My mother loved French names, so she decided to call her daughters Suzanne and Yvonne. Suzanne is a normal name in English-speaking places, but Yvonne is pretty rare. I never liked my full name: Yvonne Lynn Hazelton. It was clunky and unmusical, full of buzzy consonants and bad rhythm. Especially the Yvonne part: nobody could spell it; nobody could pronounce it. Grade-school loudmouths called me Avon, as if makeup were a ridiculous thing to share a name with. In fourth grade, I went by Lynn in an effort to shed the bulky Yvonne, but Lynn felt more like a syllable than a name, so I reverted back to my default Yvonne in fifth grade. All the other girls had gentle, flowery names like Jennifer and Michelle and Shannon and Lea Ann. I was She Who Could Not Be Pronounced.
Then I married a Chinese guy and became Yvonne Shao. Now I was a double mystery—why did a WASP like me have a French-Chinese combo name? Store clerks asked for my picture ID when I used my credit card, as if I had stolen some nice Chinese lady’s identity. Turned out nobody could pronounce Shao either—Shan? Chow? Shaw? It just got worse. Not only that, there was already an Yvonne in the family, my husband’s little niece. To avoid confusion, the family called me Big Yvonne. Not flattering. The kids called me Auntie Yvonne, which wasn’t much better.
In coffee shops, when I said Yvonne, they’d write Evelyn, Ivan, Evan, or Irving on the cup. I started borrowing my husband’s name and telling them I was Sam, which did make my coffee procurement easier. It wasn’t lying; it was community service.
When we got the idea to move to France, I thought my problems were over. Yvonne is a French name! Every French teacher I’d ever had gasped in delight on the first day of class, thinking some true Gallic heritage had manifested in their class with my presence. People had been asking me if I was French for as long as I could remember, so I pictured myself enfolded into French society, welcomed as a long-lost daughter, among my own people at last. They’d look at me knowingly, recognizing one of their own. Maybe they’d even confuse me with all the other Yvonnes they already knew! I’d be home.
Then I got to France, and that didn’t happen. Yvonne seemed lost on them: nobody could spell it; nobody could pronounce it. I had to show my ID if they needed to write my name down. There were no welcoming smiles, no looks of connection. I was confused and disappointed.
One day I asked a French friend why this was so and learned the awful truth: Yvonne is an old-lady name. Like Myrtle. Or Edith. Or Gertrude. Some names recycle themselves—all the Lucys I know are over 70 or under 15, the Florences over 90 or under 2. In France, though, Yvonne’s popularity peaked in 1915 and never came back. But that’s not the worst of it. The last famous Yvonne was Charles de Gaulle’s wife, and she was extremely controversial. She was very conservative and when France was going through mid-century growing pains and trying to modernize itself, she loudly objected to immorality like sex and nudity on TV and in movies. She even tried to outlaw miniskirts. All the old people that liked her are dead now and everybody that’s left thinks she was a stuffy old lady. They called her Aunt Yvonne.
So there. When I breezed into France, proclaiming “Je m’appelle Yvonne,” it didn’t mean to the French what it meant to me. I heard, “Here’s your long-lost cousin, ready to party!” The French were more “Merde. That old lady’s back.”
But, you know, France, maybe you should reconsider. Miniskirts aren’t outlawed, but they’re out of style. The only women you see in France in miniskirts are British.
So maybe Yvonne got one thing right? Come on, France, the time’s they are a-changing and this Auntie Yvonne is ready. Give her another chance, okay?
- Check out Yvonne’s previous article about learning the art of la bise.
- Read about living vs making a life in Paris.
- For France’s most popular baby names in 2018, head to The Local.