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Matisse Verheyden tried out the name Maxim full-time for about four months before finally deciding on Matisse.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

"Call me Caitlyn," says the model on the cover of the July issue of Vanity Fair.

It's the unveiling of a new face and identity as a woman for the former Olympic track star previously known as Bruce Jenner. But it wasn't that transition, but the name itself, that caught some people's attention, and not just because she eschewed the classic Kardashian-family K.

Caitlyn is also a relatively new name, one that has hovered near the top of the baby-name charts only for the past decade or so. It's unlikely that a girl born in 1949, as Jenner was, would have been named Caitlyn. "It's one of the hardest things in life," she told Vanity Fair, "choosing your own name." Her assistant said she loved the name Caitlyn, and she took it as a sign.

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What does it mean to name yourself as an adult? Many trans people, like Jenner, choose new names that are popular at the time of their transition.

But there's no limit to the ways to make a name meaningful, say people who have faced this decision. Some reach back into family history, and others want something that reflects a self that no one else has ever recognized.

"It's this amazing moment when someone, and an adult, gets to decide what their name should be," says Hershel Russell, a trans psychotherapist in Toronto. "It's one of the lovely things about being trans."

Vanessa Tara Colantonio, 44, was open to anything when she decided to transition to living as a woman four years ago. But it was harder than she thought to find the perfect name. A librarian, she headed to the baby-name section and spent a day reading through names and their meanings in different cultures.

"I would hold them up to myself, figuratively speaking, and they were nice names but they just didn't seem to be mine," she said.

Then she found two: Vanessa and Tara, both with similar meanings of wittiness, energy, compassion and hope. All she had left to do was choose one for the first name, and one for the middle. "I chose two very optimistic names at a dark time in my life, when my false sense of myself had collapsed," she wrote on her blog.

The names were nothing like her old name.

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"I wanted a break … as in a breaking-off point from my former name, completely," she said. "I never really liked it. It always got stuck in my throat when I said it."

Matisse Verheyden, 25, thought he knew what his new name would be. It wasn't that easy.

"My mom, at some point when I was a kid, I had asked her how she would have named me if I was born a boy, and she told me that they would have named me Maxim," he said. "From that moment that she told me that, it kind of became a name that I would take for myself, like online when I was representing myself in male settings," such as gaming, he said.

At 23, the Montreal man tried out using Maxim full-time for about four months. It didn't feel right.

And becoming the son his parents could have had from birth turned out to be an impossible task. When he mentioned to his dad that he had tried to use "Maxim," his father raised an eyebrow.

"He was like, 'Oh, actually, I would have named you Nicholas,'" Verheyden said with a laugh.

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It wasn't just the sound of the name that needed to feel right. Verheyden wanted a name that started with "M," the same as the name he had at birth. He wanted something that would honour his family's European heritage on his father's side, or maybe his mother's African heritage.

The challenge, in fact, was not to change everything about his old life, but to keep nearly as much as possible from it.

"I initially didn't want to have a whole different name, and I didn't want to be a whole, I don't know, different person, either," he said.

Late one night, his ex-girlfriend suggested "Matisse," and he realized it was an almost perfect anagram of his old name, with just one letter changed. Plus, he's an artist.

"It felt nice because I felt like it wasn't too far away from my birth name, and I felt like it was something that my parents could have picked."

His mother, Sylvia Dekyndt, remembers looking at her newborn baby 25 years ago and choosing a name that felt right on the spot.

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It's hard to let go of a name, especially in French, when all language is masculine or feminine, she said.

"I felt a kind of mourning," she said of the experience. "I cried, actually. Suddenly I couldn't allow myself to remember him as a girl, because I would get all mixed up if I remembered him as a girl – I still called him she, and I still called him [his old name] and it comes naturally. So I had to kind of bury my girl to leave a place for the man to be. So that was the strangest thing, and really unexpected."

But even as his mother she wouldn't presume to choose a better name for her son than Matisse, she said.

"Before he was a really remote person, and low-profile person, not talking much. And now … he's really happy and I couldn't be happier for him," she said.

"The name I gave him is not my property, and my children are not my property. My children are a gift, not my property, and they will never be."

There's no common way to choose a name, said Russell, who has worked with hundreds of trans people.

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When he transitioned in his 50s, he wanted a Jewish name that started with He, to honour relatives with similar names. "The choice was Heime or Hershel, so it was not a hard choice."

The one constant is that many people try out at least one name before settling on their final choice.

"But then for other people they've had this other name for themselves since they were 3 or 4 that's been secret," he said.

Right now he sees quite a few Aidans and Jaydens.

"Hunter seems to be popular."

And for women, "Caitlin's big."

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