Excerpted from my essay collection, Things You Can’t Un-see.
My husband makes fun of me for my obsession with monograms. After he caught me looking at a rotating display case of silver letter charms at a local boutique, I told him, “If you had the opportunity to name yourself, you’d be obsessed with them, too.”
First day of fourth grade, circa 1997: the teacher takes attendance with strict efficiency. Since my last name begins with C, I am the fifth student called. “Sarah Caplin?” she calls. I raise my hand. By the time she gets to the end of the list, it is apparent that “Sarah” is the female name of choice: there are four Sarahs in our class of a dozen students, which Mrs. F thinks is hilarious. She places us all at the same table: Sarah K, Sarah M, Sarah W, and myself. It was not the first time I had to be differentiated by my last initial, and it wouldn’t be the last.
I was nine; I was already tired of it.
My parents told me, “We just liked the name; we had no idea it would be so popular.” It never occurred to them that giving me a name from the Bible with timeless appeal (why else do so many women have it?) and no pronunciation problems in the English-speaking world would be such a burden to me. And of course they didn’t know any other Sarahs at the time—it appears they were all in utero. According to Social Security records, the name “Sarah” was at peak popularity in the United States between 1980 and 2000. I was born in 1988: an awkward place with Sarahs above me, Sarahs below, and plenty more to grow up with.
Wanting a name to “stand out” is a relatively recent phenomenon. Previous generations not only wanted their kids to blend in so as not to be teased on the playground (and we all know just how cruel kids can be), but passing names down through the family was an important, tangible way to honor deceased relatives.
For a while, my parents were settled on the name Samantha for me. Only toward the end of my mother’s pregnancy did they decide to give me a family name—my great-grandmother’s name. It was the traditionally Jewish thing to do. Where religion failed in importance to my parents, they made up for in keeping the cultural tradition going.
Somewhere along the way, blending in became boring: a generational curse. Now it’s all about uniqueness; making sure everyone remembers who you are. The Internet has helped fuel this “identity panic”: previous generations didn’t have the ability to type in a name on Google, view statistics for how many other babies born that year had it, and then panic that the name has been “taken.”
As an adult introvert, I’m okay now with blending in, but Childhood Me was the opposite. How could I stand out with a name shared by so many?
The older I got, the more I accepted Sarah’s popularity, but the name never felt right. In Hebrew, Sarah means “princess,” which clashed with the “Jewish American Princess” stereotype I sought to avoid all my life. I never felt that “Sarah” aptly described my identity or personality. Names give first impressions before our faces do—on job applications, on the spines of library books.
What we call ourselves matters: names are an indicator of culture, ethnicity, and even socioeconomic status. According to a study referenced in Freakonomics, the name Sarah ranked #1 in middle-income white girl names in 1990, and #4 in the year 2000. But Sarah also had high rankings among lower-income families, too, proving its elasticity across cultural and economic divides—unlike more recent trends such as Madison or Taylor, which rank highest in middle to upper class, white families.
The name Sarah could incite a stereotypical image of a “basic white girl” when people hear it, but statistics prove it’s a name so common that the physical, economic, and cultural traits of women with this name could be literally almost anything.
Even if I did learn to love my name, it would always be disheartening to hear “Ugh, another one!” when meeting someone new. I envied the people whose names invoked responses like, “Oh, that’s lovely. What does it mean? Where is it from?”
In some cases, it’s dangerous to have an all-too-common name. I’ll never forget a story from a friend—we’ll call her Jennifer Smith—who attended college with another student named Jennifer Smith. The latter Jennifer tragically overdosed and was found dead in her dorm room. The school not only deleted the wrong Jennifer Smith’s student record, but also contacted the wrong Jennifer Smith’s parents to let them know their daughter had died. I can hardly imagine the relief—and the grief—such a situation caused, extreme though it may be.
Of course, unique names have issues of their own, as I would later find out. If you don’t like the name your parents gave you, you have two options: come up with a nickname or go to court to change it.
