What did (or do) you call your grandparents? Did you have different names for your maternal grandparents and your paternal ones? Did you have particularly odd or “cute” names for them?
Most people do have different names for the different sets. I called my father’s parents “Grandma” and “Grandpa”. My mother’s parents were “Nanny” and “Poppy”, and my step-mother’s were “Mom-mom” and “Pop”. It’s convenient that it worked out that way, since all those names had been decided on before I was in the picture.
Actually, what I’ve had trouble with is distinguishing my birth mother from my step mother, at those times when the distinction is significant — usually, it’s not. The term “birth mother” often connotes adoption, which wasn’t the case with me. “Natural mother” sounds a bit odd. I tried “real mother” briefly, but that makes it seem that she who’s been “Mom” to me for the last 40 years is somehow not “real”; nothing could be less true. As I say, I’m happy that I seldom have to make the distinction clear.
When I was in high school, I had a friend who called his mother’s parents “Nana” and “Gomp”, the latter being how he said it as a baby. It seemed funny, at the time, to hear a teenager call his grandfather “Gomp”, but, well, these things stick, don’t they? I’ve also heard a lot of “Grandma Sarah” or “Grandpa Smith” used to make the distinction.
Of course, it’s convenient for the family to know which grandmother you’re talking about, so it’s sensible to have distinct names. But I think the need goes beyond that: we often attach much more to a name, treating it as more than just a label. Small children often have trouble accepting that the person just introduced can really be “Michael”, because Michael is someone else, a friend down the street. And we’ve all heard people say things like, “He doesn’t seem like a ‘Steve’.”
Societies, from ancient to modern ones, have used different names for the same people, reserving particular names for limited use, not to be worn out. Names can be considered unlucky, or be explicitly cursed; there are all sorts of superstitions around names. Don’t say the name of a devil or demon, lest it respond to the call. And, of course, never mention the name of God.
But Shakespeare wrote, in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title.” And indeed: I’d be the same person as I am now, even if I weren’t called Barry. Superstitions aside, my name hasn’t had any part in shaping my character.
How different cultures treat names is interesting. A Latin-American parent will happily name a boy Jesus (pronounced “hay-soos”), but that’s not done in Anglo culture. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, writer Alexander McCall Smith shows us African culture in Botswana, giving us characters with names like Precious, Happy, and Lucky. We like those names for what they are... but don’t we also hope the character of the name, as a word, will imbue itself on the bearer?
Where did all this come from? Why do we attach such importance to what things in general, and people, in particular, are called?
You can call me anything, except late for supper.
— Saying from rural America
 Had I been a girl, my parents had prepared “Barbara” for me.