What’s In a Name? by
(207 Stories)

Prompted By Nicknames

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Shakespeare usually has something brilliant to say on a topic like this one: “What’s in a name?/A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Like my cousin Mimi (actually Mary Elizabeth),

With Mimi

I was named Elizabeth Ann for our paternal grandmother, who was “Elizabeth Prensky Sarason” (so her headstone says), but I never heard anyone refer to her as that (of course she died years before I was born). She came from Kovno, Lithuania sometime in the 1880s and had eight children; my father was her youngest.

When my David was called to the torah as a bar mitzvah, we had to determine her Hebrew name, as that really is MY name and David’s was his own and son of his father and mother. (Dovid Binyomin bin Daniel Reuven v Freyah Leah…David’s whole name: David Benjamin, son of Daniel Robert and me. Dan was named for his uncle “Rubie”, hence the Robert. The Benjamin in David’s name was for Dan’s grandmother Bessie, who passed nine months before David was born. Got all that?)

Her marker may call her “Elizabeth”, but she was always called “Lizzie” in this country even though her name was “Freya Leah”, my Hebrew name. Lizzie was a beautiful woman. I can see why my grandfather fell in love with her, on his return to St. Louis from traveling, selling his wares around Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi. She was living in his sister’s boarding house and was 16 when they first met, though older and already married in this photo, dated 1904, making her 27 or 28. Sam Sarason and a brother-in-law established general stores in St. Louis, Conway, AK and Greenville, MS. He predeceased Lizzie by four years.

I was called Betsy from the day I was brought home from the hospital. I have always loved the name Elizabeth, but thought it was too long and formal for me. I am such a little person; it was just too big a handle for me. I loved that my name was regal, like the queens of England, but that just wasn’t who I am (despite my pediatrician calling me “Princess Elizabeth”…was he teasing or commenting, I wonder?)

After reading “Little Women” in 5th grade, I felt for the tragic character Beth, who dies young, and went through a phase wanting to be called Beth. It was short-lived.

I always know when someone on the phone doesn’t know me, but is trying to be familiar, usually trying to sell me something, and starts the conversation by calling me “Liz”. I will respond that they want my sister-in-law, as that is not my name and hang up.

There are MANY nicknames for Elizabeth: Liz, Lizzie, Betsy, Betsey, Betsie, Beth, Betty, Liza, Lisa, Libby to name a few. I frequently get the spelling with the second “e” before the “y”, but have never used that spelling and have never used the full Elizabeth except on legal documents. I have always been just Betsy. Very approachable.

As a youngster, the “Betsy Wetsy” doll was popular and I occasionally was called that. Woe to someone who tried that. Though I had the doll, I HATED the soubriquet and was a kicker (at least to naughty boys), so did not tolerate that nickname at all!

Taking my husband’s last name after marriage presented a whole other challenge, particularly as I got into professional sales more than 40 years ago, before the Internet, when everything was done over the phone (setting up appointments, making initial contacts, etc.). Some wouldn’t return my calls because they couldn’t pronounce that last name (as a little boy, Dan thought his last name was “P as in Peter, F as in Frank, A, U”). On my first sales job, we sat in an open, bull pen space. My desk was just outside my manager’s private office. He had to walk past me to get into his space, so he would often hear me spelling my last name over the phone and would “conduct” that little slogan listed above for the whole office to chant as he passed by. While working for the next company, I began a collage of misspellings of the last name, much to my sisters-in-law’s delight. Here are some examples.

Sean “Puff Daddy” Coombs was popular when David went off to overnight camp. Not knowing what to do with that last name, the kids in his cabin dubbed him “P-diddy”, or “Puff-Daddy”, sort of using the PF sound from the last name and the “D” from David for the “diddy” or “Daddy”, so that became his camp nickname. I think he was OK with it. It didn’t seem like malicious teasing. I still get “Pu-Faw” as a mispronounciation. I tell people the “P” is silent, and the name rhymes with “wow” (then I’ll do jazz hands for emphasis).

We haven’t had many other nicknames in our household. I had a pet name for Dan when we were young. I will occasionally resurrect it on cards. I can’t even remember how I came up with it now, except that it sounded vaguely Yiddish. He called me that name too, but it was strictly a term of endearment.

People who have known Dan a very long time call him Danny, but that has all but fallen by the wayside, just as my brother was Ricky as a child, but became Rick in adulthood. I seem to be the only one who never went from Betsy to Elizabeth. Betsy is who I am.



Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: Betsy, Beth, Betty, Lizzie. Puff-daddy
Characterizations: well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    As usual, Betsy, you have done a masterful job of covering the prompt in both words and pictures. (Though it would have been fun to also include a picture of you doing “jazz hands” as you pronounced your last name.) And I am really impressed by the fact that you have kept your nickname for all your life, especially as I have an “Elizabethan” daughter whom we called Lizzie until she demanded it be changed to Libby when she was eight. (There were two other Lizzies and one Izzie in her class and she wanted her own damn name.) And surviving the “Betsy Wetsy” years must have been brutal.

    And why am I not surprised that you saved and prepared a collage of your misspelled last name? It is terrific! My guest passes usually don’t survive past the elevators.

    Again, thanks for sharing this with us. Clearly, you are and will always be Betsy. But now I will always think of your last name as, in full, “Pfau; rhymes with ‘wow’.”

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, John. You’d be surprised how often my first name gets spelled “Betsey”, even in return emails, when I’ve signed my name…sigh! I only included 2 of the 3 sheets of misspellings for “PFAU”, just for simplicity and to make the point. One wonders how many variations there can be, but I’ve had over 40 unique ones. And yes, forever “Betsy”, and now you know how to pronounce that strange last name (it means peacock in German, by the way, though my father-in-law was not of German descent; to add insult to injury, it was his step-father’s last name).

      • John Shutkin says:

        “Betsey” is sure an odd one to me. The only one I can think of who spells it that way is the fashion designer Betsey Johnson.

        Mispronunciations of Pfau are more understandable, but I just assumed everyone knew the P was silent. For my own part, I remember the Pfenningers who lived just down the road from us when I was a kid. And, when I was at KPMG, I worked with a Bruce Pfau, who was head of HR (and I do not think related to you), and, of course, Bruce pronounced his name to rhyme with “wow,” too.

        • Betsy Pfau says:

          You can imagine how much we LOVE the Pfister Faucet company, whose TV commercials feature ads where everything starts with “pf”. I have some friends from the Hartford area who tell me there is a Pfau hardware store around there. There was one other Pfau family on the Vineyard when we bought there, years ago. They had been there much longer and we were often asked if we were related. Of course, we are not related to anyone named Pfau (I repeat – my father-in-law’s STEP-FATHER, not a blood relative), but it is so unusual that it is uncommon to run into others, so I am surprised that you knew someone with the name.

          I once googled my name and found an Elizabeth S Pfau buried from Grace Episcopal Church in SF, CA, aged 92, years ago. Weird.

  2. Marian says:

    You’ve done it again, Betsy, with such a thorough recap of the names. My niece is also Elizabeth, which turned out to be a compromise name because of its Jewish roots and use in the Latin world (her mom is Peruvian). Lizzie has always been Lizzie in the family, although when she went to graduate school she became Elizabeth to the world. Being an average size young woman, she can carry it off nicely. Actually, I find the Hebrew rendition of my own name much more interesting than plain old Marian: Malcha bat Zvi v’ Chana.

  3. Even though I saw that collage when you sent it to me some time ago, I was still amazed by it. Just priceless! And I appreciate the “wow” factor — I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it, and with the silent P of course it makes perfect sense now.

    I love the name Betsy — it actually makes me nostalgic for my Betsy McCall paper dolls! (We seem to have a doll thing going on between us!)

    Okay, I admit I’m curious about your terms of endearment. My husband calls me Smidge, I have no idea why or where it came from but I love it, and now I call him Smudge. We’re just silly, I guess, but that’s okay.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I remember those paper dolls! I had forgotten all about them. I loved those too. I loved all dolls, paper or otherwise.

      The nickname was sort of “pootchkee” (can’t really spell it, which is why I didn’t include it). As I said, vaguely Yiddish, made up nonsense and I don’t remember how it came into being.

  4. Suzy says:

    Great story, Betsy! I see from the featured image that you are not 2 years younger than I, as I had thought, but just one year, three months, and eleven days. 🙂

    Your collages of misspellings really cracked me up! Not just your last name, your first name too! Hard to believe it could be that hard to spell Betsy! I have a HS classmate who spells it Betsey, I always wondered why she had that extra e in there. I don’t think she changed to Betsi when that was the rage, and I’m guessing you didn’t either.

    I have always said that Elizabeth, Katherine, and Margaret were the best names to have, because they all have so many nicknames. But except for your brief flirtation with Beth in 5th grade, it sounds like you were never tempted by any of the other possibilities.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I don’t think I ever knew (or flirted) with a “Betsi” spelling, Suzy. That’s a new one on me. Nope, never tempted by anything other than my tragic association with “Little Women”. As I said, just plain old Betsy.