I joked most of my life about legally changing my name: the first time I can remember doing so was around the time of Mrs. F’s fourth-grade class. At that age, Mom and Dad thought nothing of it: I also insisted on being called by the name of whatever Disney princess or book character I was enchanted by at numerous points in my childhood.
It wasn’t until senior year of college after I got baptized that I finally asked my parents for my birth certificate, so I could bring it to court. Since I was twenty-two, their permission was not required. But they were concerned what I would replace Sarah with.
Naming yourself is a serious task. I felt I understood the plight of expectant parents in choosing the right moniker, only I wouldn’t have to worry about a little person hating me for my choice, since I was choosing for myself.
While the idea of changing one’s name is intriguing, there are practical reasons why most people don’t. By the time you are old enough to do so, you’re fairly used to being addressed by that name—as is everyone who ever knew you. How do you train yourself to respond to something different? Would my reflexes always kick in upon hearing my birth name?
For most of my life, I rarely turned around when “Sarah!” was called, unless my last name was also attached, or I recognized the voice. In a school cafeteria, shopping mall, or any place where crowds gather, yelling out a common name causes multiple people to turn around at once. Nine times out of ten, the Sarah being called wasn’t me.
The prospect of training myself to respond to something else was a challenge that I was willing to accept. I could have gone with something completely different. Sometimes I wish I did. A few of my choices were Eliza, Emilia, and Annabel. In the end, I went with something technically different, but not so different that friends and family wouldn’t be able to catch on. I picked a combination of my given name, Sarah Elizabeth: Sarahbeth. Just as Sarai became Sarah after entering a new covenant with God, I too became somebody new to mark this significant change.
It didn’t take long to enter a different world of Name Frustration. When giving my name by phone, I had to give the spiel “It’s Sarahbeth, one word, with an h, no space, no hyphen, lower-case b…” Not surprisingly, there were people who just couldn’t figure it out. To this day, I receive junk mail addressed to Sarabeth, Sarah-Beth, and SaraBeth. Not all my IDs match. I had a boss who called me Marybeth. Maybe I didn’t think this through as well as I should have.
To make my story more interesting, I changed my name again a few years later: my last name. I married a man with the last name Stoneburner; another name made of two ordinary words smushed together. Yes, I am legally Sarahbeth Stoneburner, sometimes mistaken for Sarah-Beth Stone-Burner or Sarah Beth Stone Burner by the companies that send me junk mail. What can I say: I asked for this struggle, didn’t I?
Before getting married, I worked a part-time job in child-care, where I met many adorable kids whose parents saddled them with the most unfortunate monikers. These kids were named for objects, places, and TV characters that will inspire all kinds of cruel jokes. Others were given common names with unintelligible spellings. The issues with my name—both of them— paled in comparison to these little people who would spend their entire lives spelling their names (and then respelling them), putting up with teasing, and getting denied job interviews because of who they are on paper.
I had to wonder about the parents who thought this was a good idea; parents who acted insulted that I could not read the mishmash of consonants on their child’s nametag that was apparently pronounced “Jennifer.”
Being “another Sarah” suddenly didn’t seem so bad.
What are the odds that those parents were all Marys and Johns who wanted a different life for their children than what they had? I could have become one of those parents, exchanging one name problem for another. Yet names constantly wax and wane in popularity. What was popular one hundred years ago could make a comeback tomorrow and end up the top choice of the year. Thanks to the Internet, expectant parents have the ability to check social security records and parenting websites to get an idea of what’s popular, but no one can predict trends with certainty.
Before we started dating, my husband asked if he could call me Beth. “Sarahbeth is too long,” he protested.
I answered, “Sure,” convinced it didn’t matter what he called me, since at the time I assumed we were “just friends,” nothing more.
Eventually it stuck. Beth, to me, grew into a name that conjured an image of a dark-haired book nerd with glasses, which is what I happen to be. It’s a name with an element of mystery: is it short for Elizabeth, Bethany? I have yet to meet a Beth who shares my legal first name. So it is unique still, in a way. Best of all, Beth is a name that is impossible to screw up, and that’s no small thing.
