The year before I was born, 1970, was the year the movie Love Story opened to critical acclaim and awards. The female lead was called Jennifer. Before this movie gave parents everywhere the single most un-unique name ever, the name Jennifer was made popular in 1906 when George Bernard Shaw named a characterJennifer in Dr. Dilema. The name Jennifer is believed to be a Cornish variant of Guinevere, which means white fay or white ghost.
Between the years 1970 and 1984, it was the most common name given to American girls. I want to believe that my parents were true individuals and yet the evidence to the contrary overwhelms. When I attended Chatham University, a women’s college, (ie, small), I shared my name with 18 classmates. While that may not seem like a large number, that’s 3% of a small population.
Being a Jennifer on campus was like being “mom” at the zoo. One kid yells it out and ten women turn around. In my estimation, being named Jennifer was way less glamorous than being named, you know, Gloria or Kirstin with an umlaute, blond hair, blue eyes and pigtail braids. I totally wanted to be a Kirsten.
Until 8th grade, I went by Jenny. It was functional, relatively cute and I didn’t really give it much thought. First day of 8th grade social studies, Mr. Cherry (for real) called attendance and just before he got to me, my friend Amy turned to me and said words that would change my life. Not really, but I still remember it, so it’s something, right? She said, “Hey. You should start going by Jen.” This thought had never once flickered into my little mind but I instantly approved. And in that moment, I became Jen. Mr. Cherry called my name, and I said, “I go by Jen.” Half the class turned in wonder; when I walked in to school that day I was Jenny.
Senior hear of high school, the Earth Science teacher called me by the wrong name for an entire year. Each time he said my name wrong, I corrected him. And each time I corrected him he said, “Jenny, Janine. Same difference.” Actually, no.
Ask any Jennifer about her name and you will get a story. I guarantee it. Only three people can call me Jenny: mom, dad, husband. My sister calls me Jenna, but only when I’m sad or mad. Everyone I really know calls me Jen, and I prefer one N. Not two. In an unscientific study performed in thirty seconds on twitter, it seems I may be in the minority on that one. Most Jennifers prefer Jenn. I don’t like being called Jennifer, but I am coming to understand that its formality has its uses. Sure does sound important, what with its multiple syllables and all.
I think back to when we named our three children. With a last name like ours, the key is to get to the point, make a strong statement with the first name so they only have to spell the last name. We got that wrong, too: we gave them each names with too many possible variants. But the point remains. Names are kind of a big deal.
When my teacher insisted on calling me the wrong name, whether he thought it was cute or silly or rude, he stripped an essential part of me. It still bugs me to remember this guy making a joke of my name. That’s part of who I am. Think of the biblical stories of naming, and how the names given were textured with layers of meaning. And they seemed to imbue the individual with more of his or her own character.
So while my name is not in and of itself unique for my generation, it is unique to me. I like Jen, with one n. I can tolerate the rest but when the people I love call me Jen, it denotes a relational depth that pleases me: I am known and I know. And isn’t that what we all want? To be known? To belong?