Herald Journal Columns
June 12, 2006, Herald Journal

What’s in a name?

By IVAN RACONTEUR

Last Wednesday, I got a new name, or rather, I secured legal status for a name I was already using.

I have retired the name my parents gave me, Dave Cox, and adopted one of my own choosing, Ivan Wodehouse Raconteur.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” the Bard of Avon wrote.

That sounds poetic, but don’t be fooled by the flowery language. It would be a mistake to think that old Bill, with his vast vocabulary, was the least bit careless when it came to choosing words, including names.

Names are important. The way they sound, and the associations we attach to them, do make a difference.

“A self-made man may prefer a self-made name,” Judge Learned Hand wrote.

He was reportedly referring to studio boss Samuel Goldfish changing his name to Samuel Goldwyn.

There are many reasons people change their names, and although it is quite common, people have asked why I chose to make the change, and how I did it.

I’ll start with the how.

How is it done?

To legally change one’s name in Minnesota, one must have lived in the state for six months and must file the application in the county in which one presently lives. One must be at least 18 years of age, but parents or legal guardians can file on behalf of minors

The process takes a couple of months.

The first step is to fork-over the $250 civil filing fee (the courts don’t work for free).

There are several companies that offer, for an exorbitant price, to provide the forms and help with the name change process, but the forms can be obtained from the local court administrator at no charge.

Once the court administrator has received the forms and the fee, the FBI completes a criminal background check.

The application for name change must be made without intent to defraud or mislead.

After the background check is complete, the court administrator assigns a hearing date. Applicants must appear in court with two witnesses over the age of 18, who have known the applicant for at least one year, and are willing to admit it.

If the judge is satisfied that one’s motives are legitimate and no fraud is intended, he will issue an order for a name change.

One then needs to cough up 10 bucks for a certified copy of the order (even copies are more expensive when the government is involved).

Then the fun really starts. One must notify all interested parties, and change all account information.

This includes changing driver’s license, social security registration, passport, tax documents, insurance policies, medical and school records, voter registration, vehicle titles, and account records for any company with which one does business.

Why change?

Names are a very personal thing. There are a wide range of reasons people change their names.

Some people change their names to make them easier to pronounce, or to remove ethnic connotations.

Some people change because they were victims of their parents’ sense of humor (or lack thereof).

Some change because they don’t like the sound of their given name, or to escape negative associations (sharing a name with a mass murderer, for example, could prove taxing).

And, of course, some people change because they want a name that better suits their personality.

On the day of my hearing, the case following mine involved a name change application for a kid who was about eight years old.

He explained to the judge that he had always gone by one name, but this name was different than his given name, which caused confusion at school.

He brought with him not only the two required witnesses, his parents, but trotted out his grandparents as well. No one wanted to be left out, so they all testified on his behalf.

The lad was able to convince Judge Eide that he was not a felon, did not own any real estate, and was not up to any chicanery, and the judge approved the request.

Everyone present in the courtroom, including the most jaded attorneys, and at least one cynical writer, enjoyed the moment when the lad turned around, grinning from ear-to-ear, because the name he used throughout his short life was now legally his.

My situation was similar, in that I have used the name socially and in my writing for a number of years.

Making the change will simplify my life, and eliminate confusion.

Why Ivan?

The name I chose evolved over time.

During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I worked nights at the Duluth News Tribune.

We would often tell stories to pass the time on those long nights.

My first name comes from a legend that I made up to entertain myself and my co-workers.

During the course of the press run, drivers would come into the mail room to wait their turn to get their load of papers for their routes. They generally hung out in the far corner of the room and talked among themselves.

One of these drivers was an especially colorful fellow.

He was a big man, with a thick, black beard. He wore knee-length fur boots, a fur hat, and a woolen coat that reminded me Russian peasants.

I wove together observations and impressions to create stories about this driver’s past.

I told the lads that his name was Ivan, and explained how he had left Siberia to escape the Soviet regime. I told them about his struggles and feats of strength in the old country, and how he had wrestled a bear in the Moscow Circus.

The legend grew over time, and eventually, I came to like the story so much, I adopted the name for myself.

It seemed appropriate, since my maternal grandparents were born on the frozen tundra of Finland, in the shadow of the Russian border.

My new last name, Raconteur, came from the voyageurs, the early visitors to the Great Lakes region.

They worked hard all day, and relaxed at night by telling stories, playing music, and enjoying a libation or two.

These rugged individuals were master story tellers, or raconteurs, and they left an indelible mark on the region.

I like way the two names flow together.

For my middle name, I chose to pay tribute to P.G. Wodehouse, one of my favorite writers. He was a master of the English language, and one of the funniest and most prolific men to ever sit down at a keyboard.

The combination of these elements feels right. I have always been fascinated with words and with writing, and having a literary name of my own choosing seems appropriate. Giving this name legal status feels comfortable, and at this transitional point in life, it was the right thing to do. I am now ready to take on the next great adventure.

Others who have changed

Changing names is not uncommon.

It is not surprising that it is most common among creative types like actors and musicians, but people in all walks of life do it.

One has to admit that some of the names by which we know these people roll off the tongue a bit easier than their given names.

Kirk Douglas, for example, has a different ring to it than Issur Danielovich Demsky.

For most of us, Ted Knight is easier to remember than Tadeus Wladyslaw Konopka.

John Denver seems more appropriate to the Rocky Mountain lifestyle than Henry Deutschendorf Jr.

Chevy Chase seems a fitting name for a comic actor. Cornelius Crane Chase doesn’t quite make it.

The name Edward G. Robinson conjures up a different image than Emanuel Goldenberg.

Charles Bronson is a fitting handle for the legendary tough guy and the only actor to be a member of both “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Magnificent Seven.” Would he have landed these roles if he had kept his given name, Charles Buchinsky?

Sometimes, changing one’s name just simplifies things.

Meg Ryan is much more compact than Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra.

Folk singer Dusty Springfield realized that Mary Isobel Catherine O’Brian was a bit much to fit on an album cover.

The name Gene Simmons may be more suited to the rock musician in freaky makeup than his given name, Chaim Witz.

Danny Thomas is a bit more approachable than Muzyad Yakhoob.

Seven US presidents have legally changed their names, although they tend to be much more conservative, generally changing or rearranging only their first and middle names.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”

Fortunately, today, recovery is easy. If we don’t like the name we’ve got, we can always change it.


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