“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare penned this question in Romeo and Juliet, and Rodney Dangerfield used it for one of his earliest comedy bits. No matter how strange or ordinary your name might be, it’s good to keep a sense of humor about it. Believe me, I know. I have a strange name. One of those names that inspires folks to think such thoughts as “boy, his parents must have had some really good drugs” or, in current English vernacular, “seriously?” Or, if texting, “wtf!”
My strange name is River Curls, and I’ve witnessed every conceivable reaction a person could have to it, from drunk islanders to urban hipsters, from eight-fingered redneck shop teachers to nonplussed X-generationers whose names are even weirder than mine, thanks to their hippied-out parents (i.e. Freedom, Rainbow, or Freekus Polikus).
In grade school there were the chuckles during roll call, and the rejection from certain groups based on “name-weirdness”: the everyday cruel behavior we all possess and sometimes demonstrate early on. This caused me to begin my development of two things at once – a thick skin, and a profound hatred of anything that drew attention to names: name tags, roll calls, chalkboard lists. If any of the other kids despised their names, they were no match for me. I felt singled out by the wide gap my name drew between me and all the Johns, Jeffs, Adams and Rogers.
High school was no gift either. My name prevented any and all hope of fitting in, being thought of as normal, or, way more importantly, being cool. Though I likely would have excelled in sports, I veered away from them so I wouldn’t ever again have to hear a coach misspeak my name as they always seemed to do (“get back in there, Rivers!”) or use my last name while reprimanding me with the zest of a drill sergeant (“Goddamnit, Curls!”) I retreated more and more into books, movies, and music. With one really close friend, I discovered how to comfortably exist beyond the margins of every defined social group. Together we bonded with our English Lit teacher, diving into poetry, Shakespeare, and creative writing.
The name River isn’t all that unusual, but its pairing with the name Curls pushes it into strange territory. And as with every name, the two words each have their own backstory. Curles (with an e) is a variation on the Anglo-Saxon name “Curl”, or “Corliss”. Families bearing the name Curles can be found primarily in Wales and England, but there are a few in Scotland as well. In the United States the name is mostly found in Georgia, where my grandfather on my dad’s side is originally from. According to my grandfather “some old bastard decided to drop the letter e”, leaving my bald family with a spelling that – in a cruel twist of fate – conjures up images of hair and hairdressers.
My mom named me after the Kilchis river, near Tillamook: a town on the Oregon coast. The shack where I was born sat close to the river’s edge. It’s gone now, but the river is still there, flowing from the Coast Range down into the Pacific.
And then there’s my middle name, but that’s another story.