SOCIAL STUDIES On Having a Weird Name; Or, Why I Couldn't Have Nice Things Cézanne Colvin

I know it was just a personalized pencil, but that stupid specimen of well-dressed graphite ended up being foreshadowing for the rest of my life.

It was red and sharp and perfect with the name Jennifer etched neatly into the side and I couldn’t have one because my name sounded like a sneeze. There were customized pencils for the Ashleys and the Brittanys and the Bobbys and the Lisas but there was no such thing for me, the Cézanne.

My mother assured me that it was because I was “special”, and I was. So special, in fact, that I wasn’t worth the production costs to manufacture pencils with my name on them. It doesn’t get much more special than that.

My paternal grandmother had the audacity not only to appoint herself head of the baby-naming committee of my parents’ first child but to then name me after a creepy-looking French Post-Impressionist painter. Art history is about as dead as Latin, however, as no one’s eyes ever light up with nostalgia for slide shows, dates and still life when they hear my name. Instead, I’m always met with confusion.

On the first day of school, without fail, I always knew when the teacher had reached my name when taking attendance because he or she would pause and inhale theatrically, as if I and my weird name should know that it was my cue to step in and interrupt the impending butchering. Sometimes, they’d skip it entirely and just go for my last name, like I was at basketball practice. Other times, they’d slowly try to sound it out with the hope that I would finish for them and we could all move past the excruciating exercise. However, more often than not, they’d ask me if I had a nickname.

“No,” I would reply. “It’s just Cézanne.”

They’d stare at me, disappointed, and ask me to repeat it. “Say-zaughn,” I’d say again, careful to enunciate two of the most apparently complex syllables in the world slowly while they scribbled the phonetic spelling on their attendance sheets.

“Oookay, Says-anne,” they’d say triumphantly. Wrong. Then they’d move on and ask cheerfully, “Is Rachel here?” The two Rachels of the class, already besties by popular baby naming fate, would then look at each other, giggle and ask, “Which one?”

I would have given anything to be a third Rachel. The time had come for a nickname.

It was then that I reinvented myself as Cezie (rhymes with pezzy, or lezzy, as my classmates soon discovered). A few years later, I started going by Cici, an inappropriately peppy twist on my first and last name initials, and it was with this name that I finally fit in. No one raised any eyebrows when they met me. No one stumbled over the pronunciation when they needed to address me by name. I was just another dopey face in the crowd.

For a long time, I loved it. I loved feeling “normal”.

Although I’d conditioned myself to respond to basically anything at this point and I liked that my name was no longer a source of anxiety, something weird happened: I started to miss being Cézanne, pretentious accent mark and all. I missed being me.

So I went back to using my real name. And you know what? It’s okay that there aren’t pre-made pencils awaiting my purchase and that I don’t respond to the first call in doctor’s waiting rooms because I don’t know who Susan is. It’s okay that I have to repeat myself a few times when I meet someone and subsequently cringe the first few times they try to say it. It’s okay that some people smirk and say, “That’s different” or “That’s weird” or even laugh uncomfortably in response to my name. It’s okay that I’ve accidentally overheard people say, “But that isn’t even a real name!” about me when they think I’m out of earshot. It’s okay because it’s my name and I like it. You don’t have to.

Plus, it just isn’t a a trip to Jamba Juice without seeing a Peach Pleasure pushed onto the pick-up counter and hearing a hesitant voice call out, “… Season?”

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  1. Hmm, my name is Tatelyn. I know the pain of “Ohh that’s unique” as well as not cool keychains, necklaces, or pencils.

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    Anonymous | 12/31/2011 01:12 pm
  3. I can totally relate. No one got the name “Hollan” right. I was always “Holland”…and often got asked “Are you Dutch?” “Are you from Holland?” NOOOOO! So, for a long time, I went by Holly. A lot of people still call me that, but when I went to college, it was time to re-introduce Hollan…and I haven’t looked back :) Beauty name by the way!

  4. “Whitney” is apparently less common than I thought, I get called Wendy or Brittany an awful lot :/

  5. My mum’s name is Levineke, and she went through the exact same thing. In fact, during roll call when there was a long pause, she would just respond with ‘here!’ to spare the teacher…
    Of course, she gave me one of the most popular names in the world… I can never get anything personalized, because Emily is always sold out!
    Though you wouldn’t believe the number of times I get called Emma. Stop dropping syllables, people!!!

  6. ANNIE'S MAILBOX: It's one thing for him to look, it's another to stare at women…

    Dear Annie: I have been married for 19 years, and my husband is a flirt. Early on, he would openly state teasing things to other women. After complaining repeatedly that he was being disrespectful to me, he stopped.Now I find him staring at other women…

  7. I’m Megan, it really shouldn’t be hard to spell or my name, but it is. With about 15 ways to spell it, I would always spell it for my new teacher on the first day of school so I didn’t have to see an H, extra A’s or E’s in it. And pronouncing it could be hard too, Mee-gan, May-gan, Mi-gan? Who were they? And so again, every school year, as soon as my name came, I’d pronounce it just to be sure – “Meg-an, please, my name is Meg-an”. Who knew a common 5 letter name could be so difficult?! LOL!!!

