Thursday, February 24, 2011

Allow Me to Clarafy

The name “Clara” hasn’t been super popular in America since the 1940s. This is cool because, unlike all my friends named Ashley, I never have to ask, “Which Clara do you mean?”

I’m uncommon in literature also—I show up occasionally in old books as the upstairs maid or someone’s spinster aunt. I never have to worry about being the villain, though I did recently come across a short story in which a college-aged Clara refused an offer of ice cream. That’s tantamount to libel.

The heroine in The Nutcracker is a Clara, of course. Like most little girls I logged several Christmases in a velvet dress watching the children’s ballet with my mom, and I felt a justified sense of ownership over the whole show. My parents found me a pop-up book version of The Nutcracker for Christmas the first year, and when I opened it…

…they had changed the little girl’s name to Marie. The writers must have wanted everyone to think they were French and sophisticated. I just thought they were mean.

I was similarly disappointed last month when I found out that Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was actually named Clarissa. At least she had good taste in nicknames.

Anyway, I’ve still got Clara Bow, leading sex symbol of the roaring twenties, and Clara Rockwell, virtuoso of the sciencey-delightful theremin. I can also claim an 18th-century rhinoceros and a minor planet.

In practice, 40% of the people I meet say, “Ooh, that’s my great-grandmother’s name.” The other 60% say, “Nice to meet you, Claire.”

The real problem with this phenomenon is that I don’t always catch on right away—I tend to just assume that people are mumbly. Then I realize a month later that someone I work with every day has been calling me the wrong name, and how am I supposed to explain that I’ve never corrected it before? It’s a lot easier to ignore it, get incrementally more irritated, complain to outside parties, make 6-inch nametags for my desk, and finally lose all my composure in a poorly timed burst of self-righteousness.

This unfortunate fate befell a very sweet lady at my office last week. I couldn’t bring myself to embarrass her directly about the syllable she’d been missing for weeks, so instead I changed the desktop on our shared computer.

Then I changed it again.

Then I tried some cleverly constructed, loud conversations with nearby coworkers.

Finally, on my way out the door for lunch, she said it one more time.

This is the response I had expected and stayed silent for weeks to avoid:

This is the response I received:

The moral of the story is probably something about bottling up frustration, or assumptions, or possibly listening skills. The lesson I prefer you take away, though, is this:

Also don’t call me Carla.

(P.S. It tickles me to think that, 40 years from now, kids will say, “Courtney?! That’s an old lady’s name! Just like Britney and Krystal.”)


  1. I always get called "Rachel" and I'm not sure why. Old ladies and other demographics have told me "Aw, you *look* like a Rachel!" and I still have yet to figure out what that means.

    Firefox also hates my name. It doesn't like "Rebecca," and proffers "Rebbeca," "Rebbecca," or "Rebekah" as alternatives. Seriously, who spells their name like those first two options??

  2. Those spellings don't make any sense at all.

    My personal favorite was a lady who asked my name over the phone and, once I'd told her, carefully pronounced, "Thank you, Flaa-aah."

  3. your stulpid fat brotherFebruary 24, 2011 at 10:51 AM

    please have more incriminating windows open in your next desktop screenshot.

  4. It also sucks when you have the first name and middle name identity crisis.

    "Well my first name is Casiano, but I've always been called Andres. That's C-A-S-I-A-N-O. But really just call me Andres. Yeah it's my middle name. I don't know my parents always just called me be my middle name! Really it's not a big deal! No Not Andreas not Undress, Ahn-drrrEs. You know what just say it however you like!"

    I do love the computer screen background idea though clara. That is pure genius. And she still said it "wrong?"


  5. Andres, all three other members of my immediate family go by their middle names, so you're not alone. It makes the MVD interesting, though. Also, to be fair, the coworker thing turned out to be more a matter of my not hearing her pronunciation than her not understanding my name.

  6. whenever i hear Sam say your name it always sounds like Care-a no L at all... if i hadn't read previously that it was Clara I would have gotten it wrong too. At least you never have to put up with "fellatia" which sounds like fellatio with an ah sound instead of an O at the end :(

  7. Felycia, neither one of us could pronounce my name when we were little, with the L-free version winning out. And yes, I'm glad that all of the mispronunciations of my name are still appropriate for polite company.

  8. People hear what they want to hear, my dear. I have made a point of telling new acquaintances very carefully and with practiced diction what I would like them to call me, but many respond by asking, somewhat incredulously, questions like, "Suavo?", or "Sappho?" Now, when I get those responses, I just nod, smile, and say, "Close enough..." After years of dealing with those two responses in particular, I know that taking the time to re-state my name will not make any difference to people who, ten minutes later will not be able to recall what the correction was... listening is a lost art!

    I'm pleased knowing that "swafo" will never be considered an old person's name.

  9. Of course, there's always the option of handmade identifying t-shirts. The one my mother keeps threatening to make is, "I can't remember my name--what's yours?"