What’s in a name?
I am often asked about my name. What’s my real name? It’s Flash. What did my parents call me? Ah, well that’s a different story.
Let’s get it out of the way – I wasn’t named Flash by my parents. Nor am I going to share with you the name they did give me. However, Flash is not a name I chose, it just came to me, and became me. So this is the story of how that happened.
It started as a nickname at primary school. Flash rhymed with a contraction of my birth name. Other friends (Skid Lyd, and less auspiciously Smelly Melly) soon outgrew their childhood names, but somehow mine stuck. After a while it seemed that everyone called me Flash, including the teachers, and I began to introduce myself to people that way. It’s not a name I think is particularly cool, or appropriate, but one way or another it became me, and I stayed with it.
My family often still called me by my birth name, especially my mother. I was always my birth name to my grandparents too, but they were older and I don’t think they’d picked up on the fact that friends now knew me as anything else. But most significantly, whenever I recalled my birth name, I recalled hearing it shouted, telling me off, being in trouble. I didn’t have any positive associations with that name any more.
By the time I finished school everyone knew me as Flash, and through university that was my name – I didn’t even think about it anymore, as Flash was my name, my identity. I’d been signing letters and even bank cards as Flash for years. I no longer used my birth name and where I needed it for official purposes, I just gave my initials. I discovered that the university’s computer system published my name with my email address so I persuaded the system administrator to change my details, on the pretext that I was receiving too much flirtatious spam because my email address could be tied to a female name.
Identity is a very personal thing, and somehow I had become Flash, or that name became me; it was now how I chose to identify. My birth name became my “old” name, one that I didn’t relate to anymore. It was a name I no longer wanted or needed.
I changed my name by deed poll on 23 April 2000, while attending my first full-time job, at Demon Internet. This was something I had considered for a while, as although staff on the ground knew me as Flash, and my email address was firstname.lastname@example.org, HR and other admin staff who hadn’t met me automatically thought of me by my birth name, leading to confusion.
However the real reason was somewhat more humourous… We had just been given a new, and lengthy, way of answering the phone. It would be “Demon at Thus, NOC frontline, Flash speaking” – quite a mouthful. One day a director called, and unbeknown to me was unimpressed at the way I had answered. My boss instructed me that I had to use my “real name”.
My solution for that was simple: I found the deed poll wording online, bought some parchment paper, and printed it out at work. Then I and two friends retired to the pub, where I signed the deed poll, my friends witnessed it, and I placed my seal – a plastic sticker purchased from a stationers earlier in the day. I bought my friends a beer to say thank you.
Over the weekend I again answered “Demon at Thus, NOC frontline, Flash speaking” and on Monday morning I was hauled up in front of my boss. However, I was prepared, and carried a copy of the deed poll. Now, at last, I was answering the phone with my “real” name. Finally, I truly was Flash.
I have always seen the formal adoption of my name as “becoming more me“, a completion of who I am, and I celebrate my “nameiversary” every year. As for the two witnesses, one is still a friend, the other now my husband. They too understand what it meant.
My mother continued to call me by my birth name for a few more years before she started to call me Flash, as she now does without thinking. I can understand that I was rejecting the name she chose, but I hadn’t deliberately picked an alternative, it was something that organically happened, and had now come to represent who I was. In any case, women often change their surname on marriage, and that is not a personal rejection of the name you have been given, but a symbol of your life moving forward and developing – as captured by Philip Larkin in a poem which begins “marrying left your maiden name disused”. I saw this identity change in a similar light.
If I am asked nowadays about my name, the question is usually “were your parents hippies?” Rather than explaining that I have changed my name, I find it easier to side step. I state that “if I’d been a boy, they would have called me Hunter Marshall Stirling” – a true, but irrelevant fact. And yes, my parents were hippies. I’ve seen photos of them in Afghan coats, my mother with Twiggy eye makeup. If I’d been a boy, I’d now be Hunter. Is it so much of a stretch to imagine that they might even have called their daughter Flash?