How to Change Your First Name in Your 40s

by Leslie Gordon
Originally Published: 

I despise the name Lezlie. Not only is it dissonant, but being called “Lezlie” makes me feel unseen, misunderstood. I read recently that neuroimaging studies show that the sound of our own names produces distinct activity patterns in the regions of our brains responsible for our sense of self. Hearing “Lezlie,” I’m overcome by an uncomfortable, devalued feeling, particularly when those ZZZ’s are slung by friends.

My whole life, it’s been a struggle to get people to pronounce my name simply the way it’s spelled. I’ve posted on Facebook, asked friends to discreetly correct other friends, invited people to “just call me Les” (not Lezz, but Les, like less). It almost never works. And if you’re dealing with someone from the East Coast or the South, it’s hopeless.

I was actually supposed to be named Erin. I like the name Erin. It’s not inherently beautiful or fun to say like Sarah or Lily, but it’s a nice enough name and I kind of feel like an Erin. Apparently, when I was in utero, my grandmother declared that Erin Gordon sounded odd for a Jewish girl. So my parents picked Leslie instead.

I wish there were support groups for people like me, the Andreas, the Carolyn/Carolines of the world. But I suspect we’re few and far between. Recently, I attended a presentation in my son’s humanities class, at which the kids read essays about their names. While some of those seventh graders recalled brief phases of disliking their names, every single one of them came around and ended up feeling suited to their names after all. I was so jealous. I’ve hated my name for more than 40 years.

Not long ago, I reconnected with my beloved middle school algebra teacher on Facebook. His message began: “Hi Leslie (Not Lezley)! I remember how upset you would get when people called you that and you would emphatically correct them.” Considering I took algebra in 1981, it certainly was sweet that he remembered a personal detail like that. But his message was proof of how long I’ve detested something as elemental as my own name.

Lately, I’ve taken to using Erin as my coffee name and the name I give for reservations. Spoken into a microphone, “Erin, party of four” has a far more pleasant ring than “Lezlie, party of four.” (I ignore the fact that “Aaron” is often scribbled on the side of my Peet’s cups because it’s still pronounced correctly. If Leslie were pronounced correctly, I wouldn’t care if it was misspelled.)

Whenever I complain to my parents about the Lezlie problem, my dad jauntily replies, “So change it!” For years, I disputed the practicality. “I’m a journalist, with a byline. I can’t just change my name,” I’d insist. But I’ve been enjoying my coffee name so much that I’m beginning to investigate whether changing my name might actually be doable. While Leslie is who I am, I’m most definitely not Lezlie, which is what half the people I know call me anyway. So perhaps I wouldn’t be losing anything. And think of what I might gain.

Maybe at 46, I can ditch the Lezlie albatross once and for all. The thought of spending the next 50 years not recoiling at the sound of my own name, of finally, gloriously defining my own moniker—instead of passively cringing at the ill-suited name foisted on me by others—is dizzyingly appealing. If I take this line of thought further, I start musing about other ways that being Erin Gordon might be a step up. Perhaps Erin won’t suffer from claustrophobia. Maybe she can effortlessly get into a handstand in yoga class. Maybe Erin would grasp the lure of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Margaret Atwood novels. But even if it turns out that Erin Gordon is exactly like me—except that her name isn’t chronically mispronounced—that’d be a huge win.

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