Two years after graduating college, I left my small town in Ohio and started a new life—and a new degree—in Littleton, Colorado. I was as excited by the prospect of a new start and a blank slate as any young adult would be, but the excitement was confounded with the realization that, for the first time, I would be “just Beth” to my new friends. There would be no prior history, no confusion associated with remembering me by a different name.
After a year of flying back and forth over holiday breaks, it became clear every time my plane touched ground in Cleveland that Sarah would always be part of me. Though “SB” was a new family nickname, “Sarah” would always be the default when relatives gathered at Thanksgiving. “Sarah” would be the default whenever I ran into one of my elementary school teachers at the library, the grocery store, or a bar (my hometown is small enough for that to be a common occurrence).
As long as my mother lives there, I will have to maintain awareness that if I do hear someone shout my old name in public, there is a small chance that the person being called to is me. Sure, I’m no longer obligated to respond, but I don’t want to appear rude to former teachers and classmates who may not know.
Sarah itself is not a bad name by any means, but its meaning to my life is bittersweet. She is a critical part of my history, my Jewish ancestry, and a link to my deceased father. Dad chose my name to honor his grandmother, Sarah Kronenberg, even though he never met her: she died when my Grandma Millie was still a teenager, and Millie had no daughters to pass her name to. At the time I changed my name, I couldn’t have known that my father would be dead a few years later, so in hindsight, I’m glad that I kept “Sarah” in my name even if I never use it.
Unfortunately, Sarah is also a reminder of the five years I spent in an abusive relationship with a man who told me, early on, that he had only ever dated Sarahs (h included); not because of a fetish, but by sheer coincidence.
This man didn’t want his Catholic friends and family to know he was seeing a Jew, so my existence had to be a secret: he instructed me to walk several paces behind him the few times we ventured out in public or ignored me altogether if we noticed each other in public spaces. When I visited him at his campus during spring break my freshman year, he raped me. My very self, and my name, it would seem, was disposable.
I hated the spineless jellyfish that I was with him, too weak-willed to stand up for my self-worth. I can’t deny that the end of that relationship and the start of a new one with the man who would become my husband was also a catalyst to start fresh as someone else.
I had a brief love affair with monograms shortly after my name change, now that I no longer despised what my ‘S’ initial stood for: ‘S’ on my purse. ‘S’ gym bag. ‘S’ keychain for my car keys. More permanent is the name “Sarahbeth” emblazoned on the covers of the books I’ve published: it’s the name of my public, professional identity.
I didn’t go ‘B’ crazy when I decided to go by Beth, or rather, as I evolved into Beth. Though I’ve fully embraced her now (yes, odd as it sounds, “Sarah” and “Beth” are two distinguished persons in my mind), I hold on to my ‘S’ paraphernalia as a token of personal accomplishment. Not many people get to do what I did: reinvent themselves tangibly as well as figuratively.
Though few people spell it or say it right the first time, I’m still a tiny bit proud of my creation: less than 1500 women in the United States are named Sarahbeth, according to HowManyOfMe.com. After getting married, I opted not to legally change my first name to Beth as I went through the process of changing my last (a decision that saved me an additional hundred bucks and second court visit). Sarahbeth is a composite of two names, just as I am a composite of my past and present.
I’m still on the fence about having children, but if I did, and if I had a boy, the more I consider naming him David, after my father, who died two months before my wedding. I know it seems hypocritical—I can just picture my future son complaining about having to go by David S in school, but unlike my parents, I won’t be able to hide behind the excuse that “I didn’t know it would be so popular.” I know biblical names have cyclical trends: names that burst in one generation can go obscure in the next, only to reappear as if they were invented yesterday.
But what I understand now that I didn’t as a child is the importance of family history and legacy. Sharing a name, even with millions who aren’t your blood, can be a badge of honor. Not only that, it gives namesakes inspiration to look up to and aspire to become.