The Pains and Joys Of Having an Unusual Name
Got a hard-to-pronounce moniker? Come sit with Caitlin Macy, who spent years learning to love hers.
You are probably under the impression that you are reading an essay by Caitlin Macy. You’re only half right. My name is not pronounced the way it is spelled. Macy is pronounced Macy—like the store—but my first name is not pronounced KATE-lin, as you would expect, but KAISH-lin, as if the “t” were a “sh.”
I was born in 1970. (Often that fact seems like explanation enough for a quirky name.) My mother, Claire—whose own mother had to juggle four children and the relentless housework demands of the 1940s—wanted her children to feel special. She had named my older sister Jeremy. That’s right: my older sister. Of the many ironies that accompanied her decision to call me KAISH-lin, for me one of the most enduring is that the name Caitlin pronounced the normal way was unusual at the time. During my childhood, you could not find “Caitlin” on a mug or a key chain or a pencil set. Of course, by the ’90s, the name was everywhere, in various forms: Caitlin, Kaitlyn, Katelyn. But even in 1970, KATE-lin didn’t satisfy my mother’s yen for an unusual name.
The story my mother tells is that she was reading Dylan Thomas while she was pregnant. Thomas’s wife was named Caitlin. When my mother decided to use the name, her cousin’s wife, who is Irish-from-Ireland (not simply of Irish descent, like my mother) told her that in Irish (or Gaelic, as many call the language in the States), the name would be pronounced KAISH-lin. My mother thought the pronunciation was beautiful, and the rest is history—or it was history, anyway, for as long as the blissful innocence of childhood lasted.
As a kid, I loved my name. A younger sister by one year, I seem to have arrived on earth craving attention. Exactly as my mother had hoped, I loved knowing my name was unique. I loved the extra attention I got when I explained how my name was pronounced. I enjoyed the questions that would ensue, supplying smartly, ”It’s the Gaelic pronunciation.“
I don’t remember when I began to have an inkling that KAISH-lin was not, in fact, the Gaelic pronunciation of Caitlin. Perhaps there’d simply been a few too many indications that my mother, while incredibly attentive and caring and kind, could be a teensy bit vague about details. There was the time in third grade, for instance, when I came home, outraged, from a geography lesson: ”You told me Philadelphia was the capital of Pennsylvania!“ ”Oh well, maybe it was the City of Brotherly Love?“ Mom suggested pleasantly. Or perhaps I’d met another Irish-from-Ireland person who scratched his head when I trumpeted my Gaelic cred.
But I do remember the moment the inkling became hard knowledge. I was in college, studying classics at Yale and feeling insecure about my major and a host of other things. The classics professors were prodigious linguists—most of them read not only Greek and Latin but Hebrew and Sanskrit as well. These were not the days of handling university students like fine china. My adviser said simply to me one day: “You know, your name isn’t right.” He then went into an explanation of the rules of Old Irish, which nowhere allowed for the “t” to be pronounced “sh.” Weakly, I defended my name. After class I fled to the library stacks, where I ferreted out an Irish dictionary. My heart pounded as I flipped the pages with the unfamiliar letters back and forth. My adviser was right. I was a fraud—regarding both my name and the linguistic claims I’d been making.
My mother hadn’t seen much of her cousin Herb, but while I was in college, she got in better touch with him, and during one school vacation, we visited the family in Bethany Beach, Delaware. I was strolling along the boardwalk with Mary, Herb’s Irish wife, who had supposedly told my mother how to pronounce my name. Unprompted, she offered cheerfully, “Now, in Ireland, it would be pronounced Kotch-LEEN.” “Is that right?” I deadpanned. Later, when I confronted my mother, she said, “Well, I didn’t think people would be able to pronounce Kotch-LEEN.”
“And they would have been able to pronounce KAISH-lin?” I gasped with maximum adolescent indignation.
In rare moments I did see the humor. When a new housemate took a phone message for me and wrote, “Cash Land, please call Nicole back,” my friend Anna thought it was hysterical—especially given how poor we were in college—and the nickname stuck. There were a few other benefits. I had met Anna at our freshman dorm orientation because she called out to me, “KAISH-lin?” A mutual friend had told her how to pronounce it. With a name like mine, I always knew who knew me—I still do today.
Any grievance is magnified when you feel that your suffering is unique. College—where my name trauma peaked—was also where I began to understand that I was not alone. Far, far from it. There were the Andreas who were An-DRY-uhs, the foreign students like my friend Yesim from Turkey (pronounced YAY-shim). Even straightforward names could pose a trial: My friend Anna all of a sudden started to be called AHN-uh, as if her name had reinvented itself for its university years without her consent. And college of course was only the beginning. Today, to give but one example of the hundreds I have encountered, there’s my friend Ngan, who has to listen to the daily desecration of her name because it’s difficult for Western tongues to make the Vietnamese “ng” sound. Many of us go by a fake name to function in society without difficulties and undue explanations.
After college, I shared an apartment with a friend from seventh grade who was in the same MFA program. When she called me Caish, my old nickname, it was like the pipes calling from glen to glen of my childhood in small-town Massachusetts—pancakes and puffy down vests and hiking the Presidentials in New Hampshire. Hearing “Caish” on my longtime friend’s lips seemed to wash away the intervening years of uncertainty, explanations, and apologies and restore me to some happy, preadolescent state.
Most fundamentally, a name is what your mother calls you. My mother called me KAISH-lin. In my generation of parents, everyone’s kid has an unusual name. My mother was in the vanguard of many things: In the 1970s she was already preaching nutrition and making baba ghanoush, campaigning for car-seat laws to be passed, and regularly going to the principal’s office to make sure school was sufficiently challenging for me and Jem (the nickname my sister adopted to get around “Jeremy”).
When you have children, you have the notion that you can take the good parts of your childhood and combine them with the wisdom you’ve gained in adulthood for a best-of-both-worlds outcome. I would be attentive like my mother, but one thing I wouldn’t do was choose a difficult name for my children—goodness, no. When my daughter was born, I had a nice, traditional name in mind: Violet, after my mother’s grandmother. Here was a lovely name that people could pronounce and that would never give her trouble. The day we brought our baby home from the hospital, a neighbor stopped us. “She’s not going to be a shrinking violet, is she?” he quipped. I stared. Until that moment, it never occurred to me how a name gets away from a parent once it is in the world.
Like my mother, I now have two daughters. Just the other day, my younger one, named after my great-great-grandmother Amelia, was flipping through her school’s address book. Noting the number of Amelias, she said wistfully, “I wish I had a more unusual name.”
I froze as half a dozen speeches sprang to my lips. After a minute, I said, ”Yeah, I can see that."