A Proper Name

Nouns are interesting. Grammar tells us there are essentially two different kinds of noun. A common noun refers to a class of things, such that multiple distinct things can share the same noun without contradiction. A proper noun, on the other hand, has a single, unique referent–the same name can’t refer to more than one person. One strange effect of this is that even if two people seem to share the same, in a certain sense their names are not the same, even though they sound and appear identical. When I’m talking about Emily, my partner, it is clear that I cannot simultaneously be talking about Emily, my good friend. By saying “Emily,” I have to be talking about one or the other–or about some different Emily altogether. I cannot use “Emily” to refer indeterminately to any of the people I know who share that name.

I have an idea that if God can be said to use language at all, then for God all nouns must be proper nouns, because a being with complete knowledge of every individual part of creation would have no need to group individual things into categories. Each thing would be known intimately and distinctly, as just what it is.

Deciding on a name for yourself is one of the most significant experiences a person can have. What adds to the solemnity of the process is the realization that you are making a decision about yourself that most people never get to make. Nearly all of us go through their lives with the names given to them by parents. If their name changes at all, it is usually through an external process that doesn’t really have much to do with them. Many women still take their husbands’ last names when they marry, but it wasn’t so long ago that in formal situations at least the effects of marriage on a woman’s name were even more extreme. Recently I saw a document in a museum addressed something like “to Mrs. Robert Smith, Sr.” Reading that made me sad. Here was a person who had her own, personal name so completely buried beneath her relationships with the men in her life that all that was left was the “Mrs.”

In contrast, it has been my privilege to choose a new name for myself not once in my life, but twice–an embarrassment of riches to be sure. The first time was when I converted to Judaism and had to choose a Hebrew name. I never really went by that name except when I was being called to the Torah, but I do remember thinking long and hard before deciding. It was one of the hardest choices involved in my conversion. Nevertheless, I was always haunted by the sense that I had somehow missed an opportunity in choosing my Hebrew name, that I had been tested and in some way too subtle to articulate had failed.

The decision to begin transitioning felt like a chance to make up for a missed opportunity–for many missed opportunities, to be honest. The one thing I was determined on was that the name I chose would be mine, personal and proper, in Hebrew and English. In the end I settled on Leiah, and there is a kind of rightness in that decision that makes me feel confident, that crystallizes my sense of myself in a way that all good names should.

The decision process behind “Leiah” is as murky as my own idiosyncratic spelling of the name apparently is to many people. For the record, my name is pronounced “Lay-uh,” just like the two literary women it’s based on.

I’m going to get the embarrassing part of this out of the way first and admit that one of the sources of my name is in fact Princess Leia, the character from Star Wars. It has never been a well-hidden secret that I am a complete geek, and I’ll own up to that. In my defense, Leia was one of my feminine role models growing up. Strong, confident, much more intelligent and self-possessed than any of the men around her, she was everything I would have liked to be. When I was growing up there were precious few depictions of strong, capable female characters in media targeted at kids, and Leia stands out to me for that reason.

The other source of my name, of course, is the biblical matriarch, Leah (which in English I have trouble not reading as “Lee-uh,” but I digress). I’ve always felt that of all the women of Genesis, Leah really doesn’t get the kind of respect she deserves. Married to Jacob solely because of a deception carried out by her father, who didn’t want to see the younger sister married before the elder, Leah is the epitome of what the bible calls “the unloved wife.” The names she gives her children speak to the deep yearning she felt for the love and recognition of her husband, who despite the broad and rather public hints never seems to have been able or willing to see her as anything other than an afterthought. The historical irony is that despite our tendency to forget about her in favor of her more charismatic sister, she, not Rachel, is theoretically the mother of the Jewish people, as after the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, the two remaining tribes–Judah and Levi–were both descendents of Leah.

Of course, neither of these names–Leia or Leah–is mine. For all that it sounds the same, my own name is different, singular as all proper nouns are, something uniquely mine. This, and the fact that it is something I have chosen for myself, make it precious to me. It’s a good name, and I have the feeling that as long as I treat it well, it will do the same for me.

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