What’s in a Name?

sitaNames are fascinating – why they were chosen, how they are adapted, what they convey when you hear them for the first time and how they relate to the actual individuals to whom they belong. In my case each of my (four!) names has some significance that has directly or indirectly impacted my life.

SITA is my first name (to the delight to those who check passports in Indian airports) given to me because of my parents’ deep love for the sub-continent and their enjoyment of the stories in the Ramayana in which Sita is stolen away by the monkey god, Hanuman, and is finally rescued by Rama. She is regarded as the epitome of womanhood – devoted, modest, loyal and, of course beautiful. This says more about my parents’ inflated expectations than of my intrinsic characteristics. Needless to say, I fall far short of most of those attributes!

RosalindROSALIND is my second name (always shortened to Ros) – my parents seem to have lost their nerve and adopted my second name for daily use shortly after my birth. I believe they named me after the heroine of Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. As a teenager my first Valentine’s card from an admirer quoted from the play “From the East to Western Ind no jewel is like Rosalind”. I was entirely delighted with this elegant declaration until my father – quick as a flash – retorted with a quote from the same play “Sweetest nut hath sourest rind, so it is with Rosalinde” which brought me rapidly down to earth with a bang. A further indignity was discovering in a Dictionary of Names that Rosalind did not meet ‘a garland of roses’ as I had assumed it did, but actually (in some obscure language) ‘a wreath of snakes’…

Ros-Gramdmother001My third name is JOANNA – an anglicised version of the German ‘Johanna’ – which was the name of my maternal grandmother whom I never met as she died in a concentration camp, probably in 1944. I have two photos of her: in an early one she is strikingly handsome and dark eyed in the later one – taken just before her arrest and incarceration – she appears strained, unsmiling and rather grim. Having inherited my mother’s colouring and features, I feel a strong connection to that side of my genetic inheritance and – perhaps through sharing a name with her mother – a strong and lasting outrage at any form of religious intolerance and the at the appalling inhumanity of ethnic cleansing.

tennyson-2Last but not least is my surname, TENNYSON, which gets some people really excited… “Are you related to…?” I believe the name was quite a burden to my father – making him feel that at least some originality and talent was expected of him. In my case it brought some surprising but ultimately fairly benign experiences (a trip to the USA in 1969 accompanying my grandfather on a lecture tour; being asked to judge poetry reading competitions; laying wreaths on Tennyson’s tomb in Westminster Abbey on the anniversary of his death and so on). It is bizarre that people expect something special from you when you have a famous ancestor – even when they only make up 1/16th of your actual DNA! I am not complaining, since it has never been a real burden. And I expect my access to my grandfather’s wonderful library enabling me to read hefty tomes from a very early age (War and Peace in a bad English translation from cover to cover at the age of 13, for example) owes something to the Tennyson connection.

Just in case I ever risk becoming too preoccupied with the significance of my names… I should also record that my family nickname is ‘Midge’ – short for ‘midget’ – awarded by my oldest son with unmitigated delight on the day he discovered that he was taller than I was!

“There was much that could never be named… The realm of the nameless was not shapeless. I had to find my way about within it – like being in a room with solid furniture and sharp objects in pitch darkness. And anyway most of my hunches were nameless, or their names were as long as whole books I had not yet read.”

Extract from HERE IS WHERE WE MEET, John Berger, Bloomsbury Press, 2005