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The first time the whole generational name thing really hit me was about 15 years ago. A friend of mine and I were in a downtown coffee shop on a Friday afternoon. I was at the front paying for our coffees and I called to the back: “Hey, Bob, do you want a pastry?” “No, Bill,” he said, “just the coffee’s good.”
The young woman behind the counter, who couldn’t have been more than 20 – but what do I know, any more – let out a shriek. “Oh, wow, are you guys really named Bill and Bob?” Yes, we both nodded. The place was empty so we had her full attention. “That’s awesome,” she beamed, “like something from a movie.”
“Oh, we’re awesome, all right,” I said. “We come from a planet called the fifties.”
She just looked puzzled at that bit of wit, but what the hell.
Since then, the momentum has only grown. As names from the Edwardian era, the Old Testament, different cultures, and made-up monikers roll in – old standards I used to know growing up in Saskatchewan, Bobs, Brendas and Marys – roll out. If I wanted to come in for some heavy teasing back in the sixties, just let the teacher discipline me by calling me William. That got my attention, and everyone else’s. Pity Frederick and Randolph. And there wasn’t a Pam that could bear Pamela. Like the housing developments going up in every suburb in the land, as well as the soulless, box-like schools in which we crammed, we all wanted to fit in, be the same, not stick out.
Now, when someone my age has the bad manners to ask a young parent why they named their child a common name with completely baffling spelling or a name they compounded from the parents’ names, the answer is always the same: “I wanted her to be unique; to stand out.” Anyone who dared do such a thing in the early fifties doomed their child to a schooling in misspelled certificates, awards and – the worst – trophies and team jackets. An “e” on the end of Lynn or another “n” on Glen was hard enough for many teachers and principals. Nobody bats an eye at Bryttnee, now, or Omeah or Beckett, and the coaches know to ask.
The kid across the street who – and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude – helps me with my computer, is William. Never Bill or, ouch, Billy. One of my granddaughters is Adelaide. A grandson is Jonas. And they play with Rhymington, Shridula and Usine.
When I was in Grade 10 the principal could have cleared half the room of boys by getting on the intercom and asking for Bill and Bob to come to the office. From this far-off vantage point I can count six of us, but there may have been more. If he wanted to complete the rout, a call for Gord, Dwayne, Ed and Duke would have done the job. You just don’t run into those names any more, unless it’s a reunion or the class notes in the alumni magazine. I’ve found that a great way to stand out from the crowd at a local hamburger emporium is to use my name, if I have a chance to say it up close to my listener and even spell it. As the Octobers, Beiges, Kylos and Dacres are called for their orders, Bill comes out squat and quaint, like an old Studebaker in the parking lot. But that tactic doesn’t always work.
A few months ago, I called up a local restaurant for takeout service and gave my first name. Down I went to get our meal and milled around at the back door with others waiting for their order. Names were called, people left, others looked peeved to be still waiting. The harried-looking young woman bringing orders asked me my name. “Bill,” I called. “Bill?” “Yes, Bill.” “I have a Dill here. Is there a Dill?” We all chuckled and I asked if it could be for Bill. “Well, it says Dill,” she said. I pushed aside any wisecracks about To Kill a Mockingbird and asked if there was a phone number on it. There was. I gave her mine. We agreed, as did all in attendance who were now loving this bit of relief, that the person who took my order must have misheard my name. “Pretty common name,” mumbled the woman near me, but she looked close to me in age, over 40, like my kids.
This morning, I phoned a local bookstore looking for something for my wife’s birthday. Once we’d agreed the books were there and put aside for me, she asked my name. “Bill,” I enunciated in my best teacher’s/radio commentator’s voice. “Gail?” she asked. “No, Bill,” I said. “Gill?” she tried again. “No, Bill, with a B, as in Bob or Barry.” “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, “Of course, sorry, sorry.” “Don’t worry,” I told her. “Happens all the time.”
When my parents named me after my dad’s cousin, dead in the war, I’m sure they thought they had a pretty safe name, if they thought about it at all. They’re gone, dear old Ruth and Stewart, but their names should be back any time now. I find a comfort in that notion, just as I do when I admit that it’s okay, it’s the way things should be, that my name, and likely I myself, are out of fashion right now.
William (Bill) Robertson lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
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