What’s in a name?

Ah yes, the age-old question, what’s in a name?

I once recall reading Tony Harrison’s scorchingly, swingeing-ly brilliant poem V. In it (forgive me, because I quote from memory and without access to the poem) he talks about his anger at having his first poem published by a major magazine – perhaps the TLS? – and finding out that his first name ‘Tony’ has been formalised to ‘Anthony’. I remember reading those lines and sharing his umbrage.

How much is in a name? Well, in my case, I think rather a lot. This is because my name, since I have been trying to publish my work as a writer has been mangled beyond all recognition in print or online. I suffer from having one of those working-class, immigrant Irish/Scottish (Irish in my case) patronymic prefix surnames – a ‘Mc’. Not quite the Norman double barrel job that impresses everyone and makes CVs stand out…

First of all, my first name is ‘Richie’, this is the hypocoristic form of ‘Richard’, the name on my birth certificate. This does not mean that you need to add an utterly unnecessary ‘t’ to that, rendering it ‘Ritchie’. If that was the case, then you’d have to spell it ‘Ritchard’.

But this isn’t really the problem, it’s my pesky surname: ‘McCaffery’. Clearly so difficult to spell, my family were once on holiday in Donegal and when the toaster broke, my father went to the local shops in Letterkenny to buy a new one. There, the shop assistant asked for my father’s details for the warranty. I remember the transaction to this day, quarter of a century after the fact. Dad, so sick of having to spell his family name, gave the assistant the same old automatic spiel:

Assistant: ‘Your surname please?’

Dad: ‘McCaffery… that’s M-C-C-A…

Assistant (angry): ‘I know how to spell it!’

What’s more, she still spelt it wrong! And my father, so worn down by a lifetime of having his name spelt wrong, just gave in and accepted her version of ‘McCaffrey’. But I’m not quite willing to give in just yet. I had a stint as a proof reader and old habits die hard, because I still can’t read a book without proofing it. I am incredibly careful with my emails and letters to others because I know a misspelled name might potentially suggest a lack of interest in that particular person. And it is true that generally the superficial readers and sloppy writers will go for the same old wrong spellings of a name. For so many years I’ve had to make do with ‘McCaffrey’, McCafferty’, ‘McAffrey’, ‘MaCaffrey’ etc.

I thought I’d seen it all, until I was a judge recently for a spoken word competition at St Andrews University. Here, in a report of the event and to my horror, I found the names of my fellow judges all spelled correctly, but for some reason my name had transmogrified into ‘Macfarlane’. There is something to be said about old Augustan England’s dismissal of Scottish culture after the Union and its toxic legacy in that simple mistake. Even if the writer had not thought at all, they still unconsciously managed to show that for much of the population all surnames with a ‘Mc’ or ‘Mac’ prefix are much and the same. We might as well moon-light as each other.

But ‘Macfarlane’ I am not, although I love the works of Nan Shepherd, I have no urge to claim finders rights to them!

Yes, to answer your question, there’s a hell of a lot in a name!

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