What Did You Call Me? The Name Conundrum

For those of you who have not yet met me in person, the name “Jennifer” probably sounds like a perfectly fine name. A bit common, yes, but nothing out of the ordinary. For my in-real-life friends, it causes a great deal of confusion. “Jennifer S. Brown?” I hear. “Who the hell is that?”

Since I was old enough to vocalize the words, I have complained to my parents about the name they chose for me. “We didn’t know it would be so popular,” my mom said. “We didn’t know any other Jennifers at the time.”

My dad said, “What did you want us to do? Look it up on the Internet? How were we to know? Besides, you were named for my aunt.”

Yes, I was named for my dad’s aunt Jeanette. But you know what my grandmother told me? Jeanette’s real name was Jennie. But she hated the name and so decided upon Jeanette. Was there no lesson here for my parents to learn?

Since fourth grade, I have eschewed the name Jennifer, adopting instead “Jenny.” I refused to answer anyone who called me Jennifer. Jennifer, to me, was a bubbly girl, perhaps a cheerleader, who was popular and knew how to wear makeup. In no way did I feel like a Jennifer. Instead, I was Jenny, the middle-of-the-pack bookworm who took pride in being in the advanced math classes. I became JennyBrown–always said together, practically one word, like Charlie Brown.

The evolution of a name

I didn’t love the name Jenny, but I thought it was an improvement over Jennifer. I daydreamed that my name was Lara. I still have old notebooks with the name doodled on it. I knew that when I grew up, I’d name my daughter Lara. (Note: I did not name my daughter Lara.) I also promised myself that I would marry the first guy with a great last name. Because when you take a first name that was one of the top 20 names for over 30 years (from 1965 to 1998) and a last name that’s the fourth most common name (after Smith, Johnson, and Williams), and you have a world of confusion and mix-ups worthy of a sit-com farce.

In college, Jennifer A. Brown was frequently late on her tuition. I received the collection phone calls from the school office. At 7 a.m. On Saturday mornings.

Those same college years, I had a roommate. Whose name was… wait for it… Jenny. Many a days the phone would ring and some boy would ask for “Jenny.” “Do you mean blonde Jenny or brunette Jenny?” If they weren’t sure, we hung up.

Jenny Brown from Phineas and FerbI could become very existentialist on the question of “Who is Jenny Brown?” Google will tell you: Jenny Brown is an artist, a climate change activist, and the older sister of Django Brown on Phineas and Ferb. She is a veteran who served in the combat zone in Iraq. Jenny Brown is missing. Jenny Brown is British. Jenny Brown makes crochet patterns that spark your creativity. Jenny Brown is a vegan.

While I never changed my name to Lara, I did marry a man with a fantastic last name. If you Google his last name only, people in his family come up. If you search on his first and last name, he is the only one to appear. Yet by the time I married, I was in my early thirties and I had a byline. I wasn’t going to change my name. (True story: I told him I didn’t like that it was automatically the woman who changed her name, and perhaps he should change his name. He declined. I suggested I’d be open to it if it were truly 50-50. I said we should have the DJ say, “Introducing Jenny and Adam…” and then flip a coin. If it was heads, I would change my name. If it were tails, Adam would change his name. Again he declined with some mumbo jumbo about “we both have perfectly fine last names so let’s each keep our own.”) When we had kids, he respectfully said that I could decide whose last name they would have. I angsted–I loved the idea of my children and me having the same last names. But I couldn’t curse them with Brown. Sadly but practically, my children have their father’s last name.

Because I wasn’t a fan of my name, I started publishing my creative work using my initials: J. S. Brown. It felt very literary to me. Like A. M. Homes. C. S. Lewis. Or V. C. Andrews. (Yes, I admit it. I devoured those books in high school.) I always imagined my novel would have those initials on the cover.

I imagined wrong. “You’re not using your initials,” my agent told me.

“Why not?” I asked.

“People use initials when they’re trying to hide their gender. You’re writing women’s fiction. Let your readers know you’re a woman.”

When I thought about it, it made sense. I want people to know who I am. But would I publish under “Jenny”? The same name that connoted that middle-of-the-pack bookworm who excelled at math didn’t have the gravitas I was looking for. Now “Jenny” felt more like the 10-year-old me. So it was Jennifer. And for my last name, there was never an option of using anything else. Like it or hate it, I’m a Brown. Using my middle initial distinguished me just a teeny tiny bit more. (And it didn’t hurt that I was able to get the domain of jennifersbrown.com.)

As more people call me Jennifer, I don’t cringe as much. I no longer assume I’m in trouble. But I’m still getting to used to how it fits.

Jennifer S. Brown. It’s not the greatest name. But it’s mine. And I’ll take it. Though if you meet me in person, go ahead and call me Jenny. Just so I don’t think you’re mad at me.

(Note this is one of 11 songs I know of with my name in it. All written about me, I assure you.)

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 9 Comments

  1. I know what you mean Jennifer – Jenny….. My name is Carolyn, and my name is Carol – same feelings, about being mad at me…its Carolyn my mother used then. But today I love both names…funny.

  2. Wait a minute. They named you “Jennifer” after a relative named “Jeanette”?

    Um. That’s not how naming works. That’s like saying, “We named you Fred after your uncle Frank.”

    By the way, if they had named you Jeannette (two n’s, I know), then you’d share a name with.a very cool comic book character:
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeannette_(comics)

    When I was growing up, the popular Quaker solution for kids was to hyphenate — for them to get both last names. I remember thinking that when those kids had kids there would be a next generation with very long and complex last names. Not a viable long-term solution.

    1. Ah, Anthony, it’s a Jewish tradition! It’s common when you name a child (in the Eastern European tradition) that 1) you only name a child after someone who has passed away and 2) you use the first letter of the person’s name. (I specify Eastern Europe, because Jewish people from different areas have vastly different traditions). So when I was pregnant with my first, we knew we needed an “N” name to honor my grandfather Nathan. If my son had been a girl, he would have been Naomi or Nora after my grandfather.

      As for last names, I never considered hyphenating, because my last name is an adjective and it just sounded weird to me. Again, when I was pregnant with my first, I wrote on a now-defunct personal blog about hyphenating names and I received a comment from someone advising me not to do it. She was a young woman with a hyphenated name, and she said everyone assumed she was married (she was not).

      Jeannette would have been a pretty bad-ass name. Jennifer, though, is not.

      1. Ah, I see. I come from a more simple-minded culture.

        I had an uncle named Frank. His son was Frank Jr., known as Frankie. See, not much subtlety there. 🙂

        Uncle Frank is long gone, so Frankie is now “Frank” (at least to his face — it’s hard not to continue to think of him as “Frankie,” even though he’s now in his 70s).

  3. I howled over Jennifer A. Brown’s collection notices. In high school, beautiful Jennifer Davis (who drove a silver Jaguar to match her silver eyes) was nominated for Homecoming Queen; my friends saw the posters and regarded nerdy, unpopular me with some confusion. Dumb Jennifer Davis got 3 C’s and and F on her report card, which the teacher handed to me, and my valedictorian dreams almost died right then, right there, until I remembered that I WASN’T EVEN TAKING SHOP, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

    My mom swears she never saw “Love Story” and had no idea that another Jennifer existed anywhere ever. And she married a “Davis” (seventh most common U.S. surname) because she was a fool in love. What can you do.

    (Well, in my case, you can hyphenate. Which I did. And now I have to spell my last name for someone, every blessed day of my life. But I was a fool in love, what can you do.)

    xxx

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