My Unfortunate Last Name, And Why I Changed It
“Is your mom a prostitute?”
“Is your sister a whore?”
“Does your grandmother have sex with people for money?”
“Do you have sex with people for money?”
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I hope you’ve enjoyed this small sampling of the creative, last-name-focused rejoinders I heard growing up. You’ve probably inferred, from their subtle and refined subtext, that my surname related to the world’s oldest profession. Boy, did it.
Yes, my last name until age 25 was Hooker — as in slang term for someone who engages in sexual acts for financial compensation. (Or other forms of compensation, like goods and equivalent services, I suppose, if the sex worker in question is open to bartering.)
Through my angry teenage research into the topic, I learned that as a last name, Hooker was Anglo-Saxon in origin and had existed for centuries. It was likely derived from agricultural workers who made or used a type of hook employed in medieval harvesting. The colloquial term “hooker,” however — though it had been around since the American Civil War — didn’t become widespread until Xaviera Hollander’s 1972 book, “The Happy Hooker.”
That means my father, who I can thank for this wonderful aspect of my childhood, didn’t face any teasing during his. When he was in school, “Hooker” didn’t mean anything other than a relatively uncommon last name.
It also meant that when my sister and I reached adolescence and wanted to change it, my dad didn’t understand. It wasn’t up for discussion. There were no counterarguments, lines of reasoning or rationales for keeping what was to us an intolerable array of scarlet letters — in his mind, changing our last name wasn’t an option.
The teasing began in earnest in middle school. That’s when our classmates learned what Hooker meant, and, auspiciously, when they were at their absolute meanest. My sister got it worse, being a girl, but she was confident and pretty and she dealt with it by existing above such foolishness (and, perhaps, taking solace in the knowledge she would one day acquire a different name through marriage). As for me — I was a chubby nerd. My options were 1) absorb it passively and cry myself to sleep each night, or 2) develop a sense of humor about it real goddamn quick.
“Is your mom a prostitute?” Yeah, but judging by those shoes you can’t afford her.
“Is your sister a whore?” Sorry, she doesn’t deal in tiny, prepubescent dicks.
“Does your grandmother have sex for money?” Why, considering a career in prostitution? I suggest getting some new clothes and a different face.
“Do you have sex for money?” Only with your mom, and only when you’re asleep.
Okay, I’ll admit, those weren’t exactly Chappellian zingers, but they were better than nothing. I learned quickly if I didn’t come back with something, the comments would never stop. And they would certainly never get more creative. The type of individual who will openly mock someone’s last name, it turns out, is also the type of individual who struggles with vocabulary, verbal reasoning and, in general, any form of cognition extending beyond three-word sentences. Boy named Hooker. Hooker funny word. Me mock boy.
Here is my nightmare middle school scenario. Except, unlike a nightmare, it actually happened. Repeatedly.
I sit down at my entirely too small, Mississippi public school desk — careful not to touch the stalactites of dehydrated gum underneath — engage in a bit of adolescent jabber with whoever’s nearby, and muster the appropriate folder and textbook for the class. An unfamiliar voice fills the room.
“Ms. Davis is out sick today,” a thirtysomething soccer mom with aggressively curled hair says. “I’m Ms. Johnson. Everyone quiet down so we can take roll.”
She glances down at her clipboard, and… time stops. Somewhere far below, in the furthest depths of Hell, the devil flips a coin.
My stomach drops. From somewhere, a great distance away, the vestige of Satan’s merry laughter echoes into my earholes. Ms. Johnson has opted to take roll by last name.
The word reverberates through the classroom like the voice of Hera, and all background noise — shifting bodies and shuffling papers and rasping whispers — ceases. Heat pushes into my head like mercury into a soon-to-shatter cartoon thermometer.
Here’s the thing. Everyone in this room knows my last name. When there’s a funny-sounding last name in your proximity, you remember it. Just like if there is a fully make-upped clown sitting in the booth next to yours at Chipotle, you know it. But knowing the funny last name, somewhere just outside your awareness, and hearing the funny last name projected into space are two different things.
For me, it was like being pelted with invisible spitballs from every direction at once.
This scenario occurred, on average, once a month. My memories are warped by embarrassment and anxiety, so I can’t even say for sure if anyone actually laughed. They probably didn’t. In my mind they all stand up and point, pubescent eyes filled with hormones and malice, and chant something hooker-themed at me while the teacher looks on, Dolores Umbridge-style, with sadistic approval.
I didn’t learn until much later in life that my mother, who grew up with the unhookerish last name Gagliano, threatened to divorce my father at one point when he refused to consider changing it. She saw how it affected us. The only person I knew who fully understood, however, aside from my sister, was my friend Matt. He grew up with the equally unfortunate last name Smelley (with our powers combined we became the unstoppable Smelley Hooker). He eventually changed his name around the same time I did, in his mid-twenties.
Do I regret growing up with an unfortunate last name? No. Mostly no. If I had grown up Brad Smith I would have undoubtedly developed into a more confident, but ultimately less interesting version of who I am now. I like my neuroses. We’ve become friends. Still, I take comfort in the fact that my own children, hypothetical though they currently are, will never know that particular set of emotional complications.
Given the litany of genetic time bombs they’ll surely inherit from me — a world-class propensity for cavities, to name just one — giving them a boring last name is the least I can do.
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