From Carol Sue Floyd to Cookie Crumbles to Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn: Choosing a Name You Love

April 14, 2010

To name oneself is the first act of both the poet and the revolutionary. When we take away the right to an individual name, we symbolically take away the right to be an individual.
• Erica Jong (1977)
, How to Save Your Own Life

In The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935) Gilman said, “It would have saved trouble had I remained Perkins from the first; this changing of women’s names is a nuisance we are now happily outgrowing.” For some people this is true, the hyphenating or keeping of “maiden” names is certainly much more prevalent than when I first married many years ago.

Even when I married, I did not feel that I brought to the union a name that was my own. I’d been through many names: the last name of a father no longer married to my mother, the last name of my grandparents who registered me for school using their name, the last name of a step-father. Names matter and I’d long felt disconnected from mine, comfortable only with the family nickname Cookie, nothing I’d want friends or classmates to call me. (Note: I did once write a few poems calling myself “Cookie Crumbles,” but that was long ago and I was very young.)

Some years ago I invented my own poet’s name, Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn, choosing to hyphenate my grandmother’s and mother’s maiden names as a symbolic representation of the loss of identity that dogs women as they move through life with multiple names as though it didn’t matter what they are called. It matters. When I made Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn my legal name about eight years ago, I felt at home with it.

Zinn is not my “real” last name. It does not represent any part of my heritage, making for awkward conversations with people who want to know about my German ancestors. Adopting Wilkins and O’Riley makes my cultural heritage part of my name, connecting me with Ireland and England and with the immigrants who made their way to this country. Why adopt Zinn? Why not? Aside from the fact that it’s a delightful last name, I have no connection with the Irish last name Floyd, even though it’s on my birth certificate.

I also choose Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn because the initials, W-OZ, represent my very favorite books, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series. My Aunt Mildred had the entire set and the character I identify with most is Scraps, the Patchwork Girl. Meant to be a servant, but overloaded with brains, she’s irreverent and outspoken. The initials also remind me of the Wizard, a humbug behind a curtain. I never want to become a pontificating humbug, a potential danger for teachers and college professors. I also like to be reminded that what teachers often do is put people in touch with qualities they had within themselves all along and just didn’t recognize: brains, a heart, courage, and the like.

Even if you love the name you were born with, consider adopting a poet’s or artist’s or writer’s or athlete’s or actor’s or other name that represents your creative aspirations. Create the persona that goes with that name. Become the person who can do what you dream of doing.

If you had to choose a different name for yourself related to some creative aspect of your life, what would it be, and why?

Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his [or her] skin. The talent of a writer is his [or her] ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him [or her].
• Mel Brooks



  1. My name would be Playful Penelopy Peccadillo. I like to hae fun with all people, but a times I m a little fiesty and do some tiny misdeeds

  2. If I had to choose a funky name that represented me and the things I love, it would have to be “Kitty Lover” No matter how bad things may be in life, I forgt about them all when I have my cat sitting on my lap purring, or chasing a string I’m wiggling behind the couch. I can’t explain the joy that cats bring to me. All I know is I’m sure glad that we have cats, or my stress level would be through the roof!

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