Monday, June 18, 2012

My Name is Deborah

When I was born, my parents named me Deborah Leigh. At first, the plan was for my real name, the one that people used, to be Leigh. However, I was uncooperative, even as an infant and toddler. You see, I had no hair. When I was two, I had some hair. But I definitely did not have girl’s hair; simply because it had not grown long, it looked like it had been cut into a boy’s style. My parents have told me that strangers would see me and say something along the lines of “What a cute baby! And what’s your name?” Many of you will recognize this as code for “I can’t tell if you’re a boy or a girl, so I need your parents to tell me your name. I can’t ask them, though, because I don’t know which pronoun to use!” People who ask this question in this way are hoping for, and expecting, a nicely unambiguous name: Abigail or Adam, Isabelle or Isaac. Not a name like Leigh. After all, it is Leigh (girl) or Lee (boy)?

After a while, my parents decided to take pity on these unfortunate strangers, on themselves, and on me: They started calling me Debbie. Although they did not change my legal name, they effectively changed my real name. They had this right. They were my parents, and I was too young to know or care.

I was Debbie throughout my childhood and college years. Then I moved across country for graduate school, and several factors combined to motivate me to make a change. I didn’t want to be Debbie anymore. I wanted to be Deborah. Sure, I gave metaphorical passes to those who had known me as Debbie—I always will be Debbie to my parents, my siblings, and most of my friends from my youth. I will be Debbie to those who meet me through these individuals; I don’t expect people who have heard of me only as “my daughter/sister/friend Debbie” and who never have heard me referred to as Deborah to call me Deborah. But to the majority of people in my life now, I am Deborah. Even some of those who knew me as Debbie have made the change, out of respect for my choice or out of recognition that Deborah is, in many ways, a different person than Debbie was. So I effectively changed my real name. I had this right. It’s my name.

Throughout my remembered life, however, others have tried to change my name. When I was Debbie, they called me Deb. When I became Deborah, some (who never knew me as Debbie) called me Debbie, but more continued to call me Deb.

What’s the big deal, you may ask. It’s just a shortened form of your name. The big deal is that it is not my name. It doesn’t matter that it’s a form of it, or that it’s similar. It is not my name.

I’ve lost count of how many times in television and movies, I’ve heard the following interaction, or some variation thereof: We are introduced to a character; let’s call him Mark.  Later, we’re introduced to another character, someone who is a jerk, or who doesn’t like Mark for some reason—someone who wants to insult Mark, or who is supposed to be perceived as extremely arrogant, inconsiderate, and unlikeable. So what exchange does this person have with Mark over and over again? Come on, you know:

“Oh, good to meet you, Mike!”

“It’s Mark.”

“Oh, yeah, right, right. So, let’s get down to business, Mike, here’s what we need to do.”

“It’s Mark.”

“My name is Mark.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry. Anyway, what I was saying, Mike, is …”

There’s a reason this type of exchange is used so much in Hollywood. The refusal to acknowledge someone’s name is a powerful indicator of one’s opinion of him- or herself related to that someone. The one who refuses to acknowledge the other’s name claims superiority, claims a position of supreme authority, by claiming the right to decide the other’s name. And because names are so central to us, when someone claims the right to name you, it feels like that person is claiming the right to define you, to tell you who you are rather than accepting that you are a person separate from who that person needs or wants you to be. It is an act of supreme arrogance.

I understand that most of those who have called me “Deb” throughout the years have not meant to offend. Maybe they’ve known other Deborahs or Debbies who preferred to be called Deb, and they simply got into that habit. Maybe they’re lazy and don’t see a need to say two or three syllables when one will suffice. I would be surprised if any of them consciously believe that they are superior to me. And they all have an excuse—I have not once called anyone on this behavior and said, “No, my name is not Deb. Call me Deborah.”

That stops today.

If you are one of those who has called me by something other than my name, please understand: I am not angry with you. I should have told you before now that I prefer to be called by my name. If you think I don’t mind, if you’ve developed a habit of calling me Deb because you think that’s acceptable to me, that’s my fault. I accept responsibility for my failure to let you know clearly what I prefer.

