Some of you have never had to ask that question. You’ve never even for a moment considered how you have name privilege and that every gift shop, at every amusement park and tourist trap you’ve ever been to, has your name on some souvenir. Sometimes, it’s a mug; other times it’s a keychain. It could even be a fake mini-license plate for your bike. You, the name privileged, walk into a store, head confidently over to the display of personalized products, and expect to find your name represented.
Then there are those of us who search through the spinning racks with great diligence, time and again, hoping against hope to see our names, only to sigh with disappointment, “Same as always.” We are the ones unseen by the titans of tchotchke-dom, and in all seriousness, we actually do feel a tinge of depersonalization when we come away empty-handed. Some of you, dear readers, know exactly what I’m talking about.
My younger daughter, now age 11, has known this feeling, too, although not as deeply. Her relative youth has protected her from having too many of these experiences. Her name isn’t unheard of, but I know of only one other girl her age with the same name, and even then, it’s spelled differently. So we have never found her name on anything, anywhere.
My older daughter, age 14, would have known the feeling as well had she been born a few years earlier. But she came into this world right when her name was taking off in popularity (although my wife and I insist that we didn’t know any other girls or women with that name at the time). We see her name on souvenirs every now and then.
I confess that I have occasionally wished I had a different name. It’s not really because I can’t find stuff-at-gift-shops-that-I-really-don’t-need with my name on them. It’s because of what that represents – that during my lifetime, I haven’t met many Eugenes my age, so I’ve felt like my name sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb. It almost feels a bit “othered.” On top of that, I’m sensitive to the fact that Eugene has rarely been a “cool” name in our culture. Instead, it’s been overwhelmingly used for geeky characters in shows and other stories, like the nerdy Eugene on Happy Days (who once brought a clean change of underwear for a dozen excessively cool guys he was trying to fit in with, including The Fonz and Chachi).
Other pop culture Eugenes have reinforced the stigma. There’s Eugene from the musical Grease – also a nerd. A Christian radio program for kids, Adventures in Odyssey, had a nerdy Eugene, too. Disney’s Tangled had a Eugene, Rapunzel’s love interest Eugene Fitzherbert; it’s a name so over the top nerdy that the character hides behind an alias, Flynn Rider.
Then there’s Eugene the Jeep from Popeye. What’s a Jeep, even?
Eugene could have been cooler, but famous Eugenes like actors Gene Kelly and Gene Hackman, along with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, dropped the “Eu” in favor of the shorter, more casual “Gene.” Actor Michael Landon abandoned the name altogether. (Yes, he was born a Eugene.)
Statistics say that Eugene’s popularity as a name peaked in the late 1920s – right before the stock market crash. Suffice it to say that America recovered, but Eugene did not.
I’ve made peace with my name, though; more than that, I embrace it! It comes from the Greek eu, which means “good” (as in eulogy, meaning “good word,” and the religious term eucharistic, meaning “of good grace”) and gennao, meaning “to bear, birth, or produce” (as in gene and genesis, referring to beginnings). I am well-born, of good and even of noble birth, with the expectation that my life will bring good and wellness to others. That means a lot to me, and I live every day trying to do that.
I’m also happy to say that I’ve been hearing of some cool Eugenes, none of whom are dropping the “Eu”! There’s actor Eugene Levy (Schitt’s Creek) and media content creator Eugene Lee Yang (The Try Guys). I’ve also met several Korean Eugenes; Eugene is a frequent anglicization of the popular Yoo-jin, which is given to both boys and girls. In fact, K-pop singer and K-drama actress Kim Yoo-jin goes by Eugene – just Eugene. Kinda like Prince or Madonna. That’s pretty cool.
In truth, though I still feel a little bummed when I don’t see my name among the alphabetized mugs at gift shops, I have to recognize that I’ve got some name privilege, too. At least there’s the small possibility I’ll see my mug some day, some where, out there. Many other people of color, like my wife, have names that are transliterated from a language other than English; even if those names are common in their cultures of origin, they won’t ever show up on a pre-printed personalized keychain in English. It becomes a serious issue when their names are consistently mispronounced and even shortened against their will by people who can’t be bothered to learn how to say them (like when someone says, “Can I just call you _____? I can pronounce that!”)
And though I’ve written some of this post with tongue in cheek, I’m dead serious in saying that we who are grown-ups have a responsibility to help kids to appreciate their own names and to respect the names of others. That happens in everyday conversations and teachable moments.
It also happens through wonderful resources like books! One in particular comes to mind for me; it’s by actress and author Sheetal Sheth, who has written an amazing and beautiful picture book for kids called Always Anjali. It depicts a little girl struggling to accept her ethnic-sounding name in the face of bullying at school. The story can encourage children in similar situations, and even help other kids to empathize with those whose names seem uncommon. I highly recommend it!
As our country continues to grow in its multiethnicity, especially now that immigration is opening back up, I hope that both kids and grown-ups will grow in love for their own names, as well as those of others.
I do have one prediction: The name Eugene is going to gain a lot of popularity this year. That’s because of Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, whose courageous and heroic acts during the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. have come to light.
Officer Goodman’s name is actually perfect. Eugene means that his birth was an event fit for nobility; it was good for the world. His last name is literally Good-man, something he has truly been.
Eugene’s a pretty cool name after all.