The Name Change Game
Megan Shaw Prelinger
Issue #67, April 2004
The Name Game
"Magon Dragon, Maggot Faggot!" the schoolyard tormentors chimed as they knotted my waist-length hair to the jungle gym. It was 1973 and I was saddled with a weird name, one of the greatest childhood burdens to carry. "They've never heard your name before," my teachers consoled me. "They just don't know how to react to something new."
This was years before the great tide of Megans crashed upon North American shores, when in the 1980s Megan reached the top 10 names for girls. In the second grade I didn't like my name. I hated being Maggot Faggot. I yearned for a name more like "Bonnie," something that was ordinary, sweet, and conveyed a sense of femininity.
But as I grew up I grew into "Megan." I came to appreciate its uniqueness. I appreciated that it was not a feminization of a boy's name. I was thankful that it didn't end with the overused phoneme "ee" like the names of most other girls in my class. I realized by fourth grade that I would never be a "Bonnie" type of person, and would never want to be.
I met my first other Megan when I was about twelve, and I still remember the shock of it. "That's my name." I thought. "It can't really be anybody else's." This illogic was borrowed from my philosophy on the situation of being an only child: "they're my parents, they can't really be anybody else's."
After meeting other Megans, I expanded my sense of name uniqueness to the longer appellation "Megan Shaw." I thought I was certainly the only Megan Shaw around. I hadn't really given "Shaw" a second thought until then because the name didn't resonate deeply for me. I thought then, and still think, that it comes up a bit short in melody, rhythm, and uniqueness.
Then came the Harlequin Romance. It was 1984 and I was a seventeen-year-old refugee from Oregon's economic collapse of the early 1980s, living in a transient hotel in San Francisco's Tenderloin and working two jobs to save money for college. On weekends, I spent many days holed up in the awesome Holmes Books in Oakland. It had an upper story that ringed the walls above the ground floor with wooden boardwalks. Over the railings of the boardwalks you could watch the tops of first floor patrons' heads go by. I used to sit for hours on those upper floor boardwalks and read.
"Rainbow for Megan" the title proclaimed! I snatched it off the shelf and took it home. It was Harlequin Romance number 2020, and surprised as I was to find a book with my name in the title, my surprise grew to astonishment when I opened it to look at the text, and found that the heroine's name was not just "Megan" but "Megan Shaw." "Megan Shaw's wide grey eyes were fixed somberly֢ it began. It blew my mind. Another Megan Shaw.
I collected copies of the book until I had four of them. Another dozen years passed, and I still had a strong sense of name uniqueness. I had never heard of another nonfiction Megan Shaw. But then in the mid-nineties, with the world wide web, that sense of uniqueness imploded.
A Flood of Megan Shaws
The web plunged me into a world that is swimming with Megan Shaws. I didn't even have to go looking for them, they came looking for me. In 1996 a young Megan Shaw wrote to me from Michigan because she had found me on the web and thought it was cool that we had the same name. I was surprised, and I sent her a copy of "Rainbow..." thinking it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share the book with another name-identified reader.
But a year later came another letter from another young Megan Shaw; again I sent her a book. Two years after that, my mother-in-law-to-be had a young neighbor with that name, so I gave her a copy of the book as well. Then I had to stop giving away copies of "Rainbow..." because I had run out of spares.
The web never stops turning up Megan Shaws. We are high school sports stars, we are active in the alternative music scene, and we are essayists. One of us writes for Early Childhood magazine; another one of us is a sound engineer for a radio station in Minnesota. At American Records the radio promotions assistant and accounts payable staff person is named Megan Shaw, and the late punk-folk singer Wesley Willis recorded a love song for her with the dull refrain of "Megan Shaw! Megan Shaw! Megan Shaw!"
Most recently I learned that the senior class president for the class of 2001 of South Eugene High School in Eugene, Oregon — my own alma mater — is another Megan Shaw.
My sense of name uniqueness came to a crashing burning demise. I resigned myself to the inexplicable transformation that had taken place over the course of my life: from being the ridiculed "Magon Dragon" whose name inspired contempt for its strangeness, to being one of dozens of Megan Shaws whose prom pictures, resumes, basketball scores, and essays dot the web like seashells on a beach. I began thinking about an out.
The Surname Game
"Rachel Marisa Golomby-Hathaway!" my neighbor shouted across the block. I was fifteen, and my neighbor was summoning her daughter for dinner. I thought, how glad I was to have been born before the mid-seventies. That's about when hyphenation was seized upon as a solution to surname patriarchy. If my parents had subscribed to this theory, I would have been born Megan Blish-Shaw.
Blish-Shaw? Could there be a worse name? "Sh-sh"?
The expression of patriarchy through male-surname dominance has robbed millions of women of their name identity. I embrace the imperative that our society must evolve beyond it; feminist scholarship has well articulated that this naming pattern replicates the rhetoric of ownership. Yet I cringe at the prospect of Blish-Shaw.
I baby-sat a kid in high school who was named Nathan Brandenburg-Carstairs. What did his parents, and the parents of Rachel Golomby-Hathaway expect the two of them to do when they grew up and wished to wed? If they turned their parents' experiment into tradition, they would name their little offspring Theo and Melissa Brandenburg-Carstairs-Golomby-Hathaway.
Obviously they would be forced to remake tradition all over again. One alternative is they could throw all four surnames into a hat and pull one out and then stick with it. Hopefully it would be "Carstairs," the simplest of the four and the one with the best associative imagery.
