My name is not Kevin

June 22, 2011 | By | 5 Replies More

Names, names, names. According to the Bible, God gave Adam the power to name the animals, it that’s quite a power, to be able to name things. It’s a special privilege to have chosen one’s own name—I did this when I was 18; I changed my named from “Richard, Jr.” to “Erich.” As fun as it is to rename one’s self, it can be equally perplexing when other people rename you without your consent. Which leads to my story.

Over the years many people have called me by the wrong name. Nothing unusual about that, right? Why is it, though, that about half the time I’m called the wrong name, the wrong name they call me is “Kevin.” It happens at least four or five times per year. It happened last week, and it happened again this morning. In court today, an opposing lawyer, who knew me only by my signed pleadings, walked up, shook my hand and said, “Good to meet you, Kevin?” Do I look like a Kevin? What do Kevins look like? I’m not really annoyed by any of this. It just perplexes me that so many people call me by the same wrong name when there are so many other names they could incorrectly call me. This simply isn’t a random occurrence. Does it suggest mass hypnosis? A prior life? Astral projection?

This wildly skewed incorrect naming reminds me of Paul Churchland’s work on connectionism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Churchland (see The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul: A Philosophical Journey into the Brain, MIT Press, 1995) Perhaps the minds of Americans have distilled something from all of the Kevins of the world and embedded their collective essence into our brains’ middle layers. Regardless, I seem to be a lightning rod for Kevin-ness.

I’ve often wondered whether might be a physical prototype for many names. What does a person named “Robert” look like? It sounds like absurd question, but perhaps you might well have an image of Robert-ness that pops into your head when you think of the name “Robert.” What about Sophie (there seems to be 1000 young girls in Sophie these days). I actually do think I see an image of a “Sophie,” and not any particular Sophie, when I think of the word “Sophie.”

Kevin is not my only other name. For the past few months, I’ve been called “Babe” many times. I currently represent a group of construction workers in a lawsuit, and I’ve spent a lot of time with them. Apparently, it is common among many of the guys in this group of trade workers (painters, plasterers, electricians and roofers) to call each other “Babe.” It is used as a term of affection, e.g., “Catch you later, Babe.” I don’t mind it at all, even coming from some of these hard-working guys. It makes me feel like one of them, part of the group. Not all of them call me “Babe.” Actually none of them call me that nickname when we first meet or first start talking. It’s usually while we’re wrapping up a conversation. And I also hear different levels of formality. Some of my clients are comfortable with me and call me “Erich” (which I invite) while the other half insist on calling me “Mr. Vieth.”

And this is not the first time I’ve been called “Babe.” A female attorney at my office grew up in Kentucky, and has often worked this same term into her hellos and goodbyes: “How’s it going, Babe?” “I’ll catch you later, Babe.” Interestingly, my female coworker doles it out freely, but admits that she doesn’t receive this name well when it comes from a man. I suspect that’s because it’s just too darned close to the sexualized saying, “She’s a real babe.”

In my book, “Babe” is right up there with “Hon,” another term of endearment that regularly get from blue-collar middle-aged women working in retail establishments. “You have a nice day, Hon.” I get that from a lot of middle-aged and older female retail store clerks.

I have two kids in school. One of the schools is a private city school where the teachers, and all staff members, are called by their first names by the kids and parents. It puts everyone on the same level, even the janitor. I’ve seen several prospective parents squawk at this approach—they feel that it is disrespectful. At the other school, there is a strict rule that the kids must call their teachers more traditionally, e.g., Ms. Smith.”

Names have always been tricky for me. On my birth certificate, my name is Richard Vieth, Jr. I was born in the 50s, when some parents still call the kids “Dick.” When I was in the second grade, a couple of kids tell me what “dick” meant, and started laughing. It didn’t take me long after that to start calling myself “Richard.” In my teenage years, people couldn’t help themselves—they often generated new names for me. They changed Richard into “Rich,” “Rick,” and in Spanish class “Ricardo,” or when they were in a schadenfreudic mood, “Retardo Ricardo.” Other names came and went, including the name “Captain” (“Cap’n” for short), which I was often called in high school.

I settled on “Rich” until I was about to attend law school at the age of 18. I saw that as a good window for permanently changing my name to something I liked. I assumed correctly that I was about to have many new acquaintances would know me only as my new name, making the switch-over easy . I decided on Erich, because it shares an etymological root in common with Richard (rex, meaning king — I would now be honorable king instead of strong king). Mostly, I liked the name Erich. I got mixed reviews at home when change my name. My father (recently deceased) stated “I don’t understand it, but I accept it [barely, and actually not really],” while my mother sent out birth announcements indicating that she had a new 170 pound baby boy named “Erich.”  My choice turned out fairly well, in that I seem to be the only Erich Vieth in the United States (though there is one other of us in London-he’s a Facebook “friend” who sought me out because he thought that the two Erich Vieths should be friends).

I went through the name change court proceeding pro se, explaining to the judge that I simply wanted my own name (rather than being a “junior”), and I thought the name “Erich” fit better. Change of name petitions are often granted by the court as long as the petitioners not trying to evade creditors (I wasn’t). By the way . . . there are two ways to change you name in most states. Going to court is one way. The other is simply to start calling yourself by a new name, and that eventually becomes your legal name. Check with a lawyer in your state to make sure this applies to you, if you want to call yourself, e.g., “Kevin.” In fact, that is how newly-married women effect their name change to their new last name (those that choose to change their last names). No court proceeding necessary to change that last name. Same process, though, to change your first name—just start using a new first name.

