What’s in a Name?

Some names pretty well determine your destiny.


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Have you ever wondered what you would be called if you weren’t called what people call you? All my life I’ve been called by my first name, Philip, but now I want to be called by my middle name, Henry, or better yet, Hank. Phil makes me think of someone from Connecticut who went to Harvard. Hank, on the other hand, is reliable, steady, and down-to-earth, the man you call when your car won’t start or your plumbing springs a leak. Some names pretty well determine your destiny. If your parents named you Jeeves, you’re meant to be a valet. If you were christened Bambi, you’ll probably work at Hooters. Hanks work in hardware stores.

People are changing their names right and left these days. A lady in our town named Pat vacationed in India and came back a Taylor, which doesn’t sound Indian at all, but that’s her business, not mine. I know a Mark who became a Mary, so going from Phil to Hank isn’t that big a deal. If I had a child today, I would give it a name that covered all the bases, like Feather or Ocean, perfectly serviceable hippie names that defy categorization.

Some names have been ruined by history, so one must approach name-changing carefully. I know a man born in Germany in the early 1940s whose parents named him Adolf, which was apparently a thing back then but isn’t so much now. In fact, it’s illegal to name your child Adolf Hitler if you live in Germany. In France, it’s against the law to name your child Nutella, a law obviously passed by someone who had never eaten Nutella, the nectar of gods. If you live in Malaysia and want to name your child 007, you can’t. The same for New Zealand and the name Burger King, which makes a lot of sense if you’ve ever eaten at Burger King.

If I were the president, a fantasy I regularly entertain, I would make it illegal to give your kid a stupid name. I would create a list of acceptable names with approved spellings. There’d be no more Megyns or Korbins or Leighlas or Nevaehs if I were in charge. I think we can all agree the United States was better when people had simple names spelled correctly.

I knew Nikki Haley wasn’t going to win the presidency the moment she declared her candidacy. She’s undoubtedly smart, but her name is working against her. First, it’s misspelled. It’s Nicky, not Nikki. Second, it doesn’t sound presidential. Our first woman president needs to have a distinguished name like Elizabeth or Eleanor or Louise. My wife would be a great president, except her name is spelled Joan but pronounced “Joanne.” A president can’t spend half her day telling people how to pronounce her name. Besides, Joan isn’t even her first name, it’s Barbara, a fine president’s name, unless people called her Barbie; then she’d have to work at Hooters with Bambi.

I belong to a motorcycle group called the Quaker Oatlaws. One of our members is named Harold but goes by Mike. Another member is named Nelson but wants to be called Ned. I bet we’re the only motorcycle gang in the world with a Harold and a Ned. If your name is Spike or Mad Dog, give us a call. We could use the help.


Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor and author of 22 books, including the Harmony and Hopeseries, featuring Sam Gardner.

This article is featured in the May/June 2024 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. Couldn’t agree more regarding how moms name their daughters. A naming your is like deciding to get a tattoo. It seemed like a great idea at the time, but then 20 yrs later, you begin to hear “what were you thinking?” That name goes on driver’s and marriage licenses, hospital name bands, prescriptions, diplomas, applications, checks and so many other important documents. These novel spellings parents (read mothers) come up with are obviously designed to create uniqueness. What it does ultimately is create a burden that girl has to bear for life. I knew a lady named Diana. Lovely name, right? BUT IT WAS PRONOUNCED DIANE!?!
    By the way

  2. I’ve gone by “Mike” since High School, but it isn’t my real first name! (And my middle name is “Jones,” after a friend of my parents—how cool is that? Never got called “Jonesy.”)

  3. I was named Patricia because I was born on St. Patrick’s Day. When I was 10, I announced to my parents that I was going to be called “Patti.” My dad said something like, “Are you going to be 40 years old and still Patti with an I?” Jokes on them all because I’m 52 and still go by Patti. I’ve leaned into the name 🙂

  4. You’ve outdone yourself with this month’s feature, Philip. I know a woman named Joanne, and that is her pronunciation. I can’t see Joan being pronounced that way unless a dash was being put in between (Jo-an) to turn the name into Joanne. I’m sure your wife is used to having to explain it. This is awkward. We’ll keep it between us.


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