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Not Just Any Tom, Dick or Harry

Anomalous Appellations

By Molly B. Confer

Sticks and stones may break some bones, but names, the saying goes, can never hurt.

But for the dozens of Harvard students whose appellations are a little out of the ordinary, having an unusual name can cause some unexpected problems.

Take Yellow Light Breen '93, whose name comes from a poem his parents wrote to celebrate his birth. Breen--who "just goes by Yellow"--says that the lack of color in the typical Harvard name makes it extremely hard to remember.

Breen says he feels uncomfortable when he can't recollect the names of new acquaintances. Conversely, he says, almost no one forgets who he is.

"I'm the guy with the weird name," Breen explains.

He isn't the only one. Students who push the limits of traditional nomenclature abound on the Harvard campus, and many of them say have to deal with name-related problems on a daily basis.

"Everyone always remembers me, so I feel like I have to do something memorable to go with my name," says Unity Star Johnson '94.

"When I was growing up, everyone in my community knew my name," Caraway Seed '93 says. "Sometimes it's a little disconcerting because a lot of people at Harvard have never met me, but know my name," she added.

"I feel like I'm always noticed because of my name...I want people to know me for who I am," she says.

Seed says her name was chosen by her father, who as a child was often asked "What kind of Seed are you?" In order to save his children from a similar fate, he decided to name three of them after plants: Caraway, Cotton and Huckleberry.

"I guess they just wanted to be interesting," Seed says.

Other parents relied on their sociopolitical leanings in selecting names for their offspring. Johnson describes her parents as "hippies," saying that they named her "Unity" because they were convinced she would be an only child.

"They wanted to get across the idea of oneness," she explains.

Still other parents drew from the world of popular cuilture when choosing names. Essence R. McGill '94 says she was named after Essence magazine--at least according to one version of a family legend.

Not all unusual names are the product of over-experimental parents, however. Season Zeugma Natema Drives-a-truck Ray '94 says her birth certificate gives her name as a simple Season Natema Ray.

The name Season, Ray says, was chosen by her father, Seah Ray. The elder Ray had originally anticipated a son, and planned to dub him "Seah's son"--which was contracted into season when Ray was born, she says.

But Ray says she was unsatisfied with her tripartite appelation, and decided to add a few more names as she went through life.

"Zeugma" is a literary device in which a single verb modifies two distinct objects that do not belong together--as, for example in the following passage from Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock."

Here thou, great Anna! Whom three realms obey

Dost sometimes counsel take--and sometimes tea.

Ray says she received the name from a linguistics professor she once knew. "I'm always making oblique connections, and it sounds good," Ray says.

"Drives-a-truck" is a name Ray says she adopted one night when she was waiting for a group of friends and began playing with a toy Tonka truck to pass the time.

Later that night, Ray encountered some "really, really sleazy guys" who offered to show her their truck. Ray declined the invitation, answering that she had been driving a truck all night.

Ray says she considers the Tonka truck incident good luck, since it allowed her to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. After that night, she says, the name caught on.

When one has a name like "Yellow," "Unity" or "Season," of course, one has to learn to deal with a lot of bad jokes. Breen recalls being called Purple in elementary school. Johnson says that her name has often been distorted into "you nutty." And McGill says jokesters have occasionally dubbed her "Cosmopolitan" amd "Ebony."

As for Ray, she says she receives an inordinate number of "Season's Greetings" requests.

"Usually I tell them to come up with something original," she says.

"I don't let it bother me," Breen says of the occasional taunts. "I'm independent enough that it doesn't bother me."

Generally, Breen says that he tries to act as though there were nothing unusual about his name. He concedes, however, that he has occasionally thought about changing it, but has always decided against the idea.

"To a certain extent," Breen says, "[My name is] kind of reflective of the way I grew up. I've adopted my parent's values. I've come to appreciate its significance. My parents were always trying to achieve a lifestyle more in touch with nature. I don't think I'd be the same with any other name."

"I think that having an unusual name perpetuates a tendency to make one a more outwardly unique person," Johnson says. "All the people who I know with names like that are unique."

And many students say that the benefits of an unusual name outweigh the problems--so much so that they would consider extending the tradition to the next generation.

Johnson says she is currently favoring the name "Persephone" for a girl--or "Harmony" and "Melody" for twins.

"I definitely would try to choose something that has a special relationship to the beginning of their life," says Breen.

"I'm not going to name them Tom or Dick or Harry," Ray says about her children. "I really like the name `Tomato.'" Whatever name she decides on, she adds, "it won't be an everyday name."

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