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. My friend’s name is Ashlee. The two E’s come from a grandparent named “Lee” but I know she wonders when she’s applying for jobs if the two E’s are a disadvantage, like people will think she changed it from Ashley because that’s, like, way cooler.

  2. i think you have a great name..
    i’m always the one people knew around the campus but i really hate it when they say my name incorrectly.. besides, i don’t really appreciate my name.. it’s too common and i like weird.. it stands out and i love to get the chance to change my name.. Vanessa Mae is just. . . hmm. too run-in-a-mill for me. . .

  3. I have an old-fashioned name, Clara, and I love it to pieces, despite being called Claire by so many people and never having my name on anything. If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me – “My great-grandmother’s name was Clara” I would be totally rich. But I love having an old school name, and I gave one to my daughter, too: Maeve.

  4. My name is Shazana…. just like you say banana but Shazana… I get called Shoezana, Susan, Suzanna, Shoshannah…. sigh.

  5. Szymkiw. Try that on for size. I’ve only ever had one person pronounce it correctly on his first attempt. I was WAY more excited than I should have been. Nice post.

  6. I had a boss who took three months to REMEMBER my name instead of calling me “Janelle”. I tried everything to trigger his memory…no go. When friends and I go out to dinner, they slap my name on the waiting list (even though I know the host/hostess is likely to butcher it) and say “Yours is easier to distinguish than ours! Too many Rachel’s and Cheryl’s!”

    But, I TOTALLY understand about the whole name on a pencil, mini-license plate, necklace thing. Nobody EVER had my name on those growing up! (Heck, still don’t!)

  7. I wish I has a name that is fun to write! Like Cyndi Lauper’s; just think: Cyndi…awesome!

  8. Not even your teachers knew Cézanne? I can understand a bunch of kids having trouble with the name, but educated adults? That is very depressing.
    Though everyone could pronounce my name, no one spells it correctly – even in response to an email with my name in the signature. Plus, I got all kinds of stupid questions growing up when I would introduce myself. My favorite being:, “Brandi?! Was your mother drunk when she named you?” To which I replied: “Yes – all 9 months of her pregnancy, as a matter of fact.” (Mind you, I was in Middle School when the adult asked me this completely asinine question.) Not so much now, as the name has become more mainstream, but I still get the occasional snide remark. I just tell them my world will be complete when I marry a man with the last name Alexander … and I smirk at their blank stare. (Brandy Alexander is a deliciously creamy cocktail, btw).
    My conclusion … people are stupid. Cézanne is a beautiful name, and you are right to be proud of it.

    • What’s weird is that kids pronounce my name far better than adults — I only have to tell them once and if they’re of speaking age, they generally know it from there on out, maybe because they’re still so receptive to learning new things. Meanwhile, adults are just so set in their ways and don’t care for new information that doesn’t benefit them. JUST a theory though. I think the worst were ART TEACHERS and ART STUDENTS who were baffled by my name. It was really depressing and strange.

      Filleosophy | 8/18/2011 07:08 am
  9. I so get how you feel!!! I usually don’t bother to correct people if they say my name wrong, and I just kind of respond to anything that sounds vaguely similar. The thing that bugs me the most is that my name is pretty much said exactly how it is spelt, but because it’s an unusual name people feel the need to say it in the most crazy way possible. My other problem is that I don’t really like nicknames all that much. My high school friends called me “El” for short, and a few people still do, but other than that I am a full, 3-syllable name girl.
    Complaints aside, I really do like my name, as it’s kind of my last remaining connection to my Finnish grandmother who chose my name. She died when I was very small, so even though my name is annoyingly obscure, it reminds me of my heritage and the strong women who have made me the person that I am.

  10. I always thought Cézanne was pronounced “Ses-anne” :( That’s how they said it in Art class, but then here it’s “Van Gogh” rather than “Van Go” too

  11. I always thought my name was weird because I was the only Jocelyn ever in my school ever. I used to doodle Lisa in all my books, because that’s the name I wanted. I’m okay with Jocelyn now, although, I have considered going by my middle name, Anne for work because it’s easier for someone to yell when they need my attention. Teachers were the worst at names. It’s not like my name is hard, but I’m always called Jacklyn, Joshlyn, Jackie (I’ll punch you.) Jockalyn, Josalyn. My friends call me Jocie or Jo thought- I guess that’ll do.

  12. Let’s face it, most people are just inept with names. My first name is a straight up Anne and yet 90% of new people I meet would insist on calling me Anna. And lately a good percentage is going to “Annie.” ??? Let’s not even talk about misspellings.

  13. ooh, can i ever relate to this story. my full name is winifred and for some reason in grade school, everyone wanted to call me “jennifer.” my name would be endlessly misspelled and people would call me “winnie the pooh.” for awhile, i spelled my nickname as “winnie” because that’s how everyone knew how to spell it. it never really “suited” me, so by grade 10, i went as “wini.” people spell it wrong all the time but i like my name (still not a big fan of my full name) and that’s that.
    i once found a personalized keychain that said “winnie” so i bought it. i’ve never found anything with my full name, ever!

