What’s in a name?

In the first week of 2014, we saw a hilarious French movie, called in English “What’s in a Name?”  (The French title is Le Prenom, or given name). This comic contemporary family drama concerns the furor which erupts in a family when an expectant father announces his intention of naming his son “Adolphe.”  The dialogue is fast and furious, flying back and forth at breakneck speed, like an old screw-ball comedy.  Of course, names do have a serious subtext and no doubt, parents invest much thought and many of their hopes and expectations for their child in selecting a name.  Family and world history, personal and global events can imbue a name with pleasant and not so pleasant associations, which theme is exploited to pitch perfect comedic effect in “What’s in a Name?”

Violet Marie Tartar

Violet Marie Tartar (6th grade)

Many years ago ( 40 to be exact, at age 14), I decided to change mine.  I had never been that fond of my given first name,  always preferring my middle name, Marie.  Although Marie is THE most common middle name for girls in the US, it isn’t that usual used as a first name.  So, I became Marie and reduced my first name to an initial which I produced only when required , such as for official documents.  My first name isn’t ugly, difficult to spell or cringe-inducing.  In fact, it is a small, rather pretty, purple flower.  (Yes, Violet).  Now, I love the color purple and am also rather fond of flowers.  So, what was the problem?  Maybe it was just part of my teenage rebellion, but I thought the name was old fashioned, and at least one phrase which incorporated it, “shrinking violet,” really didn’t suit my adolescent vision of myself.  So, it became my little secret.  Few people knew what it was.  In my medical school yearbook, the entry under my name reads “The mystery is solved!  The V stands for …”, which is obscured by an ink blot. (Full disclosure, I was an editor of the yearbook…)

Suddenly, in 2014, this name is appearing wherever I turn.  Every book I read in the first 4 months of this year had a character named Violet.  It is not particularly common; what are the odds ?  The books featuring Violets , in the order in which I read them, are:

Valley of Amazement, our January book club selection, by Amy Tan, opens in 1905 in Shanghai, when the principle narrator, Violet, is the 7 year old daughter of an American woman who owns a high class courtesan house catering both to Chinese and Western businessmen.  As a child, Violet is assured in her role as the pampered only child of a prosperous American businesswoman.  Violet’s world and very identity are later roiled by her discovery that she is half-Chinese, the product of her mother’s ill-fated affair with a Chinese artist whose family will not accept her. Violet falls victim to circumstances and constraints of her time which limit her options, being a woman, bi-racial and undocumented.  I found this commentary about the name Violet from a review of the book by “nicole” on Goodreads interesting:

“Violet” in Asian culture symbolizes ambiguity and ambivalence by its very nature – it is positioned between red and blue, can be variably mixed one way or the other, is therefore uncertain with no clear identity. Violet struggles to find that balance, the universal harmony between the red and the blue ( the yin and yang, respectively).

February’s book club selection, which I listened to driving back and forth to Arizona, was Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell.  This non-fiction work draws parallels from the lives of 6 of the highest profile flappers of the era, drawn from the worlds of entertainment (American actress Tallulah Bankhead, English actress Lady Diana Cooper and chanteuse Josephine Baker), literature (Zelda Fitzgerald and poet and publisher Nancy Cunard) and art (painter Tamara de Lempicka).  The name Violet surfaces as the Duchess of Rutland, the domineering, ambitious and artistic mother of Lady Diana Cooper.

Reading about Zelda Fitzgerald in Flappers and our sojourns in the south of France in recent years led me to Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which opens in the Riviera in the 1920s.  In it, there is a character named Violet McKisko, the wife of a writer who “wrote the first criticism of Ulysses that ever appeared in America,” and a member of a group of vacationers in the Riviera that a pivotal character, a young American actress named Rosemary Hoyt, meets on a beach.  Rosemary later encounters the Mckiskos  at the villa of protagonists Nicole and Dick Diver, and surveying the guests,  characterizes Violet as “the wife of an arriviste who had not arrived.”  The dinner party is marked by an episode which is witnessed by Violet and foreshadows the not-yet-revealed secret at the root of the Diver’s marriage.

Our book club selection for April, The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka, is a collective memoir of Japanese immigrants to California in the first half of the 20th century, a chronical of their experiences as farm workers adjusting to life in the US, up until the internment in WW II.  Second generation children of Japanese immigrants try to smooth their assimilation into American society by adopting American names, with Violet taken up by Sumire as her American name.  Yet another child trying to straddle two worlds…

Meanwhile, while in NYC in May, there is Violet, the musical, on Broadway.  We were already so scheduled with shows that we didn’t have a chance to see it, but it concerns a scarred young woman in 1964, on a journey of self-discovery.

Later in May, Steve collaborates with the Mingei Museum to xray and CT scan African-American dolls by Leo Moss, one of which bears a label on her dress, Violet Mae Collins (1933).

After rarely hearing this name for decades, this was an unusual run.  The books do have in common being centered in the 20s and 30s.

This name appearing at every turn prompted me to ask my mother who came up with it.  Her response:  ” I used to be quite a bookworm and I saw so many Violets in English novels.  Your father and I had an agreement…I picked the names for the girls and he could name the boys.”  My sister also received a literary inspired name, drawn from a novel of the same name: Clarissa. We’re both quite avid readers, so this seems fitting. (My sister, who once worked for Random House, has a NYC  apartment so filled with books that they appear possibly structural.)

