Something About My Name

This morning I listened to the recent BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour episode about first names.

I’ve always been interested in the meanings and origins of names. And I like knowing how people get their names, or choose their children’s names. I was nearly named Diana, but my uncle’s then-wife protested, saying it sounded like the name of a ‘working’ girl. Apparently Malaysian women who worked in bars in the 60s (they were referred to as bar girls) were called Suzie, Maggie, Lucy, Alice, Diana etc. (my great grandmother was called Lucy, and my grandmother Alice – I don’t know what my uncle’s then-wife had to say about that!). I don’t like Diana, but it’s not for that reason. I just don’t like the way it sounds and I can’t imagine being a Diana. I don’t, in my opinion, seem like a Diana; or look like one. Do I look like a Daphne?

Daphne du Maurier: This picture reminds me of my mother who was a smoker and often cooked with a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth.

Daphne was chosen as my name because my uncle’s then-wife, my mother and her sisters had all read and liked Daphne du Maurier’s novels. I don’t know if my father had any say. I believe he chose my Chinese name because he was the one who could read and write Chinese. However, my sisters and I have very ordinary Chinese names. They are the Janes and Jills of Chinese names: Mei Choo, Mei Chan, Mei Mei and Mei Lin.

I was baptised Daphne Michelle, but Michelle does not appear in my birth certificate. My godmother (who is my mother’s youngest sister) chose Michelle because 1. she was a Beatles fan, and 2. as a courtesy to our French priest.

I preferred Michelle when I was growing up because it was a name that was more familiar and one everyone could say easily. Daphne was unusual at the time and although it isn’t hard to pronounce once you know how, the spelling seemed (still seems) to cause panic and confusion. At school there were teachers who called me Dafeen, Dopney and even Dolphin. It doesn’t always occur to people that ‘ph’ makes the f sound. No, why should it as English is not the mother tongue of most Malaysians. Often, when they do get the ph right, they make an extra syllable of it. So, not Daf-ni, but Da-fer-ni. Sometimes they even decide that Daphne is an alternative way to spell Stephanie. Sometimes I say ‘Daphne’ and the person I’m speaking to says ‘Ohhh Jasmine!’ Ahh well.

My sisters are Angeline, Beatrice and Christina. It was because my parents were Esther and Francis. My father was from a Daoist family and became a Roman Catholic so he could marry my mother. He chose Francis as his baptismal name because it was (and is) the thing to choose Christian or Biblical names when converting. However, people often choose Western names with pagan roots. Like Daphne.

I don’t know if my father chose Francis because F comes after E for Esther. I’m not sure if that was accidental, and they later decided that they would have four children, A to D. It seems lucky that there were four children. How neat.

A, E, F would not have been remarked on. A, B, E, F might have provoked jokes of the ‘You should have C and D’ variety. A, B, C, E, F might have caused some hesitation: Did they lose D? Has D been left out by choice or circumstance?

When I was about six, I wanted to be Ruby. I liked the deep glowing red of the name. My favourite cousin was called Raymond, but the adults called him Chunny (I have no idea why), much to his disgust. One day, he told me that I called him Raymond, he would call me Ruby. I preferred Raymond anyway and it was easy to agree to what he wanted, but then Ruby didn’t stick. He never remembered to use it and I found I didn’t mind either way.

I like being Daphne now. After living fifty years with that name, I couldn’t be anyone else.

Daphne means laurel and in Greek mythology, Daphne was the nymph pursued by Apollo and changed into a laurel tree when she prays to the river god Peneus for help. The laurel is a handsome plant but couldn’t the god have spirited Daphne away, or distracted Apollo? Either Peneus was careless or just plain stupid. I would not like to spend my life as a tree, but if Daphne is supposed to be an incarnation of Apollo’s sister Artemis, perhaps the fate chosen by Peneus was preferable to the alternative.


I like that Daphne is part of Greek mythology, but I wish she were a more inspiring character with a more interesting story. Not that it reflects on me. My own story blows Daphne the nymph’s out of the water.

2 thoughts on “Something About My Name

  1. Absolutely fascinating, Daphne: names and how one identifies oneself can be crucial to how one regards oneself, to forming one’s core identity. Your marvellous post underscores that really well.

    I’m tempted now to write a piece on this too — about Odysseus and Polyphemus, Winston Smith and Ralph Hythloday, about how my mother and siblings were named after characters in Ivanhoe, how my mother and I were given forenames that spelled out characteristics with their initials, how I regarded my confirmation name as Superman regarded Kal-el and Clark Kent, a sort of secret identity or alter ego, and so on and so forth.

    It seems to me that giving kids names is often a toss-up between continuity and the contemporary: continuity can come from a family name, a classical name or a name with a significant etymological meaning; contemporary can result in a child being called after a pop star, politician or media personality, or even a tv character, football team or brand name. I think you and I know what our preference is, Daphne!


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