Personal Post: The Origins of Chemical Names

Having manifestly failed to get out of my bed at a reasonable hour today (we shall not dwell on how badly I failed) I have clawed back a little respectability in assaulting Camden with more good cheer than I think any of the traders who encountered it were really prepared for (I went, dear reader, because I needed to buy more balls. Barbell balls for piercings because, like the elegant and graceful adult I somehow failed to turn into on reaching my 30th, I have swallowed – swallowed, mark you – every single last top ball for my back tongue barbell. I am surprised I don’t clang when I walk). While I was there I stumbled upon a variety of wondrous things, as one tends to in Camden, and overlaid in my mind the way the place used to look, as beyond the bridge especially the place has been rather transformed both by fire and by developers, since I first encountered that magical land in the year 2000. The first was a sterling reminder that Cold Steel in Camden are by far and away the most professional, perfectionist, and friendly piercers I have ever encountered (and I have encountered quite a few, I have a face which does not entirely fail to remind one of a colander).

The second was a book which caught my eye while I was gibbering and stomping through the downstairs stalls in the Stables Market (a hive of mystery, dust, and enormous and frighteningly anatomically correct bronze statues of horses, and one day I am going to inflict my photographic tour of London’s Horse Arse Statuary on you all and then you’ll be sorry). The book in question was, as you may have guessed, the title of this post: the origins of chemical names.

The other thing that happened today was that a courier rang my doorbell, failed to answer me when I asked on the buzzer who was ringing, failed to answer me when I leaned out of the window and shouted down to him to ask what he wanted, but somehow still managed to get me to sign for my new passport.

identification from my passport
The new passports are quite snazzy, there’s a picture of me in there which is made up out of my surname and date of birth.

I am very fond of my name, narcissistically so. It has garnered unbidden praise from strangers on Facebook (friends-of-friends, relatives of friends, one of whom said I sounded like a superhero), and strangers in real life. The reason I am happy with the attention it receives is because I chose it. I worked out the details of the damn thing myself, I lived with variations of it for twelve years and when I finally got to thirty without dying or being murdered for being a deeply annoying person, I changed it legally.

The actual business of legally changing your name in the UK is remarkably straightforward. No lawyers, no petitioning judges, no hoopla and hoohah. The problem is that once you have asserted your statutory right to be known legally by a different name than the ugly unsuited crap-pile your parents lumped on you in a fit of desperation when they discovered they’d made a baby neither of them actually wanted … you then have to notify a long list of people. Happily – and I will say it has been fuss-free so far – the deed poll people include a list of all the agencies who legally need to be notified, how to notify them, and whether they require a legal copy of the deed poll or will be satisfied with photocopies. This has made my life infinitely easier.

The question one is generally asked when one changes one’s name as thoroughly and completely as I have (the fellow at Nationwide looked at the deed poll and actual said: “Blimey, you’ve really changed it!” as if I might have just been in need of correcting 30 years of erroneous spelling) is why, first and foremost, and why this name secondly.

In the culture I live in we look on names, unfairly I think, as a lifelong sentence. Unless you’re changing your marital status or your legally recognised gender (to match your actual gender), or possibly taking on a new name for religious reasons as a friend did when she converted to Judaism, you’re expected to plod along bearing whatever malicious, accidental, trauma-linked, clumsy, silly, show-off, pedestrian, or just wrong name you’ve been gifted at birth. You can acquire nicknames, if you’re that sort of person (I have hundreds, mostly from one friend, all of which are infantile and related to poo or bums because one of the selection criteria for my close friends is “do you have the sense of humour of a twelve-year-old boy?”); but no matter how much of a Jonty or a Clockwork Brian or Nifter or whatever your friends may call you – however comfortable you are with Ophelia or Caz – you are supposed to hang the albatross of David Boggs or Susan Knifeington-Baley around your neck until you are ignominiously buried under it and known to history, if history wants you, by that lump on your personality.

There is a problem in that even if you suit your name as a child you may grow out of it as an adult. People give names to children without considering if they’ll always be the same bundle of fluffy squawling joy they were when they were blessed with the name Timmy. The inverse occurs, of course: people give their children names that belong to the family which they’re expected to grow into, like shoes or raincoats, failing to understand that children grow in unexpected ways and may vastly overshoot Mary in order to be Mirabelle; or indeed that while Ethel may indeed grow up to be able to handle a name with that kind of history she may also be so fucking sick of the taunting about it from her childhood that she’d rather eat a bucket of glass shards than let anyone call her it as an adult.

A name-choosing ceremony would be, all told, a nice rite of passage, a transition from the childhood name given by parents to the adulthood name chosen with a view to the kind of person you’d like to become. Then again, it’s hard enough deciding which A-Levels to take, and the English especially are leery of anything that smacks too much of ritual.

So the answer to the oft-asked why, for me at least: I have never liked the name my mother gave me. I have the story of the acquisition of it to hand: I was three days old, neither of my reluctant parents had managed to settle on a name, my father suggested “Emily”, my mother said “Shit no that’s horrific” and pulled a name out of her ass and my father was already planning to leave her at the time and that’s how I got that name. I didn’t have a middle name because gosh look at the hassle of one name… and my surname was, aesthetically, ugly. It is my father’s surname, and he’s done as he pleases with it. It is linked, variously, with a prestigious jeweller (may or may not be a relation), a cult sci fi writer (my great-uncle), and a serial child molester in Wiltshire (if he’s a relation I imagine my paternal family disowned him quite quickly).  It does not roll off the tongue. It sticks in the palate.

