What’s in a name?
today at 3:11 pm
I count my lucky stars to have been born with a catchy name. When I launched this blog, I toyed with non-catchy titles like “The Essayist” until my friend Marianne suggested I capitalize on my lifelong asset by dubbing my blog “Star Gazing.”
A group of new acquaintances can do no better team-building exercise than to tell the stories behind their names. Trust me: there’s always a story, and those listening will have a far better chance of remembering those names than if they stare at a hello-my-name-is tag for an hour.
The stories can be about first or last names or both. I’ll start with my first name since it comes, you know, first. I was named after my paternal grandmother, Leah, who died two years before I was born. Leah married my grandfather after his first wife died in the flu epidemic of 1918, leaving him bereft with two tween-agers to raise. Leah had lost her husband and six-year-old son in the same pandemic. My grandparents’ union after that terrible time brought my father into the world. But for that earlier pandemic, I wouldn’t be here.
I was named for Leah, but my parents tweaked the name to Leanne. That name sounded modern, forward-looking. In fact, it was so forward-looking that I didn’t meet another Leanne until college. Like me, that Leanne had been named after her grandmother, in this case, Leannabelle, who hailed from the south.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that other Leannes came on the scene in quantity, and they were only babies then. The upshot was that by the time those Leannes — or Leanns and LeAnns — grew up and made their marks in the 2000s, I was a middle-aged woman with the name of someone dewier. Larry Doyle’s 1990 short story “Life Without Leann” features a femme fatale so bewitching that her exes form a support group.
That’s the story of my first name. If you want to annoy me, call me Luanne. Now for my last name. My paternal grandfather, Boris, emigrated from a shtetl in Ukraine to Chicago via Montreal. When he left the old country, his last name was Staroselsky. Like other new arrivals with foreign sounding names, he acquired something zippier in the new country, and a Star was born.
Thus my last name is an abbreviated construct that has nothing to do with my ancestors or with double-R Starrs, like Ringo or independent counsel Kenneth, who spearheaded the Whitewater investigation that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. (For the record, I would have been thrilled to have Ringo as a distant cousin.)
My family made hay with the last name of Star. Memorable and easy to spell — “like a star in the sky,” we’d say — Star made us feel, synonymously, like celebrities. I was a shy child, but I didn’t shy away from being called a star pupil, so much better than being labeled a nerd. When we weren’t fighting, my siblings and I united to play our favorite board game, Star Reporter.
The name Star with one R is uncommon, but it flourishes as a common noun, opening up the door to puns and misinterpretations. Rather than tell callers seeking trash pickup from Star Disposal Company that they had reached the wrong number, my father would say he’d send a truck right over. Plus, the name comes with major swag opportunities. I find it hard to resist jewelry or clothing with star motifs, and manufacturers oblige me by making plenty of it.
“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks in Act 2, suggesting that if Romeo weren’t a Montague, Act 5 would end differently. But names aren’t everything. My name is part of my identity, but only a part. If you want to know more about who I am, listen to the story of my name.