Changing Names

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This just in: A judge in New York City has rejected a father’s petition to change his son’s name from Francis to Frank. Citing famous Francises in history—Assisi, Sinatra, Coppola—the judge observed that the name has a classy pedigree. And besides, he wrote, the kid can always just tell people to call him Frank. This decision is bad news for our 10-year-old, who has long hoped to change her name from Emily to Emili. She made the switch informally in third grade, when she was look- ing for something more sophisticated. Suddenly, a name rich in literary allusion looked like a typo. My husband and I decided to ignore it. But three years later, the alias is still with us, and she’s conned teachers, friends and relatives into using it.

Many kids try on different names, but, according to Seattle psychologist Laura Kastner, it’s usually a passing fancy. It’s tougher, she says, to quash an alternate identity when it’s been around a while. In other words, we should have nipped this in the bud. (It could have been worse: when Kastner's goddaughter Jane was eight, she changed her name to Roxie — and she’s still Roxie at 15.) If your child’s given name is versatile, you might avoid a permanent name change. Kastner, for instance, preferred her middle name, Scribner, when she was in school. One of my sisters has alternated between Kimberly and Kim. Then there's the always appropriate "You can do whatever you want once you turn 18, honey."

Out of curiosity, I researched what’s involved in changing a child’s name. According to nolo.com, a legal-information website, in most states an adult can make a name change official "by simply using (it) in all aspects of your ... life." Children, however, usually need a court order. Ha! I next learned that our daughter was one of 865 Emilys—there were no Emilis—born in 1989 in Illinois. Because a spelling change doesn’t affect pronunciation, my husband and I can "correct" Emily’s birth certificate for just $15. For $170 we can file a 12-page petition for a name change in the New York county where we now live. No one tracks how many Americans get new names. But a clerk estimates that judges in our county grant several hundred name changes a year—in cases of divorce, marriage, adoption, immigration, even a sex-change operation. Emily had no legal basis for shedding her old identity, but she had a host of emotional needs. Did I mention that the i showed up after our third child was born? Here’s my theory: when we wouldn’t let Emily name the baby boy Ringo, she decided to rename herself.

The sibling rivalry intensified when, thanks to our dog-eared copy of "What to Name Your Baby," Emily discovered that her name means "striving to equal," while her little sister Sarah’s means princess. And with entries like Brandi and Suzi, the book glamorized all names ending in i.

This winter Emily tearfully pointed out that unlike other family members, my husband and I hadn’t written her "real" name on any Christmas gift tags. Since then, we’ve made a half-hearted attempt to respect her wishes, but we're still hoping she'll go back to the y when she’s a little older. Don't hold your breath, says Kastner. "She knows you're resisting. She's saying, 'Embrace my identity. Not the one you gave me; the one I gave me.'" Meanwhile, "Princess" is thinking about dropping the h from the end of her fine biblical name. And we're thinking about suing the authors of that baby-name book. eugenie_allen@yahoo.com