What’s in a Name?

This piece is dedicated to a December without 31 days, a Major without a squadron, and a Doctor who doesn’t practice medicine. For those of us with different names, these designations are real conversation starters! 

What’s in a name? A question penned long ago for the romantic tale Romeo and Juliet written by William Shakespeare. Throughout my life, whenever I either introduce myself or when I’m introduced by someone else, I’m often met with a raised eyebrow, a groan of surprise, or an “Excuse me?” of disbelief as a response. For me, these reactions are sometimes comical, predictable, and slightly irritating when people hear my name for the first time. Judge Wapner, Judge Dread (an awful film), Judge Judy, and Judge Reinhold (real name Edward Ernest, Jr.) are the usual comparison responses I get. Some of the questions are equally obnoxious. Is that your real name? This is probably the most frequent and least popular question. Did your parents want you to be a Judge? If you were a Judge then you’d be Judge Judge. Ha, ha, ha. Ugh!

Don’t get me wrong. Having a name like mine should warrant attention with regard to its association with our American legal system. As a young kid growing up in Virginia and North Carolina, my family actually called me Junior. That’s because my father is named Judge too. Apparently unique names run in my father’s side of the family. My grandfather’s name was Pleasant. I guess you could say that even on his worst days, he was still…Pleasant! I think within the African American and other minority communities, as a way to honor our ancestors, an official (profession), or friend, a parent would name their child after that person. My friend and colleague, who also is a person of color, had a grandfather with the name of Doctor. I can bet that he too had his share of similar experiences when introductions are made. 

I recently asked my mother about why I was named after my father. She said that there was no historical connection other than the convenience of sharing my father’s name.

I really hated my name when I was in grade school. Some kids tend to gravitate towards others or things that are different. I won’t go as far and say that I was bullied, but in terms of the frequency, it was often. I was called whatever could rhyme with Judge; sludge, drudge, and fudge. Sometimes it was even a combination of all things rhyming at once: Judge, fudge the big fat drudge. First of all, I would consider my skin color more like a spiced cinnamon rather than fudge. Secondly, I wasn’t fat although currently my metabolism isn’t my friend. Lastly, drudge? I never even knew what a drudge was until I was in middle school. It made no sense at all. 

When my mother remarried, I had this idea of having my name changed to pay tribute to the new patriarch in the family. My new name was going to be Christopher Odel Hughes. It had a nice sound to it. I would rehearse calling myself Chris in the mirror and even practiced writing my new name so I could get used to it. I just wasn’t aware of the amount of work needed, on my mother’s end, to make a name change happen. In fact, too many steps and forms were required and my mother wasn’t having it. It really didn’t matter anymore, because my mother ended up divorcing my stepfather not too long after they were married. Any future ideas of having a “normal” name ended when that relationship did.

After the divorce, we moved to California (CA). As a teen, I remember taking a trip with my mother and sisters to Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in Buena Park, CA. After spending a day riding the park’s roller coasters and gorging ourselves on golden fried chicken goodness from Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner restaurant, it was time to head back to San Diego. But before we reached the parking lot, I popped into one of the many novelty money-sucking souvenir shops to see if they sold those mini license plates or stickers from the revolving display racks. Maybe, just maybe, I would find my name here. Sadly, in all of the options available, the name closest to mine I came across was the name “Jude”.  

Judger (Judge + Jr.), was a nickname given to me in middle school. Somehow, it also ended up on my student ID card in high school. It was like someone inside the administration at the Poway Unified School District in San Diego was deliberately playing a joke on me with my name. It took more than a full school quarter before my name on my scholastic records were corrected and teachers called by my given name. Surprisingly, some of my classmates actually thought the name Judge was pretty cool. This name, and or this title, that was often compared to courtroom shows and a bad movie, finally made me start smiling with pride. It was this pride that gave me the confidence to step on stage and start dancing in high school. After appearing in several successful productions, I won a Sunny Award! A Sunny Award is named after the high school mascot (Mt. Carmel Sundevils), and awarded to actors for quality performances. 

Here comes the Judge! From my fourth birthday on, this was a saying I heard. In 1968, comedy and soul singer Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham released a single with the same title. During the 70s, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In introduced a comic sketch featuring comic entertainers Flip Wilson and later Sammy Davis Jr. as the shuckin’ and jivin’ Judge. Now that I was living in Los Angeles, as an actor, this was my motto. I even made bumper stickers with the slogan that I would include in my actor’s press kit to agencies. I wanted to make an impression one way or another with my name even though my press kit likely landed in the garbage. Everyone says you have to have a gimmick to stick out and the bumper stickers was my attempt at doing that. 

Though the acting never really took off, my name continued and still does, cause a stir. I previously spent five years working at the Oregon State Capitol for the Governor. During this time, I was frequently addressed as Your Honor and even received mail addressed to The Honorable Judge Kemp. At the gym, I was once chastised and called an “asshole” by an ease-dropper on a conversation for having other gym members address me as my supposed title. It was only after confronting this douche-bag, that he embarrassingly apologized when he learned that Judge was actually my name. I articulate my name when I order my venti blonde latte with two pumps of chai at Buckies (not the real name). When the barista called “Jubie” (pronounced joo-bee), all I could really do is to laugh. 

Our names are more than the labels we carry with us to our deathbeds. They carry with them a sense of power, mystery, and whimsy. They can also instill confidence. Either by nurture or nature, I’ve accepted my name and wear it like a badge of honor. It’s bold, unique, and reflects my quirky charm and personality. My name is Judge Kemp (Jr.).