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My Name

I. Elizabeth

As an adult, I asked my mom why she’d named me Elizabeth. She told me, “Your father picked your name; you should ask him.”

“Dad, why did you name me Elizabeth?” I questioned him a few weeks later.

“I didn’t,” he replied. “Your mother did.”

Classic. I had blindly stumbled into the gymnasium for another wrestling match between my parents. I tried to keep the frustration out of my voice. “But Mom told me you named me.”

An irate expression passed over my father’s face, followed almost immediately by a mischievous one. “Ohh, that’s right,” he said with a sly smile. “I remember now... When you were born, there was this nurse named Elizabeth –”

“Uh-huh,” I interrupted. “Nice try.”

He laughed. I didn’t. Nothing quite like fishing for connection with your dad and walking away feeling alienated. I was panning for meaning in barren soil. My name might as well have appeared on my birth certificate unbidden.

II. Liz

When your government name is Elizabeth, some people are just going to call you Liz. 

The people who call me Liz – the Lizzers – want to be on a nickname basis with me. But paradoxically, they don’t ask what my nickname is. If they did, I would share that I am no Liz and certainly no Lizzy. But the Lizzers don’t concern themselves with my preferences. 

In my particular case, it’s probably for the best. I wouldn’t want to confuse the situation further. Introducing yourself as Ebeth will remind you how confused some strangers become when they encounter an unorthodox name. “Yvette?” they will ask, or “Did you say ‘Eva’?” You spell it out and recount the old legend, but by then you’ve already lost them. Not a great way to make a first impression. 

If you introduce yourself as Elizabeth, however, people usually just shake your hand and smile.

Of course, it’s probably no less disorienting for people to start out by calling me Elizabeth, only for them to learn somewhere down the line that my name isn’t really that at all.

III. Ebeth

When I put it into a search engine, I’m surprised by how much comes up. One baby name site suggests that Ebeth is “an accepted alternate for Elizabeth.” (Accepted by whom, I wonder? The friends and family of one lady in New Jersey?)  Names.org even offers sound bites with its correct pronunciation, though parked at the top of the page is a splashy poll begging the question, “What kind of name is Ebeth?” and the first multiple-choice option is: “I’m not sure.” I’ve also discovered by harnessing the magic of the world wide web that Ebeth is the name of a bioarcheologist in Cleveland, a defunct Scandinavian fashion brand, a kindly Jakartan man with a broken Vespa, and an imaginary emu in a limerick for children. So I guess I’m in better company than I thought. 

 

At any rate, it ultimately didn’t matter who named me Elizabeth, because the story goes that when my parents brought me home from the hospital, my sister immediately dubbed me Ebeth. Caitlin was less than two years old, and couldn’t yet make the “L” sound, so that’s what came out: eee-beth. My parents started using it; then my extended family. When I got to be school-aged, friends would hear my family say it and start to call me by it, too. As a pre-teen, I wanted more agency than that over my own identity. With a name like Elizabeth, there were so many possibilities. Why had no one even considered any of the others? Couldn’t we go back? If a two-year-old named me, couldn’t I, a twelve-year-old, rename myself? Sure I wasn’t a Liz or a Lizzy, but what if I was a Libby or an Izzy or a Bets? For a period of about a year I requested other sobriquets like these to no avail.
 

Objectively, I love “Elizabeth” – a big strong cruiseliner of a moniker, a pleasant combination of disparate sounds. Equal parts old-fashioned and adaptable. Biblical but built to last. But most days it just feels a little too imposing to identify with.

The older I grew, the more Ebeth started to feel like my given name. After all, it was the name that was given to me; we’ll never know who selected the official one. Ebeth is short and sweet, a kindness in front of my sound-it-out surname. It’s unique, a far cry from the zipped-up institution of Elizabeth, and in that way, I think it suits me. So now I am an adult woman who goes by her babyhood nickname. A left-of-center name for a left-of-center lady. 

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