Dear Duana,

I don't know if you do these types of requests but figured it was worth a shot. I am six weeks away from starting university at a school where I know almost no one. I'm excited. It also gives me the opportunity to go by a different name which is something I've been thinking over for years really as a lifelong name nerd. I've never liked my name which dwells in the realm of Britney and Tiffany and Ashley. My last name is Germanic-ish and sounds like a predatory bird. Names I adore are Lux (pronounced Luks as my middle school Latin teacher did), Margot, Inez, and variations on Helene/Elaine. My middle name is a Scottish variant (Eileen) that drops the Laine sound I love but is one I'm fonder of than my first name although I like the Irish spelling Aileen better.

I think essentially what I'm doing by writing this email is asking someone not connected to my life, but whose writing I love, to give me permission to go by my middle name or even though I may grow to casually dislike it as much as my given name (and possibly go back) or change it to another variation of Helen. The thing I'm most nervous about is the possible professional confusion from recommendations, previous employers etc. I've always been indecisive and overly analytical (it took me four years to buy the record player I wanted and I have never chopped off my hair and dyed it as much as I want to). It's difficult for me to do something that may make anything harder for some nebulous future. I don't know, Duana. I know what I want but I always worry I won't want it for long enough.

Thank you for listening.


Well thank you for sending this letter – and yeah, I definitely ‘do’ these types of requests. Obviously I love answering Name Nerd mail and picturing tiny humans who are about to be born and named, but I am always particularly glad for letters that let me state my grand name thesis (sing it if you know it): 

Names matter for the duration of your life and come up in all kinds of ways, whether you name your car, your pets, think twice about what your given name says, or why you’ve dated three people with the same name – or even if you play with names professionally. To wit: I went down a Veronica Mars Google hole yesterday (again) and discovered that in the treatment for an unwritten novel which was the germ of an idea for Veronica Mars, writer/creator Rob Thomas (not the Matchbox 20 one) names a character Greta – a name I happen to know he later used for his daughter. If you love a name, you love it.

But you don’t love yours. Ordinarily, in emails like this, I might ask the person to tell us what the name is or to offer a pseudonym – but it doesn’t actually matter what your name is. It matters that it doesn’t mean to you what you want it to. That it doesn’t feel like ‘you’.

The short answer is of course you can go by Eileen, or Aileen. Of course you can! Depending on whether you’re going to do this ‘just’ at school or throughout your whole life, you may have to adjust to people adjusting – that is, it may take people at home a long time and repeated reminders to adjust to using Aileen, longer than the people who meet you as that for the first time. As for the job recommendation stuff, that’s easy. If you’re using references from jobs when they knew you with your old name (henceforth: OldName) you just write your name on your resume like this: 

O. Aileen Lastname

Anyone who calls for a reference is going to say, “Do you know Aileen Lastname? O Aileen Lastname?” Your old boss says, “Oh, I guess so. I know Oldname Lastname. She was fantastic…probably the same person.” You can even put a note beside certain jobs if you really want to, specifying that you used to use another name – but honestly, people will figure it out. And if you’re just going to university now, chances are you’re going to make many more contacts who will know you as your new name, and it will become a non-issue.

Furthermore, I know people who freely go back and forth between two names in different parts of their lives. Similar names, to be sure, but it’s not impossible, as anyone known exclusively by their nickname or surname will tell you.

I am interested, though, in why you think you might not like the name forever, or want to switch back. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and I fully concur that it can be hard to choose your own name out of the millions out there, and I admire people who do it. But I would argue that a name you choose for yourself, that feels like the right name right now, is going to do better for you than a name that you know for sure doesn’t feel right… and you can allow yourself the flexibility to know that maybe Eileen or Aileen isn’t quite right, ultimately, but you can use it as a gateway to Elaine if you want, or you can be O. Aileen or O. Elaine or whatever feels right to you.

At the same time, I think there’s something you should hear, as you go off to school, which for many of us is one of the most freeing experiences of your life – your name is, undoubtedly, one of the most important parts of who you are, and tells people all kinds of stuff about you…

…but it’s not the only thing about you. It doesn’t have to do all the work.

Look, I remember really wanting to get a tattoo at one point in my life, but feeling like I couldn’t choose just one thing that I wanted to represent the part of me that wanted a tattoo. Now, years, later, I realize a tattoo doesn’t have to do all that work, or say anything other than ‘I wanted this, here’. I still don’t have one, but the decision seems less overbearing.

So take the pressure off yourself. If you go by Aileen or Eileen and then go back to your old name, that’s okay. Nobody’s keeping score. If it feels incredibly freeing but you wish it were Elaine, that’s also fine. If you have to explain, when job-searching, that you went by your first name as a kid, this is no big deal.
People have seen a whole bunch of things, and they are not going to be tripped up by this, I promise you. But they are definitely going to notice if you seem confident, happy, and announce your name with confidence, and that’s worth a lot.

Please let us know – and have a great time at school. Your gut isn’t wrong – it’s a great time to start to figure out who you’re going to be – but you don’t have to have it all sorted by the time you get there. I promise.


Here are a  few responses to last Monday’s column, How To Nick A Name

With respect to Mila Quinn, I first thought just nick her as “Q” like James Bond’s Q (creator of all the spectacular gadgets).  If Q is too on point then what about Bond?  It will make no sense (like Flex…) but would be delightful nonetheless.

Also, if the mother despises Mimi then she has to stand firm and never let it slide when used and teach her daughter the same … I was in Grade 12 before a nickname was given to me and still have to correct “Cathy” immediately when someone inanely utters it after being introduced to me by my full first name.


I think the nickname of Madge is cute for Mila Quinn, in the roundabout way it took to get to it.  Or Mi-Q.  That's a hard name to nickname, although I like it very much in its original form!

….and shout out to Chrissy, who was the only one to point out that when I mentioned ‘Tutu Loves Mila’,  I was talking about Swans Crossing (start at 5:00, have your mind blown – yes, that’s Sarah Michelle Gellar! -- and then see your afternoon’s productivity float away…)