I remember meeting my then-girlfriend the evening after I went to court. She was more than happy to call me “Erich,” which made me feel like a fraud at first. It was that same night as the court proceeding when I first met her parents and she simply introduce me as Erich, not explaining that my name had been different that morning. I remember shaking their hand and looking them in the eye and that was that. A few reminders to family and friends, and after they knew that I was serious about the name change, they were happy to call me by my new name.

This takes us all the way to present times where I am now known as Erich, but often as Kevin. If the Kevin thing keeps up, though, perhaps I should just give in and change my name to Kevin.

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Category: Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Brian says:

    I laughed when I read this post because I, too, am often called "Kevin" by people, for no apparent reason. My best WAG is that names like yours and mine are just slightly less than ubiquitous, and when people can't remember them they go for something similarly generic but not obvious like Bob, Dave, or Jack (or even your original Richard). If your name was more exotic, it would stick, and if you were a Bob-Dave-Jack it would, too.

  2. Erika Price says:

    Erich: Thank you for this post. I really enjoyed this one, partly because I identify with it so very much. I've known for a long time that you changed your name as a young man, but it's great to hear the depth of what this meant to you and what the experience was like.

    Especially because I have a VERY similar story! I also changed my name at 18- on my 18th birthday in my case. I went about the legal procedure as soon as possible, for a variety of personal and aesthetic reasons, figuring that the time between high school and college would be an ideal moment to make the switch. The only difference is that I changed my last name rather than my first.

    Everyone that has met me as an adult knows me as Erika Price. People with whom I attended high school frequently have trouble locating me because of the switch; when they find out, they ask if I've been married. I had to get a new social security card and a form to staple over my birth certificate, which still reads my birth name. From the moment the switch occurred, my new name has been taken for face value. It's stunning, as you mention, how quickly the shift can happen.

    Some people don't associate names as rigidly with identity as I do; many women change their last names upon marriage with little consideration, for example. But I think a name can be an important signifier of personality, background, values, era, culture, and other little details.

    I'm inclined to always find it inspiring and interesting when a person takes the iniatative to re-name themselves. We are born with our last and first names, and we have no influence over them; they can trap us, or portray us incorrectly. They can suggest familial attachment with which we don't identify. If we have a very common name, it can make us seem uninteresting or undifferentiated. For that reason I'm also inclined to prefer unique names (and unique spellings) to more popular names. Unfortunately, there are dozens of Erika Prices on Facebook.

    A few years ago, I had to reorder checks because my bank messed up and sent me ones with my old name: Erika Bohannon. Every now and then I'll sign a document and a familiar B-scribble-scribble signature will come out of me, unprovoked. Most of the time, though, I forget that I had a different last name and a different sign of familial 'identity' when I was a minor. Some day I will have lived more years as Erika Price- with a name I chose, I 'purchased', I own- than as Erika Bohannon, a name I stumbled into without assent. I feel more 'in control' or 'in ownership' of my own identity (and how it is presented to the world) now that I have a name of my own choice.

    And here I am mulling the issue and wringing my hands over matters of identity when all I changed was my last name! I can't really know how jarring it must have been to change your first name.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Erika: I'm afraid you give me far too much credit for taking the effort to change my first name. Once you are called "Dick" by laughing 9 year olds, it's easy to become disenchanted with that name. And then, even after switching my name to "Richard" and then "Rich," after a couple decades of being called "Richard Junior," a change to those names seemed overdue. I found the thought of changing my name to be invigorating. I had been reading a lot of Nietzsche in college around that time, and I found it exciting to try to define who I was by living a life as much as possible from scratch (I wanted to believe in the blank slate back then–I've become much more humbled in light of my cognitive science studies). Back when I was about 20, I didn't feel much like a "Richard," whatever that might mean. I was feeling very much an outsider from society and my own family (here's a big reason why: http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/07/11/mendi… ). It seemed like a natural step to take to change my name in an effort to hit the "reset" button, and I was more than willing to take criticism for my decision. I did receive quite a few puzzled looks, but when I explained that I wanted my "own" name, and I insisted that this was my own choice, people either celebrated or quietly acknowledged my new name. Those who thought I was insulting my family (especially insulting my father), were mostly silent, though many people expressed concern that I had offended my father, asking me what he thought. I was also studying etymologies back then, and the fact that my new name had a connection with my old name should have lessened the insult to my father, I wanted to believe. http://dangerousintersection.org/2011/01/25/annot… It's funny to think that people change their first names all the time by using a nickname or being called by their middle name. None of this offends anyone I've ever met. But one's given name does seem to bear an aura of sacredness, even essentialism. Shame on me, for being such an iconoclast, then! At least I like to think of myself in this way. Actually, by calling myself an iconoclast, aren't I justifying my icon-shattering ways, and encouraging this state of mind? I'm afraid that tactic has been working, and I seem to be getting more iconoclastic (or perhaps curmudgeonly) as I age. That seems to be going against the trend I observe in most adults.

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    Aaaaaar, Cap'n!

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