      Glad you liked my collection of misspellings. That is only 2 out of 3 pages I’ve put together, but you get the point. I may have exhausted them by now; I rarely see a new one – haven’t added to my collage in quite some time.

      And now we know we are MUCH closer in age than we thought!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    This a a lovely story, Betsy. We were both drawn to Shakespeare’s famous “What’s in a name” speech from Romeo and Juliet, but you published first, so I had to adapt. It’s so strange that none of the Elizabeths I knew growing up used that name. It was too formal, I guess, or in your case too big for a small gal. I loved the part about the Jewish names. We both wrote about that as well. The stories about your husband’s last name were a riot. I thought about your name visually, but never attempted to pronounce it in my head.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I guess great minds think alike, Laurie. Glad that you liked the “PFAU” saga. It is more funny in the retelling than in the living it. I can look back with amusement now, but it was a pain then. And now you know how to pronounce it!

  6. So much to unpack here. I can relate to so much of your well written piece. First of all, my paternal family also came from Kovno. They emigrated to NY in 1905, but I can trace my ancestors back to the 18th century. (The Lithuanians kept very good census records.) But the thing that I related to the most was your experience getting a difficult name when you got married. My married name is Gootblatt, and my JHS students had quite a bit of trouble pronouncing this unusual name (Anyone with this name, spelled as Goodblatt or Gootblatt is related. Not to be confused with Goldblatt!). After I returned to the classroom after my honeymoon, I gave a short tutorial on how to pronounce my name. I told the students that “Goot” rhymed with “foot”. That seemed clear to me until they started calling me “Mrs Footblatt”! Then some other kids called me “Mrs. Goodbody”. I did not mind that at all!. After that confusing start until I retired, the students called me “Mrs. “G”!! My daughter as a liberated young woman would have been expected by 21st century standards to keep her maiden name. But she did not. She claimed that some fraternity on her college campus had picked the 10 funniest names on campus and she was #9 after Toby Fingerbut! But as I got older I came to understand the meaning of this very old Jewish name and it literally means: “Good Page”, which some family members noted meant, “Reads of good page of Talmud”. Another cousin said it means someone who loves to learn. So the name is not euphonious, it’s hard to pronounce, but I love the meaning!!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you for sharing your journey with your married last name, Sara. (By the way, my maternal grandparents came to this country from Bialystock, Lithuania in 1906, after horrific pogroms.) But back to married names. Kids are smart-alecs, so they were trying to give you a hard time (I student taught seniors in high school, when I was a 5′ tall senior in college; you have much more experience than I did, as I didn’t actually get a job teaching, but I found, if I didn’t hold their attention, they’d mentally wander off. Also, I didn’t yet have this name.) But good that you worked out the “Mrs. G”. That seems to be a good compromise.

      But also fascinating what the name means and what a lovely connection for you. My brother-the-rabbi is a Talmudic scholar, so he really IS a gootblatt! I don’t know if you read all the comments to the story, but Pfau means peacock in German. Not quite as lyrical, but not just four random letters either.

    • Great!
      As for funny names, my husband had a classmate named Bathsheba Finklestein.
      Somehow it just doesn’t flow!

      And then there’s that former US Congressman with the rather ironic name – Anthony Weiner!

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        Danny’s classmate’s name is a mouthful! As for the aptly named Mr. Weiner, the less said, the better. It was Comey’s investigation of HIS emails (or rather, his wife’s Huma’s computer) that put Hillary whole email mess back on the radar screen about 10 days before the election.

  7. Betsy, as always your recall and your photos are marvelous!
    And although Elizabeth is indeed a lovely and majestic name, I think that Betsy suits you fine!

    I knew that your husband is called Dan, whereas mine is called Danny. In the late 1930s Danny’s parents fled from Hungary and Germany to South America where he was born. They named him Daniel because it is a name known in many languages and they didn’t know where they would eventually find refuge. They also lived in a troubled time.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Dana. Yes, I think Betsy suits me.

      My Dan was Danny when I met him (and as a youngster). He just outgrew the name in the consulting world, and when he stopped using it, my usage of it declined. I knew some of your Danny’s background (from introductions we would give at the beginning of meetings at Brandeis), but not all that you’ve given on Retrospect. I think his parents were smart to give him a name that was universal. And I like that he still goes by Danny. As with “Betsy”, it makes him automatically friendly and approachable.

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