Furthermore, it’s not my name, it’s my father’s name, and while we are on civil speaking terms now we’ve been in a relationship of absences and cyclic hostility for the whole of my life, too similar to excuse each other and just different enough to be incapable of empathy.

In combination those two ugly, unthinking names have been used in connection with all the worst parts of my life. It’s the name they called at the hospital when I was finally wheeled out of a corridor with a damaged liver when I attempted suicide at 17; it’s the name that was shouted in the company of flying furniture as the head teacher of my primary school tried for the whatevereth time that week to frighten me into being a better, less autistic child; it’s a name that was sneered in accompaniment to nicknames like “nigger lips” at secondary school; and it’s the name my mother invariably sighed before “I’ve had enough of you” and being bodily ejected from either the house or the (slowly) moving car. It’s not a name I want and it’s not a name I associate with anything good: it’s the name of an unwanted child. I spent a lot of my youth either trying to convince people to call me “Cathrin” or experimenting with ways to spell the damn thing so that it didn’t look like a blunt dagger in the stomach on the page.

And the strange thing is, I have several friends who share that first name I once had, and on them it is a lovely thing. It fits them like a glove. They have the faces for it, the hair for it, the smiles for it, the exuberance and charm for it.

The second question: why this?

This is a more interesting answer less riven with self-pity and boring chunks of my average but less-than-satisfying upbringing. The whole glorious construction of Delilah Des Anges (less the “Algia”, which is pure indulgence and if you are at all interested is pronounced with a soft “g” and a short “A” and really that should be À in terms of pronunciation but I am not about to start pissing about with diacritics in my own name) is a back-formation. Or rather, two back-formations.

I have been known to a greater or lesser extent as “Del” by anyone I socialised with since about 18. Initially this had nothing to do with Delilah and everything to do with a comic book character a friend thought I resembled; there are friends old enough to remember addressing me as Delirium. Lovely though this name is, I am not in the business of taking after anyone if I can help it, and one cannot precisely convince anyone that one is a serious member of the human race when one takes off introducing oneself as the embodiment of madness, even if one is at the time doing a bloody good job of living up to it (please refer back to aforementioned suicide attempt etc). “Del” however is a thoroughly pleasant syllable and one which was given its own back-formation by two separate circles of friends at roughly the same time. I am still known by a lot of those friends as Derek. Our Derek, Young Derek, Derekles, Dereker, and so on.

I have no memory of when Delilah about as a back-formation of Del: I think someone asked me what my name was short for and suggested it and it stuck, sort of like love at first introduction. I am greatly pleased with it, and I will happily field any number of Tom Jones-related jokes as my biblical namesake was pretty rocking. The apparently inevitable Plain White Ts references however can go choke on a bucket of poo since the song is terribly insipid.

Des Anges is a name I picked up from a friend’s pseudonym and kept when I lost the friend. The angel tattoos on my back which now form a cross (the X axis representing the balance of the emotions and the Y axis the progression of age and decay, which is also a back-formation that I worked out one boiling June afternoon with my much-missed flatmate and egregious American Kyle) were already four in number when I made off with the name in 2003/4. It was the name that flowed from the tattoos, and not the other way around (although it is usually more convenient to tell people I got the tattoos because of my name).

And now I am a superhero with my very musical name. There’s not a single phoneme in it I dislike. I can introduce myself to people and be happy both with their reaction and with the words coming out of my mouth. It is my own choice, my own creation, and much like the tattoos it came after it is the act of dusting off something unwanted and shabby and turning it into something which is no doubt fractured, but far more grand. It is a burlesque of the self; I have upcycled me.

Feels good. Feels very good.


8 thoughts on “Personal Post: The Origins of Chemical Names

  1. This delights me even more, hearing about the “whys” of picking an actual name (I care little about what names come before, although I remain very happy with the one I was assigned) is fun.

    I’ve blogged previously (somewhere, maybe back on LJ when that was a thing) about being RedHillian as well as Tom, and of course of recent years the roller derby world (including your patient boyfriend) know me as Yvel (I of course know him as “Duncan”, which seems very ordinary at first). It’s a thing that comes naturally, and I’ve been using RedHillian for the best part of 16 years now anyway – there are people who know me as it as a first name, and have to think what my other names are.

    I’m also amused about the way that having it on a passport gives it an air of “officialness”, despite what the recognised process actually is!

    But… ‘grats! 😉

    1. Well the passport allows me to enter other countries under my incredible covert identity as myself, even if I no longer have a photograph of me with plastic hair extensions grinning like a pillhead as my official face (apparently that now contravenes the regulations).

      Derby names are another interesting one, I remember when Stef Mainey decided to drop the C-Rex/Correctional Felicity appellation and skate under her own name and how it was a Thing at the time, it seemed like she was making a point of integrating her Derby identity with her rest-of-life one … I guess in the same way this forum I used to frequent generally encouraged people to use their real names instead of usernames and we all ended up calling each other by our surnames as if we were in boarding school. Conflating identities is quite an odd feeling, I think there’s an element of wondering which identity is your “real” one and which is just pretending.

  2. I am so very happy that you got your name! I sort of agree that everyone should have a coming of age opportunity to change their name. Having been on the wrong side of naming a tiny human, now, I can say that picking a name is almost as difficult as growing up into a name (or away from a name, as in your case).

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