To be renamed in my home state of Massachusetts, as in many others, a
petitioner must swear that he is eighteen years or older and that his
purposes are not defamatory, unlawful, or inconsistent with the public
interest. (They can still be frivolous: in 2012, a budding Nebraskan
entrepreneur changed his name to Tyrannosaurus Rex, stating in his filing that “name recognition is important.”) The filing fee is
a hundred and sixty-five dollars, the surcharge another twenty, and,
should the court in the petitioner’s county require public notice of the
decree in a newspaper, that citation costs fifteen dollars more. Besides
the page-long change-of-name appeal, the sole identification required is
a certified copy of the petitioner’s birth certificate. Then the court
requests a criminal-record check from the Office of the Commissioner of
Probation and, upon its approval, sends the case to a judge who, barring
objections, accepts the change and signs a certificate to legalize the
new name.

The process was even quicker a century ago, when European shipping
agents simplified the names of many settlers boarding barges westward.
(Contrary to common lore, officials at Ellis Island rarely outright
changed immigrant names but often transliterated them—from Cyrillic
script, for instance, into the Latin alphabet.) This trend resulted in
the mass transmutation of many Jewish surnames: Kaplan into Copeland,
Lifshitz into Lipton. The reasons to Anglicize were evident then: better
business, swifter assimilation. In the twenty-first century, the
application for naturalization now lets immigrants change their names by
checking a box, but, according to a Times report, the practice had
actually declined by 2010
. Today,
the vast majority of petitioners for renaming file as a result of
marriage rather than prejudice—though one wonders whether, under
President Trump’s nativist Administration, newcomers might once again
feel pressured to surrender their foreign names.

Neither of my own names has posed as many problems as those of my family
members. When, early in the nineties, my newly immigrated parents
deposited my sister in an American preschool system, they were
condemning her, though they did not know it then, to more than a decade
of derision. Gizem (pronounced gi-zem), a common Turkish name today, was
fairly rare when my mother first chose it, in Ankara. It was even rarer
in America. On the playground, the unfamiliarity of my sister’s name
conspired with more overt foreignness—she could not speak English—to
estrange her from classmates with names like Megan and Kate. What merely
estranges someone in elementary school ends up marking her as a target
in junior high, where the crudest students delighted in mispronouncing
the first syllable of my sister’s name with a soft “G.” In time, kinder
classmates settled on the more affectionate and phonetically fitting
nickname “Gizmo,” but this choice still irked my mother, who suspected
that it was teen-age slang for something nefarious.

An American name is an important asset: this has long been my mother’s
refrain. My father’s originally Arabic name is Hasan (pronounced huh-suhn), which
she always considered too traditional for her progressive, secular
husband. He died before 9/11 but would, one imagines, find himself
detained in today’s airports with such a name. Had my mother, Neşe
(pronounced neh-sheh), not already published articles under her birth
name, she probably would have changed it upon naturalization. Lately, to
avoid confusion, she has taken to introducing herself simply as “N,”
which her accent converts into an American name. People hear “Anne,” and
that is what they call her.

When I informed her that I had decided to change my name, my mother
assumed that I had settled on Aaron. It is, admittedly, a tempting
option, boasting perks like alphabetical primacy while eliciting no
cumbersome questions. Of course, it has never quite felt
like mine. Erin, meanwhile, because of its feminine bent, remains
equally foreign. My mother has explained that its crucial root is er,
which, in Turkish, means “man”—as in “soldier,” she specified, whose
translation is asker. But I cannot shake another online definition
that lists my birth name as the second-person imperative form of the
Turkish verb erinmek, which means “to be too lazy to do something.”
(“I have never heard of such a verb,” my mother told me, appalled.)

Her greatest fear is that if her son changes his name she
might lose him. It’s an irrational impulse that I nonetheless
understand. She has already lost her husband, and, unlike him, I am
indeed more American than Turkish—a perfect candidate, perhaps, for
Aaron. Besides, in abandoning one name-related annoyance, am I really
going to introduce myself to decades of new logistical snafus and clumsy
mispronunciations and repeated demands to spell that out, please? Eren,
stressed on the second syllable, may still sound female—and will
certainly sound foreign—to most Americans.

I had never seen my mother so exasperated about a matter that seemed simple, at least to me, as we sat in a room stuffed with rugs and tables and trinkets that had once furnished my family’s home in Ankara. My
parents had not really assigned me an American name. They had assigned
me a Turkish one deformed by unnecessary compromise. I felt, for the
first time, the burden of disappointment most familiar to immigrants
who, arriving overseas with so little besides their names, have to
witness even those most immutable possessions stolen and remolded. Had
my parents, when I was born, felt free to name me whatever they wanted,
I might now be more noble (Asil), celestial (Göksel), or mighty (Kadir).
To be renamed “saint,” though, is no letdown, and the easiest way to
forgive a mistake is to fix it. My letter has arrived at last, signed by
the judge’s pen. Now it’s official: call me Eren.