But from now, going forward, please call me Deborah. Going forward, if you call me Deb, I will correct you. It is not in anger; it is not because you’re not special enough or close enough to me to call me Deb. It’s simply because my name is not Deb.

My name is Deborah.


  1. *hugs*

    I completely agree with you on this one. In my case its people insisting on calling me by my legal name, it irks me more than it probably should... but as soon as they see those two letters on a document or used by a family member (or priest at our wedding) they insist on using it. *sigh*

    I hope I haven't done this to you... I have a feeling I have though (is it on one of your signatures?). Hopefully I'm thinking of someone else!

    1. If you've ever done it, MK, I don't recall.

      About yours, though--I've only seen your name on Facebook and email, so I wondered if your first name was a legal name or a nickname. Now I can guess your legal name :) I've also wondered if you usually go by your first name only or first and middle.

    2. Somehow I missed this earlier lol... sorry! I prefer going by first and middle but do go by first alone too.

  2. Look at your birth certificate. That is your real name, the name you were given at birth. Now you are choosing to be called by that real name instead of the shortened versions so many have used to address you. When you were little, very little, you were called Deborah often, very often, by me (and not always or only when you deserved to be spoken to in a very stern and correcting way). Later I started calling you Debbie all the time when I was with you or with others who knew you as Debbie. I have continued to address you as Debbie because I thought that was the name you wanted to be called. FYI: People I work with who do not know you except by the words that come from my mouth do know you only as Deborah. That is the only name they hear from my mouth when referring to you.

    Good luck on getting everyone to address you as Deborah. It will take time but it can be.

    PS: Everyone new to Michaels life, oh, say for the last 5 to 8 years, knows him as Mike. He has succeeded in changeing his name to almost everyone in his life of today. You will succeed also.

    Good Bye Debbie
    Hello Deborah (again).

    (Does this mean if you do something really bad you should be addressed as Debbie ??)


    1. I actually was using the phrase "real name" to refer to what a person wants to be known by, what the person thinks of him- or herself as, as something separate from a person's legal name. I once knew a woman who had a legal name that no one--not even her parents--ever used; she'd lived overseas as a child and for some reason was called by a different name there, totally unrelated to the name on her birth certificate. When she returned to the States, she continued using the not-legal name. Her real name was the one she used; she eventually, in her 50s, changed her legal name to make it easier on herself to enter into contracts and such, but that only changed her name in the eyes of the law--her real name was and for most of her life had been the one she'd been using.

      Most people do call me Deborah now--just not most of the people you know, since they're the ones that I haven't asked to change. The thing I'm objecting to is people deciding for themselves to give me a name different from the one I told them. "Deborah" is always acceptable; "Debbie" is acceptable from certain people; "Deb" is never acceptable. That was the point, in a nutshell.

    2. If Deborah is preferred, Deborah it will be even if I have your permission to use your childhood name. If a father can use the name his daughter presfers, surely the rest of the world can do the same.

      By the way, I know exactly where that name came from. I like that name.

    3. I think I've made it pretty clear that I'm not asking anyone who was introduced to me as Debbie to switch to Deborah. To say it again, all I am asking is that people call me the name by which I was introduced to them. The reason I wrote this post is to make it clear that I am beginning the process of teaching people not to shorten my name without my consent. I prefer that it not be used to try to browbeat anyone into calling me Deborah instead of Debbie.

  3. This is brilliant - I am a Deborah!

    I do not mind close friends calling me Deb but never, I repeat NEVER, do I introduce myself as Debbie! This was a name given to me as a child but as soon as I was working, I reclaimed my real name....and it felt good!

    Despite my always introducing myself as Deborah, some people out there cannot seem to understand and just start calling me Debbie. I used to tolerate this but now I correct people by saying 'unless you are my mother - you are not allowed to call me that!' This usually has the desired effect.

    Some may find it petty but then how would the Annas feel about being called Ann or the Carolinas being called Karen.

    Thank you for writing this blog - I feel better that I am not the only one!!!

  4. an addendum to my previous reply....

    Another way to guarantee getting my bloody to boil - spell it wrong as Debra *arrrggggghhhhh*


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