  14. I don’t think my name is even THAT uncommon, but throughout life and school it has endlessly been mispronounced. I get Eliza, Alyssa, Elsa, Lisa. Finally, some of my coworkers nicknamed me Elise, which is apparently so much easier for them than just adding the A on the end, but I’d rather the nickname than the other mispronunciations. In school I was extremely shy, so I would correct the teacher after the first time they said my name and asked if they were correct, but if they didn’t get it after that I just answered to whatever name they called. That can get awkward when other students know your name and wonder why you aren’t correcting the teacher, or if the teacher later realizes their mistake. Also, I could find personalized pencils or trinkets with my name about 1% of the time, so at least that’s something.

  15. I love your name! It’s very artistic! Reminds me of Paul Cézanne and I admire his work with a fierce passion. So happy you went back to being Cézanne :)
    (btw, my name is Raquel and throught middle-school and high-school I went through the same experience as your two “Rachels”. and it was worst because we were both called Ana Raquel. So it went like this: “Raquel…”, “which one?”, “Ana…”, “right, but which one?”, oh well, you!”.)

    • LOL. Truth be told, I get kind of disappointed when someone says, “My best friend is named Cézanne too!” Granted, it’s only happened twice, but it really crushes my unique snowflake dream.

      Filleosophy | 8/18/2011 07:08 am
  16. My name is so common in Ireland but elsewhere apparently no one has a clue. People have tried loads of ways of saying it, the most common (and most hated) seems to be “I’m ear”. Nice. (For anyone wondering it’s just “e-mur”, or as I like to say, lemur without the l) I could probably make things easier on people by going with the less complicated spelling, Emer, but I kind of like it the way it is. I always have to spell it out though and sometimes people even “hear” it as Emma somehow. Argh!

  17. Heh very familair. Although my name doesn´t look that hard, people never EVER pronounce it right, or know how to write it after I say it (Nyssa does NOT sound like Lisa – thank you very much). But I agree with everyone else: your name is beautiful, and you should be proud :) (who really needs coffee mugs or pens with your name on it)

  18. 1) You have a wonderful and unique name, and I am glad you have embraced it. The world is too full of repetitiousness, unimaginative names. 2) The whole pencil thing is just another reason I am aghast at how society tries to make us value ourselves by externals. Pencils with names on them, magazines with pictures of bean pole women, car ads that show people driving recklessly… Apparently, if you’re not driving the right car, wearing the right clothes, or holding a pencil with your name on it, there’s something wrong with you. 3) My reallast name is not complicated, but people get it wrong all the time, and so I came to terms with the fact that people were not even going to try, more often than not, to pronounce it right. Thanks for sharing. :)

  19. Brynn (rhymes with ‘grin’, not pronounced like Brian, teachers) isn’t a name that’s found anywhere, either. My mom got me an entire pack (50 or more) of custom personalized pencils one time, though. They were awful, made of the sort of wood that gives you splinters as you write, and lead that breaks every three words. I maybe used 2. They’re still around somewhere, because you can’t really give away personalized pencils like you can plain ones. But I’ve turned the whole lack of pre-made personalized objects into a game: “Bet They Don’t Have My Name.” I haven’t lost yet. And if I ever do lose, it will be with much bouncing up and down and squealing in public.

    • Woooo! go team Bryn!

    • Exactly! My middle name is Brynn and I didn’t like being different when I was younger and all the girls had the middle names Ann, Elizabeth, Marie, or Rose, but now I love it and wish it was my first name! Except at my high school graduation they read it as Brian. It’s not that hard; it’s spelled the way it sounds!

    • Your first/last name combo is so great. Please write a book or an album or something.

      Filleosophy | 8/18/2011 09:08 am
  20. My name is Rebekah, so it isn’t that uncommon. But there aren’t any “personalized” pencils or license plates or key chains that have Rebekah. They’re all Rebecca. My full name is Rebekah Joy Hanna, and when I was in school I was called Hanna and Joy more often than I was called Rebekah!

    • YES! What’s funny is that people would STILL buy personalized items for me, despite the difference in spelling. And these were relatives, so surely they knew the spelling wasn’t the same. :/

    • I hear you! Even though my name is very common in my age group (in my college dorm, 1 in every 8 girls was a Meg), I’ve never found anything personalised that was spelled properly. The closest I’ve come was a Christmas-themed magnet that reads “Meghan”. The unconventional spelling also means that people pronounce it “MEE-gan” when it’s meant to be “Meggin”.
      All this has lead to a love of bizarre names. My poor children will probably end up as Rohana, Elspeth, and Maddox.