Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What's in a name, you might ask

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What's in a name? I got my first byline as a reporter 75 years ago, freelancing for the Winnipeg Tribune at the princely sum of 20 cents per column inch. How happy I was to open the newspaper and see my name in print. Happy is an understatement. I was overjoyed, my head in the clouds, convinced this was the beginning of a journalistic career.

I am told I had a good byline -- short and not of the common run of names. My mother had named me Valentine after a Russian poet whose identity remains a mystery. After a few years in elementary school and merciless teasing, I unilaterally lopped off two-thirds of Valentine and instantly became "Val." I cannot recall the reaction of my mother -- an unusual woman -- bright, intelligent and handsome in appearance, with blond hair and dark brown eyes. Neighbours gossiped about my mother, who bought a second-hand upright Heintzman piano before she bought any furniture for the dining room. My three sisters became fine classical pianists, Ruth with a career as a college professor and piano teacher in Los Angeles.

My mother was a midwife and a nurse, one of the few professional women of the period. Her business card listed our phone number: 47189.

Little did I know discarding Valentine would raise the issue as to my identity. To this day, strangers on their first visit to my door are bewildered to behold me in the flesh. They took it that Val was short for the female name Valerie.

On one auspicious occasion, I was transformed into a female until the gender change was discovered at the last moment. The Lake Winnipeg Foundation was honouring me in 2010 in an enthusiastic gathering at their annual meeting but I did not receive the award itself. Somehow on the plaque's way to be engraved, I became a female. The award stated "in recognition of her dedication and commitment to the preservation and remediation of Lake Winnipeg and its watershed."

The most outrageous assault on my name occurred when I was presented with my 25-year service watch from the Winnipeg Tribune. It confirmed, indeed, that the human race is fallible. I should mention, my name was well-known to readers as a columnist with a byline no less than 24-point type. It is a cardinal sin in newspaper work to misspell a proper name, yet lo and behold, my name was wrongly spelled in the engraving on the watch. Werier was spelled Werrier.

The history of names is a fascinating subject and I am indebted to Paul Blake, past chairman of the Society of Genealogists in Britain for his insights. "Before the Norman Conquest of Britain (in 1066), people did not have hereditary surnames -- they were known just by a personal name or nickname," says Blake in an article found on the BBC's family history website. As communities grew, names became more specific, leading to names such as John the Butcher, William the Short, Henry from Sutton, etc.

The Norman barons were responsible for the introduction and spread of surnames. Some surnames stem from names of localities, landscape features and a person's trade, such as Baker, Miller, Smith and Cook. Nicknames also came into the picture, such as Fox, White or Sparrow.

"Many individuals and families have changed their names or adopted an alias at some time in the past," Blake says. "Standardized spelling did not really arrive until the 19th century and even in present day, variations occur. Surnames can reveal much about your family history, but they can also be a minefield of misinformation."

I can vouch for that.

I wonder what the impact might have been had I kept Valentine and not the truncated version. I certainly was not displeased when a couple of old friends, Harry Walsh, a criminal lawyer and Jan Kamienski, cartoonist for the Winnipeg Tribune, who have both passed away, called me Valentine. Neither was I unhappy when female colleagues at the Tribune addressed me as their valentine. Valentine has a cadence, a lilt that lends itself to amorous declarations, so widely endorsed on Valentine's Day.

The world is not such a bad place when we recognize the importance of love in our daily lives. The vast majority of songs composed are about love. When the burden of bad news floods the communications networks, we might reflect it isn't so. Love prevails!

Newscasts would have us believe the world is consumed with hate. The world, indeed, is battered by strife, civil war, and many millions of people are deprived of social justice. But in the world as a whole, love, not hate, predominates. Civilization would not exist if hate ruled.

Take Winnipeg as a microcosm. The emphasis on violence and crime obliterates the true picture of the city: thousands of loving families, hundreds of community organizations, a generous people with a reputation for music and song. We should recognize goodness wherever it exists.

Put a different label on a picture and it gives it a new meaning. What's in a name can influence behaviour and outlook. Maybe I should have stayed with "Valentine."

Val Werier is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2013 A11

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