I reclaimed my birth name – and discovered why what we call ourselves really matters | Life and style

My name is Camilla, so why, for the first 25 years of my life, did everyone call me Mandy? My Jamaican mother loathed the name Camilla. She said my Nigerian father chose the name, but she thought Camilla sounded too damn serious and upper-class. And she was right. Growing up in Luton in the 70s and 80s, there weren’t too many Camillas knocking about the council estates of Bedfordshire. My friends’ names were plain and simple. They were called Debbie, Tracey, Jean. They were easy on the ear. Or their names were culturally appropriate – Jyoti, Shabana, Patience. But Camilla? It might have been the name written on my birth certificate, but my mother had other ideas. She had a plan. And it was hatched in the months after my birth – a new name.

But there were caveats. Unlike Camilla, the new name had to be popular, jolly and understated, with preferably two syllables. So, she drew up a list of potentials: Donna, Paula, Charmaine, Joanne. Then bingo, she came up with the name: Mandy. Not Amanda, but Mandy. Plain. Simple. Easy on the ear, Mandy. Camilla wasn’t changed by deed poll, instead, my unofficial “new name” seeped into everyday life. Mandy seamlessly embedded itself on to the register at primary and secondary school, university and around the water cooler. The name Camilla became a relic of the past, a family joke, dragged out at Christmas like eggnog.

And what about my middle name? Camilla might be quintessentially British, but my middle name isn’t. It’s unashamedly Nigerian, and once my mother divorced the perpetrator of my first name debacle, my middle name joined Camilla in the names trash bin. She said my middle name – Adebisi – “screamed ethnic”, and if I wrote it on future job applications, it would be chucked into the “not one of us pile”. Mum said I should initialise Adebisi. In her opinion, the letter A gave choices. My middle name could be Abbie, Alice, Annie. Plain names. Assimilated names – AKA not foreign-sounding.

Names matter. We all appreciate a good name. They hold a strange fascination and intrigue. When we’re introduced to someone, we can’t help ourselves, we don’t want to, but we form judgments because names carry all kinds of juicy information. Dr Rebecca Gregory from the Institute for Name-Studies says, “Socrates and Plato wrote about names in some of the earliest western philosophy but, historically, given names in the UK were drawn from an established pool of names (an onomasticon), which came from a few main origins: biblical sources, some from classical sources and others from vocabulary words.”

But as we’ve become culturally and linguistically diverse, our naming conventions have changed. They’ve become varied and complex. We’ve witnessed the rise of the wacky name – Solo, Exton, Sixtus. The penchant for creating names from words or places – Apple, Chicago, Atom. Nature-inspired names – Willow, Sky, River. And the biggie – the influence of television on names. As Gregory says, “In 1996, there were no baby girls named Arya in England and Wales, but in 2019 it peaked at 427, and I think we all know why that is.”

Names fall in and out of fashion. My mother-in-law was born in the 1930s and named Shirley, after Shirley Temple, but Shirley is outdated for our modern naming tastes – although there is some appetite for old-fashioned first names with a whiff of a “vintage, royal vibe”. According to the Office for National Statistics, the name Archie leapfrogged into the upper echelons of baby-name popularity courtesy of Meghan and Harry.

But why was the reaction to Camilla so extreme? Why didn’t my mother simply shorten it to Milla, like Becky for Rebecca, Jimmy for James, Tan for Tanya? And why Mandy? When I hit the gobby, hormonal, arms-folded-across-the-chest teens, I asked my mother why she didn’t call me Molly, Maureen or Mary. They possessed the required two syllables. Why Mandy? In response, my mother hummed the song Mandy for a few moments and said, “If it’s good enough for Barry Manilow, it’s good enough for you. You’re Mandy. It means lovable. It’s a great name.”

After that how could I disclose the truth? I liked the name Camilla. It was glamorous. Cool. The name Mandy didn’t fit. Most times I felt like I’d squeezed into a pair of ill-fitting, size-six jeans and the zip was breaking. When I said my name it felt dishonest. I wanted to say, hold on wait a minute, it’s not – I’m not Mandy. But I realised this might sound crazy. So I persevered. Everyone knew me as Mandy. I was Mandy, goddamit.

I made a Herculean effort to love the name. It’s not a terrible name. In my teens, I searched out fellow Mandys, and the only Mandys I came across were Mandy Smith and Mandy Rice-Davies, and I later found out Rice-Davies’s first name wasn’t even Mandy, it was Marilyn. At 18, I went through a phase of Mandy-spelling experimentation. Out went dull Mandy, in came Mandi, then Mandie; I even added a double ee combo at the end; Mandee. I tried shortening it, but Mand didn’t quite cut it.

By the time I got to university, first names got serious. Slews of confident students hung around lecture halls sprouting elongated names with more than two syllables – Alessandra, Henrietta, Viviana. So I thought I’d join them. I took the plunge. I introduced myself to someone as Camilla, only to be told I didn’t look like a Camilla. “What does a Camilla look like?” I asked. They replied, “Red-haired. Pale-skinned. Freckles. Celtic-looking. Wears tweed. Likes Enya. They don’t look like you.” After that, I kept my real name to myself. I didn’t divulge my first name to anyone else except my boyfriend – now husband. On our first date, I blurted out my real first name and he said: “Mandy’s a nice enough name, but Camilla’s beautiful.”

But how could I reclaim Camilla? Everyone knew me as Mandy. The name was intertwined with my sense of self. But was it? Gregory says: “People adapt or change their names to suit the person they turn out to be. They want to use a name that fits their sense of identity.” So that’s what I did. In my mid-20s, I reclaimed my name. There wasn’t any fanfare. There was no Stars in Their Eyes, “Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Camilla,” moment. I told a few close friends. I took a deep breath, explained my complicated name history and said, “Can you call me Camilla, not Mandy?” When I’d finished the feeling was similar to someone placing a warm blanket over my shoulders. For the first time in years my name fitted.

The psychotherapist Sarah Parkin says: “When we feel we ‘fit’ our names, the effects can be hugely empowering and transformational.” And it was, but when you change name midway through your life, there’s bound to be the occasional blip or hiccup. Swathes of friends who knew me as Mandy had to adapt to my new first-name status, and they often forgot. Sometimes I forgot, too. I’d introduce myself as Mandy, then Camilla, and for a while, confusion reigned. Camilla went through a long bedding-in process. For those first few years, it was easier to say, “Call me whatever you feel comfortable with.” Parkin says: “Feeling comfortable with your name signals to the world you’ve found who you truly are.” For me, taking responsibility for my middle name and my actual first name, not a randomly chosen one, felt life-affirming.

But not to one person – my mother. For her, the name Camilla comes with ex-husband baggage. And there’s another, perhaps more significant, reason for her reluctance to call me Camilla – Diana, Princess of Wales. As Princess Diana’s number one super-fan, she finds the name synonymous with Charles’s other woman. This seals the deal for my mother’s anti-Camilla sentiment. No further ammunition is required.

Over the years, I have tried and failed to soothe her anxiety over my real name. On the few occasions she calls me Camilla, my mother morphs into Hyacinth Bucket meets Lady Danbury. She puts on her faux posh voice and, on her lips, my name sounds like she’s caught a rotten oyster in her throat. I might be Camilla to most people, but for her, I will forever and always be plain, simple, two syllables, easy on the ear, Mandy.

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