Call Me by My Name

What’s in a name? Everyone has an opinion.


There was a famous 1967 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Ernie Terrell that’s sometimes called the “What’s My Name?” fight. In a pre-match interview, Terrell insisted on referring to Ali as Cassius Clay. That was the name Ali was born with and started his career with, but he’d changed it after joining the Nation of Islam a few years earlier. Terrell’s refusal to call Ali by his chosen name made Ali so angry that he pummeled Terrell for 15 rounds, saying over and over, loudly enough for spectators to hear, “What’s my name?!”

I learned about this fight by watching Ken Burns’s Muhammad Ali documentary on PBS (which I highly recommend, even if you aren’t interested in boxing). That image of Ali in the ring, demanding that Terrell use his rightful name, has stayed with me.

For Ali, it was about defending the trueness of his Muslim faith, asserting a version of himself that was free from what white people—and the entire boxing establishment—wanted of him. It’s hard to remember now, but Ali was largely reviled at the time for his faith and for being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. It would be another decade before he was America’s hero again. And it would be nearly a half-century until we started having meaningful cultural conversations about the significance of being addressed by the name you want to be called.

We fight to change names and to keep names, to get names back after letting them go, to spell names differently, and sometimes, when you’re the vice president of the U.S., to have people pronounce your name correctly. Americans who are people of color deal with more snide remarks and blatant discrimination related to their names than anyone. Transgender or non-binary people who change their given names also face cruelty and outright dismissal.

But we all have some kind of relationship with the thing we’re called. First name. Middle name. Last name. Initials. Titles. These word identifications feel a bit like memory foam pillows, molding and flexing around us, supporting what we need or who we are becoming.

We all want our name pillows. And yet we’re often reluctant to let others have theirs. Why?

I didn’t change my last name when I married my husband. I was happy to join our finances and tie our lot together, but my name? I don’t think so. Did Rita Wilson become Rita Hanks? Was Joanne Woodward ever widely known as Joanne Newman? No. It’s because celebrities have identities tied to their names, and we know them as that person. I didn’t need to be a celebrity to feel the same way. I knew myself as Judi Ketteler. Why would I change that?

But my attachment to my name is beyond subverting the patriarchy. I’ve tried several times to switch to one of those cute names people have for freelance writing businesses, like Write on Time. I’ve even bought web domains. I had business cards designed once. But I could never let go of my name as the best description of my business, because my business is me. Still, I’ve sculpted and whittled my name as needed. I’m technically Judith M. Ketteler LLC, but no one calls me Judith and my byline is always Judi. In the book I just wrote, the copyright is even Judi Ketteler. So “Judi” is officially more official…except it used to be Judy.

In the summer of 1985, in the months just before I turned 11, I decided “Judy” no longer felt right. The problem was clearly the “y.” Had it been attached to Jenny or Kelly, it would have been tolerable. But attached to Judy, it felt old-fashioned. I played around with a few different spellings, trying Judie—a mimic of Julie—for about a week in June. It felt too cluttered. By July, I had settled on Judi. The stand-alone “i” felt fresh. It was the 2.0 version of me. I got used to writing it. Judi. Yes, this would work!

I started sixth grade as Judi. Teachers were none the wiser, since I was always Judith on their roster. A kid who spelled her name Judi? It was fine with them. At home, though, my family made no attempt to spell it right. I can’t say for sure on what occasions they had to write my name—a birthday card that September, the “to” field on Christmas present gift tags—but I do remember feeling frustrated that I couldn’t get the people closest to me to see me how I wanted to be seen. It took years to get them on board with my renegade “i.” Or maybe just months. Everything is forever to a kid.

So it was interesting when my son, Max—short for Maxwell—came home one day in the middle of fourth grade and told me he wanted to be Maxx. He was a chatty kid who was always making grand pronouncements, like, I’m going to be in the NFL! So I didn’t pay much attention, other than to say, “Why would you want to spell it that way? It’s Max.”

In the spring, his teacher contacted me to ask how she should list his name for the class picture in the yearbook. “He wants it to be Maxx,” her e-mail said, “but I wanted to check with you.” I told her to leave it as Max.

Shortly after that, we were scrolling through Instagram together one night. I showed him a family picture I had posted. “You spelled my name wrong,” he said. I laughed. “Don’t laugh,” he said quietly.

That’s when I realized this wasn’t something he was doing to annoy me. In fact, it had nothing to do with me. It was about him. That your child’s decision isn’t about you is devastatingly hard to accept when you’re a parent.

I thought about my “i” again. What was going on with me at that age? I had just come through a rough year in fifth grade, where I suffered bouts of crying and was teased. I went from flying under the radar as the weirdly sensitive kid to everyone thinking that I was, in fact, weird. I could barely express any of this, because I was raised by people who came from a generation where you didn’t generally express messy emotions. So I started the process of stubbornly taking charge of my identity, and step one was that no one else was going to define me. They could take their “y” and shove it.

I wasn’t sure what motivated Maxx’s decision (his only answer was “I just want to”), but I decided to give it the seriousness I had wanted as a 10-year-old. Four years later, he’s still Maxx. It suits him so perfectly. One little “x” couldn’t possibly contain his wonderful quirkiness.

But I almost missed it. I probably deserved a pummeling, too.

Name-giving is powerful. I watch my daughter, Georgia (who for a time last summer wanted to be called Gia), assign our cat, Madeira, a rotating roster of names like Nugget, Baby, Touts, and inexplicably Pruneville. She and her friends are also in a heavy phase of coming up with nicknames for each other, which I mostly know because I see her contacts through our shared cloud and the names are ever-changing while the numbers aren’t. These code names give them territory to play with identity in a friendly crowd.

Nicknames rooted in the bonds of friendship sometimes stick for life. Like when my brother, Paul, passed away 12 years ago, there were friends of his at the funeral who didn’t even remember his name was Paul. They always called him Buck. “Oh that Buck, he was a character,” they said (replacing “character” with a series of expletives said with deep affection).

Buck was in on it though, the way my daughter is in on it and the way the cat is…well, I’m not so worried about her. Being in on what you’re called—how it’s pronounced, how it’s spelled, and what titles go before and after it—is empowering. The problem is that we can’t seem to shut off that impulse to be in on the conversation when the conversation isn’t actually about us. Since all of us are name-givers at some point in our lives—whether it’s children, pets, or nicknames for friends—we too often make the mistake of overvaluing our own opinion when it comes to other people’s names while undervaluing empathy, humility, and shutting the hell up to listen.

As Jonathan Eig, one of Muhammad Ali’s biographers, has pointed out, Ernie Terrell didn’t necessarily have anything against Ali. Like Ali, he was Black, grew up in the South, and experienced racism daily. He didn’t even seem to have an opinion about the Muslim faith. But he made the mistake of not grasping the significance of Ali’s name change. He should have gotten it, but he didn’t. He screwed up in the way that so many of us do.

But for every misunderstanding, every time you don’t pay enough attention, every person you don’t take seriously—whether it’s your kid or an opponent—there’s a chance to correct your mistake. To make it right. To pay attention. And to say their name.

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