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What's in a name? More than you may think

By Rachel Rodriguez, CNN
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What's in a name? More than you think
  • For many, names are inextricably tied to who we are
  • That's what drives so many people to take pride in -- or change -- their names
  • Both common and unusual names come with perks and downfalls
  • Studies: One's job prospects could be affected by a name

(CNN) -- Omekongo Dibinga says he has "a name to be proud of."

He was named for the warrior who saved his grandfather's life as a child. His grandfather, about 15 at the time, was in a battle with a rival ethnic group in eastern Congo. As the story goes, a "fierce warrior" named Omekongo Luhaka stepped in to protect him, nearly dying in the process.

"If it wasn't for Omekongo, I would not be here, literally," says Dibinga, a motivational speaker and diversity educator. "[My parents] gave me that name so I could be a warrior for the people, for the rights of all man and womankind, so that's what I do."

But Dibinga didn't always take such pride in his name and heritage. As a child in Boston, Massachusetts, he didn't exactly have an easy time growing up with an unusual name.

"People made fun of my name all the time; they would beat me up whenever I would say my name. And I became the subject of nursery rhymes -- 'Old MacDonald had a farm' became 'Omekongo had a farm,' " he remembers. "I tried to blend in and have people call me 'O' just so people would stop picking on me."

As he grew older, though, Dibinga began to feel differently about his name. He dropped the nickname and decided he wanted to be called Omekongo.

"I realized it was a slap in my face to my parents and to my culture in general, so I started going by Omekongo," he says. "And now today, I proudly use my name and my experiences as a tool to teach about diversity."

And no, he doesn't have a farm, though he jokes that maybe one day he'll buy one.

So, what's in a name? For Dibinga, quite a lot: It's a culture, a sense of identity, a connection to his family history, a calling to educate others. Maybe a rose by any other name wouldn't smell as sweet after all.

Hear Dibinga talk about his experience with an unusual name

Shakespeare's opinion aside, for many of us, our names are inextricably tied to who we are. No matter the name, whether we love it or hate it, what it means or why that's what we're called, everyone has a story about their name and how it affects their life.

Here at CNN, we've found that staffers are constantly thinking about names, whether it's how we want our bylines to read or what pops up in our Google results. So we thought we'd ask our iReport community to fill us in on the stories behind their names. The responses were overwhelmingly diverse and thoughtful. Clearly, there is something in a name -- although what that something is depends entirely on the individual.

For some people, such as Leticia Gonzalez of San Antonio, Texas, their name is an undeniable reflection of their personality. Gonzalez' mom didn't know the meaning of Leticia, from the Latin for joy, when she was named; she just liked the sound of the name. But Gonzalez says it suits her nature perfectly.

"My name means happiness, [and] that is completely so," she said. "Most everyone that knows me says I am always smiling, laughing or making others laugh. I even believe that I spread happiness!"

Barbara Rademacher says her name even foreshadowed her profession. She was named for St. Barbara, a Christian martyr.

"St. Barbara is the patron saint of mathematicians," she explained. "And I grew up to become a math professor!" Rademacher teaches at a community college in Bentonville, Arkansas.

But for others, the name they were given at birth doesn't quite fit. People change their names for all kinds of reasons -- marriage and divorce being the most common. But among the reasons is the feeling that a different name would better suit one's identity.

Jacob Chaos knows that feeling. He changed his name legally about 10 years ago, "birth certificate and all," when his mother died. And don't even try to ask him what it was before: "There was no before," says Chaos, who is living in Santiago, Chile.

Jacob was a name that just popped into his head, says Chaos, and when he researched its history, he felt it suited him.

I always looked for ways to make [my name] more interesting.
--Hensley Roberts

His last name, Chaos, came from his studies of Eastern religions, "particularly the idea that you can't have order without chaos," he said. "One cannot exist without the other. I like the idea that chaos means there's no orders; everything is interconnected. And in a sense, that made me feel connected to my mother."

Hensley Roberts of Atlanta, Georgia, also changed his name to be more connected to his mother and her side of the family. Born Stephen Andrew Roberts, he says he was "never satisfied with the common name 'Steve,' so I always looked for ways to make it more interesting." Roberts ended up changing his name when he was 30.

"I wanted to reflect both sides of my family ... and always having had my father's side of the family in my last name, I decided to take my mother's maiden name and make it my first name," he said.

And as a teenager, CNN's Karyn Lu was tasked with a daunting project: Choosing her own name.

Lu immigrated to the United States from Shanghai, China, when she was 10. For several years, she went by her Chinese name: Lu Yi Wen. But after hearing one too many people stumble over the pronunciation, she decided it was time to adopt a more American-sounding title.

"Inevitably, at the beginning of every class, the teacher would look at my name and pause and sort of butcher it," Lu remembers. "That was sort of a traumatic experience for a really shy kid. I decided I wanted a name that everybody could pronounce."

She liked the name Karen, but wanted to somehow "throw something unique in there." So she took the "y" from her Chinese first name and used it to create an unconventional spelling: Karyn.

I know for a fact that people have not called me for job interviews or dates because they are afraid to say [my name].
--StJohn Lennox-Kerr

But when it comes to common versus uncommon names, it may be that the grass is always greener. Roberts and Lu purposefully made their names more unusual, but those given unusual monikers say they come with problems of their own.

A 2009 study at the University of British Columbia found that people with Chinese, Indian or Pakistani names were less likely to be called for job interviews than similarly qualified people with Anglo-sounding names. But ask StJohn Lennox-Kerr (no space, no period) and he'll tell you that anyone with a hard-to-pronounce name is at a disadvantage. StJohn, a name of Old English and French origin, is pronounced "sin-john."

"I know for a fact that people have not called me back for job interviews or dates because they are afraid to say it," said Lennox-Kerr, who lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina. "Meeting new people is almost always difficult. ... Some people tell me that I'm saying my name wrong. Like I haven't noticed for 29 years."

But he says there is one upside to having a unusual name: "Once you understand my name, you never seem to forget it."

And there are other advantages and quirks to having a remarkable name.

Amba Armah's distinctive name has elevated her to celebrity-esque status at her Walnut Creek, California, job. The "r" in her last name is silent, making her name rhyme: "ahm-buh ahm-uh." So to keep things simple, she just goes by her first name.

"People at work say I'm like the resident Beyonce or Madonna because I only use one name," she says.

And then there's Kandi Hardt of Overland Park, Kansas. Yes, that's her real name; her mom picked it out before she met her dad. Kandi says she lives by "one rule and one rule only:"

"The man I marry can't have the last name Kane, Corn or Barr," she said.