  8. Your story is so inspirational! I love your name, and you make me feel better about my name. I don’t mean that in a bad way. My name is Justus (like Justice, but spelled differently). The only other people I know of that have my name are boys (I don’t actually know them, I just saw them on Facebook), and my name is often mispronounced Justin, which I dislike. But your story makes me like my name more and appreciate that it’s different because, even thought I did want to be among the people with “normal” names, it makes me slightly more memorable than the 29 Kaitlyns in my language class. Thank you for making me not feel as shy about having the person at Starbuck’s write my name on the cup. You’re awesome.

  9. I just LOVE your name; I rather have yours than mine, actually… My name is horrible, and some English people cannot pronounce it properly because it has the Spanish “g” (sounds kinda similar to “h” in “hello”) and I have two “n”; my name is Geanna. Usually Gea -the goddess greek also known as “mother earth”. But living in Barcelona, and having that second language so similar to French, my name usually is known with “g” as in “Georgia” and that sound is beautiful. It sounds more similar to “Jeanne” (the French version of my name) and the Italian “Gianna” (the original form of my name.)
    I kinda hate my name with that horrible Spanish “g”, but I like it with the other “g”… The other problem is that I don’t know any typography with a cool “G”, so I usually write it with “g”.
    And Latin isn’t dead, by the way, I’m a Latin and Ancient Greek student!! x)

  10. When I go into a restaurant the reservation ALWAYS goes into the name of whoever is with me. I understand the “unique” name curse LOL

  11. I have the same problem with my name! I always spell it out because no one ever knows how to spell it. And don’t even get me started on the pronunciation! I get Ebony, Evian, Ivanna, E-vone. Nope, it’s pronounced just like Yvonne.

    My mom’s name is also Ivonne and that usually sends people in a tizzy.

  12. I have yet to find a pencil or little license plate with my name on it, and yes, I still always look. There was a long time I hated how different my name was, but as I’ve grown older I love how different it is and I can’t think of another that would suit me. Now my only problem is that people spell it with a J or I instead of the Y. And I still don’t have a set pronunciation down – my mom has a spanish accent and pronounces it “sewn-ya” and my dad pronounces it “sohn-ya.” Talk about an identity crisis.

  13. I’ve lost count how many times I’m called Amber instead of Autumn.

  14. My sister sent me the link to this article because I could have written it! I totally sympathize with the engraved pencil trauma (as well as keychains, bicycle license plates, mugs, necklace charms, etc.) and the substitute teacher debacle. It has not been fun. Your frustration with people who can’t pronounce a 2-syllable word and thus, would like you to come up with a nickname is also shared by me. I mean, my name is phonetic! I was named after my mother’s childhood make-believe friend which is a cool story. Explaining, spelling and pronouncing my name a billion times for as long as I can remember is decidedly NOT cool, however. I have never indulged anyone who asked me for a nickname and I have eschewed most nicknames people have tried to give me. It’s not that I love my name, it’s just that why should I change when it’s these lame people who suck? I think your name and the story behind it is beautiful and to all the people who have commented that our names are “weird”….well, they can suck a rock. Weird is not a compliment. The great thing about the internet is that if you Google my name….I’m the only thing that comes up! Now that’s a claim to fame most people don’t have! I was so happy to find a kindred spirit and through your whole blog, I just kept exclaiming, “Yeah!” and “I know!” You go, girl. You don’t need a nickname. People just need to pull their heads out of their…well, you get the idea.

  15. I taught for 30 plus years and would always go around the class and have students tell me their name so I wouldn’t butcher it. They were always surprised that I actually cared to get it right. “It doesn’t matter” they would say. Yes, it does! Names are important! I would fine myself a quarter if I persistently called a student by the wrong name and pay the kid- sometimes I’d call them a siblings name, but there was this one student that just looked like a “Mike” to me even though his name was Steve. My own name is unusual, and my mother insisted that I would not have a nickname- so when anyone tries to call me Lori it just grates- but I also get Elaine and Lauren. I really enjoyed this blog subject! You have a new fan!

  16. I get it, I always thought is would be so amazing to know another phoebe. Like we would be a little bit the same and share the anxiety of our name. The worst part about having “exotic” names is that people feel like it’s their business to express their opinion about “weird names”… dicks

  17. I completely feel your pain. My full name is Shandra Teraise Goldfinger. The a part of it is pronounced as an “ah” sound, as opposed to the sharper a sound, like in sand. I’ve been called everything from Sandra (with the sharp a) to Shawndra to Shoshana (at my honor society induction in Junior High). People also want to spell my name with a Ch, as that is the traditional spelling. Whenever I meet someone new or my name is being read off of a list, I’m already primed to correct them.

    Teraise is basically impossible to explain to people, so unless it’s someone I’m close with I don’t even bother.

    However, what confounds me the most is when people cannot get my last name right. It’s composed of two English words! It’s a famous movie and a band! Seriously, how do they screw it up?

    One of my parents’ favorite stories to tell about me is an episode from when I was in pre-school. Of course no one could pronounce my name. At one point, during some activity when we were all in a circle, I just snapped. I went to the middle of the circle and yelled “My name is SHANDRA, SHANDRA, SHANDRA!” I tend to correct people much more politely, now.

    I have no idea how adults weren’t able to pronounce Cézanne. As an art history nerd, this makes me incredibly sad. Your name is beautiful, as is the work of the artist who inspired it.

  18. My name IS Jennifer and I could NEVER EVER find anything personalized. There were too many of us to keep the pencils and necklaces in stock!

  19. I forgot to mention ‘Emolean” is pronounced as Em-oh-lean not e-mole-le ann..