The Power of Names: Why I go by Andrew
(edit: Not sure why this post today… I wanted to talk about “naming things” and in some roundabout way I got to this. I’m not talking to you… none of you offended me by calling me Andy. I like when folks from my childhood call me Andy and I don’t expect you to do otherwise, but it’s not my chosen name for people who know me from now… and this story just served as an anecdote to a larger conversation about the importance, challenge, and power of names.)
Somewhere between my 18th and 24th years of life my name changed from Andy to Andrew. It wasn’t seamless, this transition in names. It has a muddy middle when I went to college where monosyllabic grunts are necessary. For many years I went by Kuk more than any version of my given name. This means if you meet someone that knows me from my early years (mostly in Illinois), then they call me Andy. (If you happen to get me to play tennis with you I will yell at myself as Andy… old habits die hard.) But now, and for everyone that met me after college, I go by Andrew. In fact it is something of a personal pet peeve of me if people who meet me now call me Andy – it usually signals things for me, as I have never introduced myself that way, written my name that way, or granted permission for you to simply change my name on me. There is a power in names and one’s own name can be intensely personal. It bothers me to no end when I learn I have been pronouncing someone’s name wrong. It is a most basic courtesy to name someone based on their own identity work with their name. You don’t get that power, its theirs to give you. You never know what you are signaling with a small shift… so let me tell you a story about my name.
I am sure that at some point in life every person looks up their name to find out what it means. They lay this alongside stories of origin from their parents and families about why they were given a name and what legacy that name might carry. Each of my four children were blessed (and burdened) with significant names to the merged family trees and history of Caroline and myself. Those names mean something, and we named our children with deliberate care – as most people do.
My given name means “strong, and manly”. No matter what I say in this story I love my name, don’t hear that wrong, but I have a history with it and that’s the point to this story. It is Greek in origin (think Andrew the disciple) and has its roots in the Greek generic word for man, άνδρας (andras). Now let me tell you something about me and my childhood. I have never felt strong… or manly. I had good friends growing up who were great athletes. I was not. We played football in my side yard, and basketball in my driveway, we played backyard wiffle ball across the street… sport defined my childhood play and I wasn’t gifted at any of it. My friends were/are good friends and never made me feel “less” than them. But I always did. I remember the triumph of beating them in tennis for the first time because as my chosen sport there was a moment when training overcame talent. (It happens!) And I used to revel in gym class when they would let the boys (rarely) test on the flexed arm hang. I would never score well on pushups and pull ups… but I could endure pain with the best of them. Stubborn, I am, in the way of smaller kids who grew up trying to run with the “big boys”. But I never felt strong… and thus I never felt manly. I was quick to cry, and carried many fears with me everywhere. I had little self-confidence. I didn’t have the language then for “toxic masculinity” but I knew there was something different about me… something “less” though I stubbornly refused to imagine that was a problem I needed to solve – I was happy being me for all that it was “less”. I played with ants in the sand at the edge of the swings during recess instead of joining kickball games. (I’m not making that up.) I have always hated changing clothes in the locker room for gym class… or anything. I have far too embedded a sense of my “failing” as a male to ever be comfortable in that space. I was small, mostly quiet (but not if you were in my circle of trust), and… different.
Let’s not say more of that… not because I won’t – I’m happy to… I believe telling stories (telling secrets as Fredrick Buechner writes) helps empower other people to connect with their stories. So I will tell it, but not more today because its straying too far from the purpose of our dialog here. My name. My name means strong and manly. And I never felt it. And I went by Andy… a nice comfortable diminutive version of my name… it fit me… something less than strong and manly.
That’s the rub… I came later to imagine I wasn’t strong and manly enough to be called Andrew – so Andy was my appropriate name. It wasn’t how I thought of my name so much then as what I came to learn (thanks therapy and reflective journeying) in my twenties. Partly aware and partly subconscious the changing practice to using my full given name of Andrew was a personal journey to claim my identity as strong and manly… in my own way. Not what I was taught by the culture around me… but what I had learned as a small kid who was weaker of muscle and strong of spirit. I was a poor public speaker due to so much nervousness around people, quick to tears and happier by myself than with people because I found peace of mind not worried about how to act and if I belonged. I was embarrassed by so much social interaction and with a deep fear of being unaccepted. My willingness later to claim (by act of agency) my name, Andrew, was a willingness to understand that I could give wings to my personal identity and own my own strength.
A poor public speaker? It is what I do for a living now every single day.
Embarrassed by social interactions? A lot of people wish I shared a lot less! 😊
Quick to tears? I hope so!
Fear of being a burden and unaccepted? Ok… I still carry that one around… the naming wasn’t all magic!
But my name matters to me… and it represents a story of becoming and of being unashamed of the whole story. I love the child I was, the complicated youth I maybe still am, and the adult I have become. It isn’t perfect and its plenty burdened and blessed… but I claim all of that as me: Andrew.
So, you may not mean anything by it all… but if you call me Andy (and you recently met me… my mom gets to call me Andy for life) then you are touching a very personal narrative and you are telling me things you don’t know you are telling me about how you view me. I know you don’t mean to do that (or I hope you didn’t mean to… some people actually do)… that’s why I’m telling you this now. I have the strength and the position to say: don’t name me (or anyone else) different than I name myself (themselves). I’m telling you that because some people don’t yet feel that power, or lack my position, and they are deeply hurt when they are being named in “less than” ways.
Names have power. Names can shape our identity and give voice to it. The right name is a blessing, the wrong name is a distraction and confusion at best and burden and oppression at worst. Respect the power of those narratives; respect each other. A name is deeply personal thing, and the power of our names is a gift that should be received humbly and with care.
What is the story of your name – not just the story of the name you were given – but the story of the name you claimed in your personal narrative?