The Power of Identity: Finding My First Name
I’ve lived my life with the identity and somewhat common first name of Katharine, albeit an unusual spelling in the U.S. My last name, Chestnut, definitely stands out as more unique — and “Chestnut” doesn’t get misspelled like my first one does.
There are a few of the more common versions of the name Katharine, and I’ve seen several of these show up over the years when people attempt to spell my name:
And I often get referred to as “Kathy,” although I’m quick to (politely) correct anyone who abbreviates my name. You see, there’s a bit of history behind the name Katharine, and there’s a reason why I go by my first name in full.
Names and Identity
Our names matter. What people call you and how you’re introduced actually makes a real impact on you — just hearing your name activates significant parts of your brain, telling you to pay attention.
The name that you go by is what distinguishes you as an individual from the people around you. As H. Edward Deluzain puts it, “The name differentiates the child from others; thus, the society will be able to treat and deal with the child as someone with needs and feelings different from those of other people.”
You don’t initially get to choose your name, but you can choose what people call you as you get older. You develop your personality — and your unique identity — over time. How you refer to yourself and introduce yourself is what makes you YOU. “Through the name, the individual becomes part of the history of the society, and, because of the name, his or her deeds will exist separate from the deeds of others,” writes Deluzain.
It’s why people change their names after a marriage (or divorce). How you refer to yourself speaks to who you are, your identity at your core.
And it’s why I go by Katharine.
The Evolution of Katharine
I was named after my maternal grandmother, who I’ve always admired and remembered as the gracious and badass lady who drove an ambulance for the Red Cross during WWII. (Incidentally, this Katharine went by an even shorter version of her name: Kay.)
Katharine is a highly popular girl’s name in English and Irish traditions. My mother, who grew up in the Catholic tradition, bestowed me with the name of Katharine Anne. She wanted my name to reflect the values and spiritual protection of both Saints Katharine and Anne.
“That said, I combined both names into one,” she explains. Because my family moved from Canada to Texas shortly after I was born, Kathy Anne just seemed to fit the Southern culture better than Katharine.
But, if you’ve ever had a longer name, you know how quick adults are to change your name to their liking. “When you began kindergarten the name was shortened by the teachers to just Kathy,” says my mother.
I found out that my namesake, St. Katharine Drexel, was pretty impressive while she was alive. St. Katharine Drexel is the patron saint of racial justice and philanthropists. She’s also the second American saint to be canonized, and was widely known for her impact on education and social justice.
St. Anne is the mother of Mary. That’s right, she’s Jesus’ grandma! St. Anne has an extensive cultural history — there’s almost a cult-like devotion to her in many circles: She even has her own special feast day in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar.
I’m proud to carry both of these names as part of my identity. They both wield their own unique power and distinction.
Claiming a Name for Yourself
As mentioned earlier, I went by the name Kathy as a child. It was shorter to say than Katharine, and my teachers had already been using it in school.
In my 30s, I moved to Boulder, Colorado. I was in a new place, during a new chapter in my life. And I stopped using Kathy because, well, I just didn’t feel like a Kathy any longer. I had been evolving into a new person for years and I started introducing myself as Katharine. It was time to affirm the new Katharine.
Claiming my full name as my own held weight in those moments. I was owning this name: Katharine, even with all of its syllables and its own particular spelling. It wasn’t a new name, so to speak, but it was, and is, important to me that my full name was used (and spelled correctly).
The etymology of a name has always been interesting to me. The name Katharine comes from the Greek katharos, which means “pure” or “clear.” And when I consider how I’ve come to truly own my full name, its origin rings even more true to me, with the pure and clear resonance of a song I’ve always known.
Katharine: It’s a name that feels like home.