I know your blog focuses on baby names, but I love your advice and I thought I’d write to you anyway. I’m getting divorced in February, and in my state, one can change their name completely to whatever she wants as part of the divorce process. I’m strongly considering dropping my married name, but not quite sure I want to just go back to my maiden name. I’m looking for last name advice.
I have a weird first name, Nechama (rhymes with pajama, c is silent, unless you can easily say the gutteral ‘ch’, as in ‘chanakah’). I love my name-it means ‘small comfort in hard times’, which fits me, I think. I was named for my great grandmother. I’m constantly spelling it for people, correcting pronunciation, and otherwise dealing with the complexities of a weird name, but I wouldn’t change it.
My last name, however….. My maiden name is Weinberger, which is also weird, hard to spell, hard to pronounce, and doesn’t always fit on forms. I never liked having two difficult names, and used to wish that my last name was Jones or something like that when I was a kid.
When I got married, my soon to be ex husband pressured me into taking his name, Greenwood. While I wasn’t happy about changing my name on feminist grounds, I really did enjoy having a easy to say, easy to spell name to pair with my first name, and I still sort of like the sound of ‘Nechama Greenwood’. Our marriage and his family was not easy, including abuse, and as much as ‘Nechama Greenwood’ is aesthetically pleasing to me, I don’t think I want to carry their name going forward. Similarly, my family is pretty dysfunctional and has been really sort of awful about my divorce, and I don’t feel like it’s emotionally important to me to go back to a family name.
I’m leaning towards an entirely new last name, and I’d love advice.
Some things I like/what I’m going for:
-easy to say and spell
-on the short side, probably no more than 3 syllables, max
-distinctive (I’m a researcher and want to have a name that’s somewhat memorable,so that articles I write are more easily found and identified as mine, something that happens with Greenwood, but might not with a “Jones” “Smith” or “Freeman” type name)
-reflective of my Jewish heritage without making me sound religious (I’m an atheist, and concerned that my very Yiddish first name paired with another very Yiddish/Jewish last name would make me sound like a religious extremist)
-nature names (though I don’t want to sound like I play drums in the woods on the reg; I do not)
-names that reference female strength, friendship etc
-I sorta liked the initials NW, but I’m not married to this
-I also sorta like nouns as names, again as long as i don’t sound like I’m drumming up a storm in my yurt.
-needs to work with Dr, in that Dr. Greenwood sounds like a person who might teach your ‘intro to something boring’ class in college, but Dr. Strength sounds like a Bond villain or member of the X-Men, and Dr. Love sounds like a porn star.
Some things I want to avoid:
-With my weird first name, a lot of names I’ve thought of/friends have suggested sound like anime or cartoon characters (Nechama Wild: Avenging the world!), Hogworts professors (Nechama Nettles, the new potions teacher) or microbes (Nechama Forrest, a dangerous blight impacting old growth oak trees, causing their leaves to shrivel).
-too many new age vibes. I just can’t get up at a scientific conference and say “Hi, I’m Dr. Nechama CrystalWind FairyBreath, here to talk about my research…” Women in my field have to struggle to be taken seriously, which is a whole other topic I could also write you a very long letter about, but for naming’s sake, I do want to find something that commands as much respect as possible as a woman speaking to self-important men in suits.
-last names ending in a tend to sound bad with my first name
I’m sort of at a loss, and my divorce date is coming up soon, so i would really appreciate any help, advice or ideas.
Thank you very much,
I enjoyed this letter very much. “Dr. Nechama CrystalWind FairyBreath”!
If your marriage/husband/in-laws held better associations for you, I might suggest shortening Greenwood to Green: it gives you a simple, short, dignified, nature-but-no-forest-drumming, noun-y, symbolic (green can symbolize newness, freshness) surname that would be distinct from your married name while not being completely new. (Wood might also be nice, and would give you the initials NW, but I think I’d get wearier of the puns.) But the mention of abuse makes me very hesitant to suggest any continuing tie to that family or family name.
I wonder if we could do something similar with your family’s surname. Weinberger could be shortened to Berg, which is not as pretty as Greenwood but is relatively simple and dignified. I think it might be fun to think of some iceberg-related symbolism to go with it.
I might salvage Forest from your list. It’s an interesting connection to Greenwood, and I think it sounds neutral-surname enough to avoid images of tree blight. Nechama Forest. Dr. Forest. Well, it does sound to me like a location, now that I write it out. Still, I’d keep it on the possibilities list for now. It sounds like a NICE location!
I also wonder about Pine. It has that nice tree connection; it’s simple; Dr. Pine sounds nice. It does sound a little bit like a variety of pine (Alberta Spruce, Douglas Fir, Nechama Pine), but again, I’d keep it on the possibilities list.
If I were in this situation, I think one thing that would be important to me would be a good explanation for the name. People don’t ask about my current surname every day, but it does come up fairly regularly: what country is it from, am I related to so-and-so, etc. When I was considering what to do with my surname at marriage, this entered into my decision: I found I didn’t want to answer, “Oh—no, my husband and I just chose that name when we got married.” I wanted the HISTORY—and I didn’t want to go up against the societal symbolisms and standards for surnames. I would have been okay with using a surname from higher up the branch of one of our family trees, however: I could have answered questions about that without feeling like I needed to say something I wouldn’t want to say (“We just liked the sound of it”). So that’s the next thing I’d suggest, especially since you mention wanting to reflect your Jewish heritage: is there anything else in your family tree you’d like to use? It might not be as aesthetically appealing as some of the other options, but it would have the compensating value of family and heritage—while getting a little distance from any current dysfunction.
Or are there other Jewish-heritage or non-Jewish-heritage names that would have meaning for you? People you admire, historical figures, important authors? For example, I would be a little tempted to use Martin after Judith Martin (Miss Manners), because I admire her so much. I might stay away from a name with such a strong association that I’d get asked about it frequently (“Brontë? As in the Brontë sisters?”), since that would bring us back to the part I’d want to avoid.
I wonder if you’d find this book useful: Baby Names Made Easy: The Complete Reverse-Dictionary of Baby Names. It has names sorted into categories such as Friendship, Strength, Nature, etc. The names are first names, but there are some that would work as surnames too. For example, under Friendship I found Alvin, which means “friend to elves.” Dr. Alvin doesn’t sound at all like Dr. Elf Friend, and yet, there it is, secretly! Or Winn means “friend” and gives you the initials NW (though Dr. Win is probably a bit much). Or Jordan! Religiously significant (I don’t know enough to know if this would be workable or not), but sounds neutrally name-y, too, and is easy to pronounce and spell. Nechama Jordan; Dr. Jordan.
My guess is that with your first name, even a very common surname will still give you an easily searchable/recognizable full name. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity to go for the Jones you once dreamed of!