How to overcome a misleading moniker

Earlier today, I had a shock. Apparently, according to the Facebook news feed, there is such a thing as a ‘Nan-esque moment of shame’. Someone used that exact phrase to describe the culmination of their previous night’s experiences. What? What! How did I become a shame-o-meter all of a sudden?

But perhaps I’m just being presumptuous. They might not have been referring to me at all. Maybe they meant ‘Nan’ like affectionate-term-for-a-grandmother Nan? Maybe the comment leaver just has a particularly embarrassing gran? Maybe it’s rhyming slang?

I don’t know, but I’m trying to get over it, and on a productive note, it has got me thinking about my name. (Please pay attention here to the fact that I did not try to advertise my Shakespeare knowledge and say, “What’s in a name?” – I’m above that shit. Although I might use is as a nice little linking phrase later – indulge me).

My housemate thinks looks are the single most informing influence on how we perceive people. I’m not so sure. I think names are important too. They can tell you something about the family values that form a person’s foundations. They can tell you something about attitudes; for instance if someone goes by their initials or by their surname, uses a nickname or abbreviation – these habits reflect personality.

My name was an accident. My parents were going to call me Poppy, but when junkies started stealing the namesake flowers from their front garden, they decided it was just too loaded a title. Instead, they went for Penelope, my dad because he secretly hoped I’d marry a man who would bring a massive bow and arrow into the family, my mum because she hoped I’d weave tapestries. And be super chaste.

It turned out to be a tough name to put into practice, however, as my mum could never quite pronounce it (Pen-el-OH-pee, she used to say) and because my big brother, only one-and-a-half when I was born, would just respond “Naaaaan” when asked to say his new sister’s name. At this point, my mother luckily ‘remembered’ that on her side of the family, a girl child is named Nancy every second generation. She’s always been a one for inventing heritage to make things go her way. So Nancy it was to be. Unfortunately, they’d already written Penelope on my birth certificate, so I got both.

It takes maturity to appreciate the value of a gimmick like ‘Nancy Penelope Langfeldt-Flory’. You know how long it takes me to sign a check? A really long time. I always hated my full name (and had trouble spelling it) and adopted my brotherly baptism ‘Nan’ all the way through school. I still use it now, mostly. Some people think it’s an odd choice, as it can lead to confusion when people meet me and I’m not 84 and don’t carry a cane. For a while, as an excuse, I told people I was named after Nan Goldin and that my parents used to hang out with Andy Warhol. But I have realised nobody believes me when I say things like that, and being caught in a lie is worse than having a name that means old person.

Using Nan has supplied me with numerous comedy moments, like when I met a friend of a friend. I told him my name, he told me I looked like his grandma. Haha! Then I remember the first time I met my friend Phil’s twin Paul, I said, ‘Hi, Phil’ and Paul said, ‘Oh I’m not Phil, I’m Paul.’ As I didn’t realised Phil had a twin, I just assumed I’d been calling him the wrong name for a whole year and that my stupidity had just now become so annoying that he’d been compelled to clear up my error. The laughs multiply exponentially when this story is repeated by others than myself and people think that it was Phil’s nan, as in his grandmother, who made the mistake of thinking, for 21 years, that her twin grandsons were in fact the same person.c Also, when I was working in Tang Hall Working Men’s Club for New Year 2006, I bonded with the clientele by letting them all call me Nan Bread. That was the best.

So it’s not so bad, but I am a little worried if ‘Nan’’s meanings now include social suicide. What if next time I meet the friend of a friend of a friend and introduce myself, they move seats, worried I might vomit on/grope/bore them? Maybe I should start using my full legal title. It could be like a coming of age thing, and who knows, people might start taking me seriously?

Since Romeo and Juliet both die at the end of the play, it could be argued that, actually, there is quite a lot in a name, since having the wrong one might get you killed. But hey, I could have been stuck with Poppy and turned out to be some kind of ugly sentinel for about a thousand Notting Hill toddlers. Once again, be thankful for the small things.

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