We live in a pretty small town, where there are 30 or so grocery stores, maybe 10 or so “good” ones, and whichever we pick there’s a decent chance somebody shopping or working there will recognize us and stop to chat. Bloomington is big enough to have multiple killer libraries (our town library is wonderful, and the university has a huge collection distributed between the main library and several specialty collections), but small enough to know a lot of people’s names.
There are a fair number that I end up going by in this town, though.
Coach Brown: this one is most common, it seems. Which is somewhat surprising — I only volunteer with the running teams twice a week now that we have a kid — unless you pair the scanty volunteering with my being preternaturally shy. That helps explain why the majority of people I know would be from structured encounters.
Doctor Brown: I don’t interact professionally with many other scientists these days (and no way is a buddy calling me up to ask about a technique going to say “doctor”), so this one is used only by K, and by people who work at our bank, and by N’s best friend’s father when he’s making fun of me for being unable to use basic technology. “Shall I show you how to plug it in, Doctor Brown?”
Mister Brown: used by teacher’s at K’s school (they call her “Doctor Milks,” but she has a job. Why would a doctor be sitting at home reading books all day?), and by my voicemail answering machine (the message was recorded for me by a friend shortly before I finished college; my family came into buckets of money that year and my parents gave me a cell phone. And a car. And a warm blanket — my roommate and I kept our apartment pretty cold, so before then I’d only been able to fall asleep while still wearing all my clothes).
Frank: this is what K calls me, and my parents (although their version often appends an “ie”), and our handful of friends in town. It has both upsides and downsides, as far as names go. I like the etymology, and think honesty is a good virtue to strive for. But I wish I could pronounce it better. I have a bit of a speech impediment that’s not so bad when I’m well-rested but flares up when I’m tired. The speech therapist who interviewed every student in second grade specifically mentioned my difficulty with F R sounds after she jotted out a note recommending I be sent to her once a week for the rest of the year. I was supposed to take that note to my teacher; instead I wadded it and tossed it in the trash. For many problems, like bills and court summonses and the like, that solution doesn’t work. In my, case it did. As in, my teacher never knew to send me, the therapist never came to find me. But my solution failed in that I never fixed my pronunciation, and one minor source of awkwardness is that whenever you meet people, you’re supposed to say your own name. So I’m bad at introductions because I’m always worried that I’ll mess that part up.
Mister Frank: used only by my mother.
Doctor Frank: used only by my mother when she’s making fun of me.
Karen: used by debt collectors over the telephone. Someone named Karen must’ve written down my number once. It has been very difficult trying to convince those (beleaguered, underpaid, but also extremely annoying) telephonic representatives of whichever credit agency is upset with Karen that she isn’t me. Might not help that I’ve been claiming to be a man but my voice is higher than K’s (and possibly higher than our daughter’s).
Mister Milks: used by high school students who don’t run track or cross country. This one always makes K happy to hear.
Mister Cloud: used by researchers at the child psychology studies that N participates in (each time she goes, they give her a book!). Although this probably does look like my true surname when my name is written down. I’m a feminist and have never liked the tradition of children preserving only their father’s surname. But, c’mon; would you give a kid the last name Milks? And conferring K’s name would perpetuate the same problem of treating only a single parent’s contribution to be worth celebrating. That’s why we thought N should have a new one…
(and, simply in terms of ritual, I liked the fact that it was after we expanded our family rather than after a wedding that K and I spent an afternoon at the courthouse — I kept chittering, “It’s like my driver’s license is getting a tattoo!” Not that K and I had a wedding. We bought a plane ticket for my little brother to fly out to California, we stood in front of a woman who collects skulls and would’ve been holding one while officiating if only we’d let her know in advance, we were pronounced legally married. Then they drove me back to work, I changed back into my dirtiest shirt — do other people practice olfactory warfare against their advisors near the end of their Ph.D.s? — they waited until my workday was done, then we ate tacos, my brother and I played in a Magic cards draft, K did her grading. Bam! Officially married! Let our tax savings commence!)
…and we picked the name Cloud for her. Clouds are cool, right? And, sure, normally I like Latinate-derived words, whereas this one is from old English for a lump of dirt, but all the Latinate cloud words, things like “nubilate” (for when “obfuscate” isn’t pretentious enough), to me are too strongly associated with “nubile” to be suitable name words (also, seriously, OED? You’re letting me down here — I have the 1971 four-up edition and its “nubile” definition is all about marriageability, no mention of sexuality or attraction. And no explication of the etymology, that before marriage a bride’s face should be nubilated with veil).
Doctor Cloud: I have heard this one only once, used by a telemarketer selling life insurance. Silly telemarketer; I love insurance! Of course I already had a policy.
p.s. K has since pointed out that the use of “nubile” to denote sexual attraction is a recent development. This usage is so dominant now that I foolishly failed to consider that it might not have been established by 1971. Indeed, the earliest citations given in more recent editions of the OED date to 1973. And I don’t know what to make of the fact that sexual attractiveness is associated with slenderness in all the early “nubile” citations — as per Naomi Wolf’s thesis in The Beauty Myth, maybe it’s reasonable to think that the forward push of women’s rights during the same time period is responsible. As women’s choices were less constricted by societal forces, they became more constricted by male gaze. And it feels strange, perusing the dictionary, to see that constriction paired with a cloud-derived word about sexiness — given the cloud association, wouldn’t it be reasonable for “nubile” to make one think first of a zaftig-type beauty?
Although my own mind gets too tangled in knotty remembrances for that to arise first in my conscious mind. Because once I start thinking about clouds and zaftig beauty, a passage from Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (translated by Alfred Binbaum) worms into my mind: “Your plain fat woman is fine. Fat women are like clouds in the sky. They’re just floating there, nothing to do with me. But your young, beautiful, fat woman is another story. I am demanded to assume a posture toward her. I could end up sleeping with her. That is probably where all the confusion comes in.”
Which, again, is hard. Murakami doesn’t accentuate that his other beautiful female characters are slender — he doesn’t have to, since the pairing is so ingrained in most readers’ minds by our recent years’ advertising culture. To the point where using the word “nubile” to describe a woman might well conjure, in many people’s minds, the image of someone who appears sexually immature, i.e., the exact opposite of what the word used to mean.
In any case, “Cloud” seemed like a better surname for our daughter than anything derived from “nubes.”