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

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?”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5500871 Maxine Squires

    Love this post! My sisters, Sarah and Michelle, used to get EVERYTHING with their names on it, and I always got the random crap that said “Princess” or “Shopping” or something. However, I wouldn’t trade my name for anything in the world and I’ve decided that my kids will have relatively unique names too. Thanks for posting!

  • http://www.facebook.com/cochez.gentiane Gentiane Cochez

    yeaahh i know what you mean Maxine, i used to do the same when I was younger now i buy things which I can personalize.. it’s much better..my towels for example,..
    soo it’s very difficult to prononce for other people than frenchies.. my american friends used to call me “johnson” bc it sound a little bit like that… in france it’s a flower people remind that point but forget what flower so sometime people called me “geranium” or even “capucine”.. or the worse is a firstname i don’t like (bc very old) but sounds a bit like mine it’s “josiane” oooooo noo my name is GENTIANE ! french blue flower… there is 2 kinds of people : people who will totaly forget and people who will remember forever your name :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/cezanne.bhartu Céz Anne

    I think its 50/50 Pez-like Cez and maze-like Cez. My dad named me and my siblings all have relatively average names like Dustin and Janine. My sister and I were at breakfast yesterday and we had a french server, and it simultaneously dawned on us that both Janine and Cezanne are french names. So after 21 years we found one more thing we have in common despite the fact we are like night and day at times. I also work as a waitress and it makes my day when I introduce myself, the customer stumbles on it and often I get “you don’t look french”. Consequently, if you have dark skin and look seemingly exotic its further confounds the average person.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brynmerica Bryn Schockett

    I feel your pain! Every year in school the teacher would call out “Bryan”…. There’s no ‘a’ for a reason buddy!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1799318815 Terranne Brennan

    i totally get this! my name is terranne…people say it wrong all the time, its said like tearin’ with a southern accent, like, i’m tearin’ up this piece of paper. and i feel so sad whenever i walk into a store and see a huge display of mugs w/ peoples names on it but there was no terranne, or terry (people call me terri/terry) but whenever i get something w/ my name on it (which has to be ordered) i keep it close to my hear and never loose it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/carly.herron Carly Herron

    I go by Carly, but my full first name is Carlyanne. For some reason when all those letters are connected, teachers or customer service people always seem to think it should be pronounced Carol Anne. I’m not sure where they get that “o” from… People also seem to think that Anne is my middle name a lot (thought I don’t know many people whose first and middle names are connected as one word). When I was a kid, I could never find anything that said Carly on it, though it does seem to be a little more common of a name these days.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1293751394 Jackie Maessen

    Not even kidding you, I am the biggest Art History nerd I’ve ever met (aside from the awesome professor that got me excited about Art History) and I literally did get excited when I read the little blurb “Filleosophy’s real name is Cezanne.” WHAT?! I understand having a different name. Jacquelyn Maessen- nobody can ever pronounce it right, to this day. But I rock it now. And I think your name is lovely, and it brought back awesome memories for me, even if he isn’t mine or most people’s favorite artist. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1493127382 Rachel Morgan Smith

    I loved this article! I find it funny that you wanted the name Rachel. I really dont enjoy my name. Rachel Smith. Pretty much the most common names ever. FACT Smith is the most common last name in the USA. So yea I always hated being named Rachel Smith. No one can ever find me on facebook and whenever I go anywhere there is without fail is always someone else named Rachel, and without fail they always seem to disappear so people run around yelling Rachel. They are NEVER looking for me. I know 7 people named Rachel. If you ever get tired of your name again I will gladly trade names with you!
    p.s. i find it amazing that you describe you name as sounding like a sneeze! oh and also i never could find anything with my name on it because there are SO many Rachels that they were always sold out.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rissaxo Carissa Lau

    so beautiful! i love your unique name. my name is not all that uncommon, but i still never found cups or pencils in my name either…until one birthday one of my friends had items custom made for me. i was ecstatic to say the least. the hardest part is my middle name Lai-Yee which is Chinese and pronounced (Lie-eee) more so lol which was always fun trying to teach someone to say it. my main problem nowadays, are people striving for unique and ending up with a mess. i actually had a friend, who’s a teacher, tell me he had a student named “L-a”….La? Luh-ah? nope, her name is “Ldasha” the dash is pronounced! i mean, come on!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mhairi.mccrindle Mhairi McCrindle

    I’m pretty immune to people messing up my name now. I even started just pronouncing it with the M instead of the V as it should be. Though I drawn the line at being called Marion. It’s not even close.

    Who needs a customized pencil anyway?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=572989388 Marti Toonen

    I have the same trouble all the time. My name isn’t even that difficult to decipher, but they all say it like there’s some magic trick to it. They mispronounce it for a little while (someone actually tried ‘Molly’ once and I just stared at them) then they ask me for my full name.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ana.samayoa1 Ana Samayoa

    I love your name, actually and I kind of had the same proble while growing up. I have the best/worst of both worlds.
    My name is Ana Ethel Samayoa.
    Ana is common as hell and Ethel might not be as complicated but it’s old fashioned and everyone always thinks I’m a grandma (actually it is my grandma’s name).
    And don’t get me started on my last name. It’s not Spanish, it’s Vasque.
    So no one really knows how to pronounce it.
    I feel you pain =)
    And the post was awesome!

  • http://www.facebook.com/melpo.christofi Melpo Christofi

    I hear ya! I would pretend my name was Melanie when I was younger. Nowadays if I order a pizza it’s always ‘Jane’. To my friends I’m Melpo but my full name is Melpomeni. It’s always fun when people try to pronounce it. Not!

    • http://www.facebook.com/gea.marin Gea Marín

      Melpomeni? as in the Muse of Tragedy? I sure like your name! Although I can understand why you would use another name. Melanie also is a greek name, you know… “Black lady” etymologically~

  • http://www.facebook.com/neferia Claire Tandy

    Cézanne is an absolutely beautiful name!
    You are so lucky to have a unique name, trust me, you should totally embrace it!
    I was “only” one of three “Claire”s in my year at school, well, technically one of two “Claire”s – as the third girl was deprived of the “I” (Clare!) – so I think I got off quite lightly!
    Don’t even get me started on spellings… I am always asked if I have an “I” in my name, which frustrates me, as many people assume I don’t, when “Claire” is actually the correct spelling (from the French) – so even with simple names, like mine, people often trip up!
    I detest my name, and have often asked my mum why she gave me such a boring, common name, and decided to call my big sister “Gayle” – far less common!
    She told me that it was between that or Lucinda, and her name already begins with an “L” and that if I was called Lucy then it wouldn’t sound right with my surname – Tandy – and also that Claire was popular the year I was born (that probably should have been a hint that the world didn’t need yet another Claire!)!
    Because of this, as and when I have children, they are going to be given names that are unique, and will probably hate me for it, and give their children plain names! And the cycle will continue o.O


  • http://www.facebook.com/Carriemoorebrewer Carrie Moore Brewer

    My first name os fairly common but my middle name “Emolean” gets me lots of stares and butchered attempts. Embrace the uniqueness. I have two daughter with very classic older names and people ALWAYS spell them incorrectly… they are Katelyne and Ivy. Seriously? How tough it to spell Ivy?

  • http://www.facebook.com/Carriemoorebrewer Carrie Moore Brewer

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

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=519823147 Jennifer Shinn

    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!

  • http://www.facebook.com/shandra Shandra Goldfinger

    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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/phoebeataylor Phoebe Taylor

    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

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1362451664 Lorraine Pulvino Poling

    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!

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