Or they could eschew the name-change game altogether, and each keep their own mouthfuls while naming their little ones "Nathanson" and "Rachelsdaughter," or a name both could share, perhaps "Lovechild." Try explaining at parent-teacher night in kindergarten that Mr. Brandenburg-Carstairs and Ms. Golomby-Hathaway belong to Theo and Melissa Lovechild.
Further alternatives abound. Families can reverse the patriarchy into matriarchy, and all assume Ms. Golomby-Hathaway's surname.
In more recent years, it has become more common for women simply to keep their own name when they marry, and let their children carry the father's name for the sake of simplicity. No overencumbered hyphens, no patriarchal sacrifice for the mother. But in those cases the mother is name-isolated from her spouse and offspring.
For me the practical and aesthetic attractions of changing one's name at marriage are distinct from the negative political and historical implications of doing so. When an overwhelming sense of lifelong partnership and mutual belonging emerged one day between myself and Rick Prelinger, the name change question rolled openly around in my mind.
I have laid out my opposition to hyphenation. I wouldn't push Blish-Shaw, Shaw-Prelinger, or its close relative Shaw Prelinger (no hyphen) into the gummy mouth of a wee one and I wouldn't want any of them for myself.
And yet the name change was not in any way a foregone conclusion. I could have gone right on being Megan Shaw, member of a cast of thousands. Or I could have waited for a unique renaming momentum to arise from within, as it must have for Starhawk and for the inspired SUV bombers Free and Critter.
Because after all, what are the chances that another person's name will be melodic and unique enough to inspire a name change, given the complicity with patriarchy that that change might be misunderstood to represent? Megginson? Butts? Upshaw? Hooker? Crabbe? Hamburger? Thigpen? If Rick had been saddled with one of these weights, he would have had to bear it alone.
I grumble about Shaw, but how many of the family names filtered out by history's roll of the gender dice would have been any better? Savage, Pittman, Gubser, Hutchens; Donaghe, Douthit, Gumm, Cuthbert. None of them would have been much improvement over Shaw if they had landed on me instead.
More interesting is the roll call of rhythmic first names that dot the family tree: Nona, Iona, Corydon, Azariah; Duet and Duetta, Doris, Forrest. In a class by himself, Strangeman.
I chose to change my name to Prelinger in large part because I like its aesthetics. For uniqueness it can't be beat. The echoes it leaves behind are gentle phonemes with positive associations, like ring and praline; ray and linger. Only the phoneme "pray" is complicated by a religious association, but Praying Mantises are fantastic and "pray" can also mean "please."
Liking the name was not the only reason for adopting it, just a necessary precondition for doing so.
Between them my parents have had ten life partnership changes since I was born, counting all marriages, divorces and their equivalents. I had a co-worker once who, like each of my parents, had been married and divorced several times. I asked her why she didn't take the name of her fourth husband as she had with her first three. She replied, "I just get tired of changing it all the time."
Frequent and drastic rearrangements in family structure is something a lot of kids of the '70s had to deal with. Changing my name is one way for me to process that history by symbolically and publicly expressing that, both in spite of that history and because of it, I am ready to make a life partnership of my own, and name it on my own terms. It's my great luxury to be able to make this decision as a free choice.
The name change surely wasn't practical in the short run. Rick and I married each other in Las Vegas, in a $150 deluxe package deal from The Little White Chapel that included three roses and gold-toned wedding rings. What the package left out was a name change kit, which I later found out is standard issue with marriage licenses elsewhere.
The name change process was tedious, confusing, complicated, and drawn out. One thread of research led me to believe that I didn't need to declare the change legally, that it would be valid if I just started using it.
That worked just fine, for almost a year. I changed my name at the bank, I changed my name at work, I told my friends and family. The IRS, however, didn't go for it. They just wouldn't let me file my taxes with a different name than the one that had been associated with my social security number the year before.
When I changed it legally by filing with the social security administration, they were confused that I didn't want to drop my original surname. I didn't want to lose Shaw, just gain Prelinger. Well of course not! I didn't want to stop being Megan Shaw, just expand my name identity to include Prelinger.
And complicating the whole issue is the fact that I'm a published writer. To spare my readers total confusion, I use "Shaw" as a middle name when publishing so that there's some historical continuity in my by-lines (tempting as it may be to distance myself from my early writings!).
The real practicality for me is to not be name-isolated from my spouse. It's a relief not to have to explain that we're of the same family. Post-feminist of me as it may be, I am not just comfortable but thrilled to publicly self-identify with my spouse.
I'm ready to wrap up this essay, but I haven't yet found a way to work in the bit about being descended from Pocahontas. Let's step back for a moment to that second grade playground where we began, where I was called "Maggot Faggot Magon Dragon!"
I didn't know back then that a faggot meant something more than a bundle of wood, and that faggots and dragons are both to be admired. As a high school debater, I could have conquered that bully. I also didn't know that my mom and I are among the tens of thousands of living descendants of Pocahontas and her British husband, John Rolfe. Just imagine the playground cachet! I might have been able to fend off the bullies with that, though I might have grown up dreaming of changing my name to Pocahontasdottir....
Megan Shaw Prelinger is a writer and wildlife rehabilitator in San Francisco. She is a partner in the Prelinger Archives, and moonlights as an outsider librarian. Her projects are online at www.prelinger.net.
Credit: Illustration by Emmett E. Smith from bartenders guide The Customer is Always Right (1936).