What’s in a name?

Jan 2, 2011 | 5 comments


     One thing about having names like Sydney and Nyel – if people don’t know us, they often cannot determine which of us is which.  When I answer the telephone and someone says, “Nyel?” I know right away that the caller is not a friend. And, in this time of telemarketing and telepoliticking, I immediately become wary.
     I was named ‘Sydney’ after my great-uncle Sidney Worth Richardson who was named after his father Daniel Sidney Richardson.  Had I been a boy, the name would have been spelled with an ‘i’ and I always assumed that mine was the correct feminine spelling.  However, there doesn’t seem to be a rule and, these days, I’ve seen the name spelled Sidney, Cydnee, and Sydni.
     Then, there are the people who have only heard my name and think I’m ‘Cindy,’  an understandable mistake.  Years ago when I worked at Ocean Park School, in the days before intercoms and classroom telephones, there was a Cindy teaching a few doors  from me.  If one of us was wanted in the office after school, someone hollered down the hall.  Invariably, both of us left our rooms in answer to the call; even to us the names sounded alike.
     People mis-hear or mis-remember Nyel’s name, too.  He is called Nils and Neil, but most often Niles like the character in “Frasier.”  When he is introduced, “This is Nyel Stevens,” it’s easy to hear that final ‘l’ and initial ‘S’ slide together and automatically assume he is Nyels.  Unlike my name which comes from family heritage, Nyel has no idea about the origin of his.  His father, not his mother, named him, but where the name originated remains a mystery.
     We try to tell new people, “I’m Sydney like Australia.”  Or, “Nyel – like the river but spelled differently.”  It seldom helps.  Only our closest and best friends ever seem to spell both of our names correctly.  I am most often Sidney while Nyel is usually Nyle, sometimes Nile, and even Nial or Nyall.  Even though we’ve had lifetimes to get used to those problems, we always notice.
     I balk, too, when people call me “Syd.”  I have never, ever suggested that anyone shorten my name to Syd and, frankly, hearing someone automatically nickname me usually produces a frosty response.  I must admit, though, that I was astonished to realize sometime in my thirties that my father always had called me “Syd” and I had never noticed.  Obviously, coming from him it was all right.  But only from him.
     Having out-of-the-mainstream names, also leads to other complications. I remember getting a notice in 1953 to register at the local draft board.  A year later, I was called into the Dean of Men’s office at Stanford for failure to attend gym classes.  In both those instances, it was easy to straighten out the confusion.
     On the other hand, when I was growing up, I never knew another Sydney.  The inconvenience of sharing my name with classmates or cousins was unknown to me.  Ditto for Nyel.  In fact, he has yet to meet anyone else with his name.  That’s an aspect of having a ‘different’ name that is definitely a plus.  Still, I think I would caution prospective parents about name choices for their children.  Different isn’t always a blessing – certainly not when it comes to a name.


  1. Linda J

    I also have a friend named Sidne (pronounced Sydney) and a girlfriend named Stanley (friends call her Stan). Maybe there should be a club for you — “The Boy Named Sue” club?

  2. Stephanie Frieze

    Names. They are how we are identified by the world and how we identify ourselves. As a child I didn’t like my name. I was tall and gangly and my name was long and took a while to learn to spell. On the other hand I never was crazy about any of the nick names people tried to attach to me. Stevie was one, Steph another. I was in high school before there was another Stephanie, but always longed to have one of the names so popular in the ‘50s such as Sandy. Turns out I came close. My father chose his sister’s name, Sandra, and wanted to name me that, too. My mother thought it would be too confusing and nixed that idea right out of the gate.

    And then there was my last name—Frieze. I heard it all in school, primarily from the boys. There was, “What’s your mother’s name? Deep?” When Batman hit the TV line up it didn’t get any better although very small children were impressed that my father was Mr. Frieze. When I married I was happy to change it. Eventually I grew to love both my names and use them just as they were given to me. I know people who disliked their name or names enough to change them, legally. My best friend began calling herself something else when she went t to college and eventually had it legally changed. When she divorced with no children she decided to keep her married name. Her maiden name was Beard and she’d been more traumatized by teasing than I was I guess. When I remarried my husband offered to change his surname. I didn’t want to get off to a bad start with his family and so we decided to just keep the names we brought to the marriage.

    When my daughter-in-law divorced her first husband she decided to take her mother’s maiden name and kept it when she married my son who carries his father’s surname. When their son was born there was hoopla that continues to this day. She wanted the baby to carry her surname and my ex-laws went into a flap that lingers. By the time my grandson was born they’d settled on a hyphenated last name which he learned to rattle off with aplomb, but my husband worries about hyphenated people marrying other hyphenated people.

    I, too, know instantly if someone calling wants money in some way. If they can’t pronounce Haeck or Frieze I tell them goodbye.

  3. John Snyder

    We had a hard time coming up with twin names.
    We didn’t want anything that could be boy or girl names.
    Luckily we didn’t have to deal with the glut of Surnames as first name.
    I wish I had a dollar for each Sydney I have in class!
    We ended up with paired girl names, mixed names and boy names.
    Beth thanks us we didn’t name her Dewey [our boy names were Jackson and Dewey] oops they’re both surnames!

  4. John Snyder

    Jim did a painting called ‘Albert Who?’ That would never happen with unique names like Sydney or Nyel!

  5. Cameron Griffith Herbert

    Sydney; I, too, received a draft notice while in college. I love my name but it sure has given me challenges through the years. While at work one day an elderly customer said she thought Cameron was a man’s name. I said “Didn’t the surgery turn out well?” She always remembered my name from that point on.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *