately, various federal laws and regs are beginning to make it a bit more of a hassle. I’m resigned to the fact that I’m going to have to use a vacation day someday soon to get this last little bit taken care of. Because I’ve been answering to “Gene” exclusively now for 26½ years, and it’s who I am.