Googling the name “Violet” confirmed its English origins.   To my surprise, the internet also led me to statistics indicating this name is rising dramatically in popularity again,  being the 69th most popular name for girls in the US in 2013.  I even found a graph showing it’s popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, followed by a decades long nadir from the 60s until about 2000, with a sharp uptick in popularity since.Graph of popularity of the name Violet in US

While flipping through a magazine on my monthly binge while having my hair done, Violet again surfaces, now as a name for celebrity offspring, including Foo Fighters band founder Dave Grohl, as well as Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck.

While musing on names and their significance, I learned some surprising associations with the name Marie, which certainly were not considerations in deciding to adopt it as a 14 year old.  It is Hebrew in origin, meaning bitter, a fact I certainly didn’t know.  I did know it is a French version of Mary, and was the names of many queens of France, including the ill-fated Marie Antoinette.  A more favorable association, one with particular personal resonance for me, is to Marie Curie, the extraordinary scientist, not only the first woman to win a Nobel prize, but the only person to win Nobel prizes in two scientific fields ( in 1903 in physics for studies of radioactivity and in 1911 in chemistry for discovering radium and polonium).

After 40 years, I’m not contemplating a change back to my given name, despite it’s growing popularity.  It just underscores the “everything old is new again” principle which seems to govern all trends.  Why “come out” now?  Actually, observant friends might have guessed earlier.  My Facebook me-as-headless-mannequin profile picture, taken by Steve when I was trying on a hat in a Coronado hardware store, has a clue readily visible, namely the tag hanging from the hat, on which can be read (Ultra)violet.  Maybe if I had thought of that association so many years ago, I might not have rejected it!


June 2014, post-script:  The ongoing signs from the universe of the ascendancy of the name “Violet” continue. In June, a French film “Violette” makes the rounds of art house theaters.  A few weeks after I see ads for it in the New York Times, it shows at La Jolla Landmark theaters, so of course, I have to check it out.  After a quick Friday dinner at near-by Pho La Jolla (love that Vietnamese BBQ pork sandwich), Steve, Margie, Mike and I saw the film.  It is sumptuously filmed in Paris and Provence, and concerns the life and literary struggles of Violette Leduc, a 20th century French writer with whom none of us were familiar.  We were acquainted with her friend, Simone de Beauvoir, and their friendship and de Beauvoir’s support of Leduc (financial, professional and emotional) as she wrestles with her demons and transforms them into literature form the core of the film’s compelling narrative.  Violette (masterfully played by Emmanuelle Devos) is a difficult character, damaged and needy, but her story and the glimpses it provides of surviving by black marketing in WW II France and of the post-WW II literary world of Sartre and Camus are fascinating.

August, 2014, post-script: And yet more!  In the charming film, “Begin Again”, the teenage daughter of the down-on-his-luck music producer is named (you guessed it!): Violet!

September, 2014, post-script: Our bookclub selects Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami for our next session.  While at Sheila’s house considering our options, I was groping for the author’s name and mistakenly did a phone search for Murasaki, which means purple (or violet!) in Japanese.  When I started to read the book, the opening chapters paint the picture of a young man, abandoned by a group of 4 adolescent friends, all of whom have in common that their family names contain a color, while Tsukuru is in this sense, “colorless.”

At an impromptu dinner party here, our mixologist friends, Marty and Cheryl, introduce us to a delightful cocktail new to us, “Propeller,” featuring 3 drops (no more, no less) of crème de violette, described in the recipe as “a floral and sweet liqueur flavored with violet flowers.”  Apparently, in this form, this is no shrinking violet concoction, as the recipe indicates it should be used sparingly in cocktails, as it can easily overwhelm other spirits.

August, 2015, post-script:  I finally have a chance to see the musical play, “Violet,” wonderfully presented by San Diego Repertory.  Violet is a young woman on a spiritual quest, traveling through the South in the belief that a televangelist can rid her of a disfiguring scar on her face which colors all her interactions with others.  Whether the scar is actual or purely psychic is ambiguous.  On her bus journey through the South in the racially segregated 1960s, she meets 2 soldiers traveling to their new posting, one white, one black, who exert important influences on her.




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6 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

      • You do not have any thing to complain in either names. Since Marie is a good name, do not change your name, again. Talking about names, I felt so sorry about my older brother’s name. He was given the name Shigekazu which no body could read,but few educated Buddha monks. My grand pa Ueno thought his first grandson should have a very special name and asked a certain priest to name him Sigekazu.This name most common people could not read. Some teacher read his name Etta or Keita which made him cry in the class room. My father did not have power to fight with grand pa. But grand pa Ueno let father name all my younger sisters. All my sisters have very common Japanese names,which any body can read. My younger brother was also given very common Japanese name Katsuhiko.My name was picked by Grand Pa Ueno,but I did not have any troubles.

  1. This is the first time I have ever heard this family story! My mother is referring to the kangi (Chinese derived character) spelling of her sibling’s Japanese names. Interesting! Omoshiroi desu!

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