A few years ago, I met a teenager named Chanel. The second she told me her name, I knew who she was. And that had nothing to do with the timeless luxury brand that makes my favourite sunglasses. Chanel dressed like Paris Hilton. She spoke like Paris Hilton. I desperately hoped she didn’t act like Paris Hilton. Chanel was 16 at the time. She’d probably be around 23 now. I often wonder whether she escaped the assumptions that came with her name or if she predictably became CHANEL, embodying every judgy assumption I had made about her based solely on her birth certificate.
Was I being unfair? Do our names define who we are? This is the question my friend and laineygossip.com collaborator Duana Taha aims to answer in her first book, The Name Therapist: How Growing Up With My Odd Name Taught Me Everything You Need to Know About Yours (Random House Canada). Duana’s childhood name pain can be summed up by a singularly common experience: searching for a souvenir shop key chain. She could never find one with her name on it. I could never find one with mine, either. But unlike Duana, whose glamorously unique name is just too special to be mass-produced, the reason my name is omitted from key chain stands is because it’s old, out of style, uncool.
Elaine has been around forever. According to the baby name site Nameberry, it “entered the Top 100 in the early 1920s and remained there for close to 40 years, peaking at Number 42.” So, basically, never mind the Top 10; Elaine couldn’t even crack the Top 40. By the time I was born, Elaine was for grandmothers and great-aunts. But now, just as your grandmothers’ and great-aunts’ names are trending among hipster parents, Elaine remains excluded from the popularity charts, unworthy of a revival. And, to be honest, I get it. There’s really nothing sexy about Elaine.
In Arthurian legend, Elaine was the mother of Sir Galahad, one of the most prominent Knights of the Round Table, which, you’d think, is kinda badass. But Elaine only got pregnant with Galahad after tricking Sir Lancelot into having sex. Lancelot’s true love was Guinevere. Elaine, then, is the second choice. She’s the girl who has to suffer the indignity of hearing a man moan another woman’s name while he’s inside her. Why would anyone want to name their daughter after that?
On television, Elaine is Jerry Seinfeld’s best friend. She’s a goof with a terrible temper who missed out on sleeping with J.F.K. Jr. Also, she can’t dance. So by classic and contemporary standards, Elaine is kinda lame. At worst, she’s the consolation prize for a medieval hunk. At best, she’s the famous comic’s dorky sidekick. The name even sounds lame, especially when you pronounce it “eeeee-LAYNE” and not the way I prefer it, “ELL-ayne.”
Is it so bad, though, to be the sidekick? I was well-liked in school, and I hung out in different groups with kids who were also well-liked. But I was also never in the spotlight. How could I be, with a name like Elaine? More often than not, I was the best friend of the girl who had the spotlight. The one off to the side, watching other people have a good time.
So I guess it’s probably fitting that I became a gossip columnist. I observe, I write, and I report, online and on television, about other people—but under a nickname, Lainey. Lainey is what my husband started calling me when we first got together. Lainey is now my brand: my blog is Lainey Gossip. I’m referred to as Lainey on eTalk and The Social. What I like about Lainey is that the name seems friendly even though, really, I’m such a critical bitch.
But when it came time to publish my book, Listen to the Squawking Chicken, and my editor asked how I wanted my name to read on the cover, without hesitation, it wasn’t Lainey. It was Elaine. My book is the greatest accomplishment of my life and my parents’ greatest pride. My parents don’t know me as Lainey. They only know Elaine. They love the name Elaine. (Strangely, I’ve never asked them why they chose it.) And every time I see the name Elaine on the cover of my book, in a bookstore, at the airport or in the hands of someone in the audience at The Social who asks for an autograph, in my mind I also see my parents’ names, Bernard and Judy, who made Elaine, and Lainey, possible.
In The Name Therapist, Duana writes that our names don’t have to define us, or at the very least, we can help shape the definition. So, if you are in the market for a name, allow me to make a case for Elaine. Because sidekicks don’t need the glory, but they always keep it real. (Where would Han Solo be without Chewbacca’s honesty?) The heroes will go out in a spectacular blaze. But the sidekicks remain to tell the story. And the one with the story is always the most interesting person at a dinner party.
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