My mom tells me that she and my dad, like every parent should, did their due diligence when selecting my name by brainstorming ways that it could be mocked. Obviously, any name with a version for boys and a version for girls leaves an opening for classmates. Denise was on the table, but nothing their unborn son couldn’t handle. In grade school and junior high some of my peers who couldn’t spell to save their lives would inform me that my name was only one letter different from “Penis.” My parents could not have seen that coming. The name Dennis, as my parents determined, is difficult to mock. It really only rhymes with one word: Menace.
Mom says that, when considering my name, she believed that by the time I was in school Dennis the Menace would be long forgotten. The TV version had ended 20 years prior and all that was left was a daily newspaper comic strip that sucked. This character was fading from the cultural consciousness.
In 1986, a Dennis the Menace cartoon debuted and ran for three years. It continued in reruns, because I somehow remember watching it after Heathcliffe the Cat. In 1987, a live-action TV movie, where Dennis finds a dinosaur bone in his yard, was released. Dennis the Menace Strikes Again! featuring Don Rickles was released straight to video. And then, in 1993, when I was in fourth grade, Dennis the Menace, written by John Hughes and starring Walter Matthau and Christopher Lloyd was released. People still knew who Dennis the Menace was.
In my mind, it’s why I rely so heavily on sarcasm. When you’re in grade school, you can only hear the same unfunny reference from adults before you start responding “Never heard that before.”
When there’s only one way to make fun of your name, only one cultural reference connected to it, you tend to hear it a lot. According to IMDB, Dennis Rodman, Dennis Kucinich, and Dennis Ritchie all have the nickname Dennis the Menace. Earlier this week, an adult I just met asked if they could call me Dennis the Menace. The average person is not clever.
I was going to change my name, presumably because I had recently found out that that was a thing someone could do. But I didn’t want to completely abandon my roots by becoming Maxwell or Greg. That would be too jarring. Another factor was that the name Dennis is derived from Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, debauchery, and ecstatic states. That’s something, even as a fourth grader, I wasn’t going to turn my back on. So, I explored other options related to Dennis.
Deion Sanders was still cool at the time. I didn’t figure anyone would come up with Dion the Peon. It was the obvious choice. Yes, this skinny, blonde boy was now Dion. It was going to work. All I had to do was tell my family, teacher, and classmates.
Dennis is a fine, respectable name. It’s not absurd sounding and it isn’t common enough to be annoying. It’s uncommon, but not strange. I’m never in a room with more than two Dennises…Dennii. This made explaining to my parents why their choice of name could not stand difficult. As a fourth grader, I was not capable of articulating that I was fed up with the Dennis the Menace bullshit, and as a weak, unathletic child with no social clout needed something to seem cool and the name Dion was a grasp at a straw that I was willing to take. Instead of saying all of that, I came up with “I dunno, I just want to change my name.” My dad chuckled and said I could if I wanted (knowing full well I couldn’t make this stick). My mom gave a midwestern motherly “alright” that really meant “I know better and you’re hurting my feelings, but my children’s needs come first.” I did not feel supported.
The first day after my decision, my teacher was not in class. And she was gone for multiple days, leaving us with a sub. But, I had made a decision, and I was going to change my name, starting right then and there, no matter who stood at the front of the room. So when I attempted to announce that my name was no longer Dennis, but rather Dion, she was understandably confused. She had no context, and I’m sure thought I was just an unhinged elementary school child. Think about it—If you started at a new job and someone came up to you and said “Hey, I used to go by Richard, but now you should call me Dick,” it would be kind of confusing, because you never knew him as Richard. He could have just said “Hi, I’m Dick.” The name Richard is unnecessary information.
But at least it’s common knowledge that Dick is a nickname for Richard. Not everyone had done the research I did into the name Dennis, and therefore, no one else was aware that Dion was at all related, other than also beginning with a D.
This contributed to my classmates responding unfavorably to my name change. My revised identity seemed to be just another weird thing I was doing. They resisted, not just out of spiteful confusion, but because they thought this move was essentially me trying to give myself a nickname, which cannot happen. It’s against the nickname code. Your new co-worker Dick, obviously can make that decision. If Richard says he wants to go by Rich, Dick, or Ricky, you’ll accept it, because those are different versions of his full name. If Richard said he wanted to go by Scoops, you’d have some questions that would require satisfactory answers before you’d even consider his request. And even then, you’re not likely to start calling him Scoops. Everybody knows you don’t pick your nickname; it has to be given to you. And it could be argued that I was breaking that rule. Again, the connection between Dion and Dennis is not obvious nor well-known. I might as well have asked to be called Flash.
Most of my classmates complied, but said my new name with a very derisive tone. It did not feel good.
Then our actual teacher came back from wherever she had been, and I had to go through my whole spiel again. And I had not improved my logic. In the morning when I came in, some girl blurted out “Dennis changed his name to Dion!” taking away my ability to frame the conversation for myself.
I don’t remember how my teacher responded, but shortly after that I lost my steam and reverted back to Dennis. It seemed clear to me that the only real way to change your first name was moving to a new city or entering witness protection.
Changing my name was a way to exert control over my identity and influence how my peers saw me. But that doesn’t make what I did any less weird and embarrassing in retrospect. My cause was noble, but my execution was poor. Which would become a theme in my life. . No matter what they call you, you can shape your name’s identity as much as it shapes yours. . And years later, I was able to briefly shake the name Dennis. As a new member of my high school’s ultimate frisbee club, I earned the nickname Blue due to my dyed hair and the presence of another Dennis. If only I had known it was that simple.
 Unforeseen wrinkle: When baristas don’t know how to spell Dennis and write Denise (or Denice) on my coffee, so then I have to look at my fellow patrons and ask if there is actually a Denise in the house.
 Start bringing in ice cream every week and I’ll think about it, Dick.
 See? You earn nicknames.