Even Stephen Asks: What's in a name?

Saint Stephen (as depicted by Giacomo Cavedone)
Starting in September, 2011, I will be working for ESET, which has it's North American headquarters in San Diego. But I'm sure I won't be the only Stephen Cobb in San Diego. 

So, when my soon-to-be-employer asked how I wanted my name to appear on my business cards I took a moment to think about it. My equivocation brought to mind a recent blog post by my friend and fellow serial entrepreneur, Lucinda Bromwyn Duncalfe

Some people might know Lucinda as Lucinda Holt or Lucinda Duncalfe-Holt but in this blog post she explains why she recently decided to be Lucinda Bromwyn Duncalfe (which I think has a nice ring to it). 

I can relate to name changing, not because I'm a married woman and have wrestled with male surname adoption, but because I'm a guy who changed his name for a while, not legally, but in practice. That's right, for nearly 20 years I liked to be called Steve, even though it clearly says Stephen on my birth certificate (FYI, I was not christened or baptized "Stephen" because I've never been subjected to those rituals, but that's another story).

In packing for the move to San Diego I came across my well-worn copy of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience which I received when I won the King Henry VIII School prize for English in 1970. Inside was a label that I put in all the books that I took with me to university, first Leeds in England, then McMaster in Canada. The label said: Property of Steve T. Cobb.

I blame Steve McQueen and then my school friend Steve Richardson, my college roommate Steve Donnelly, plus Steve Martin and several other Steves who seemed cooler than Stephens. It was only in the 1980s, when I first moved to California, that I decided to go back to the original Stephen. And that's how my name got recorded as an author at the Library of Congress when I started writing books about computing. Since then I have noticed a proliferation of Stephen Cobbs which frankly surprises me. I grew up in a city of more than 250,000 people and my family were the only Cobbs. Until I was 11 years old there were no other Stephens in the schools I attended.

Another surprise in recent years has been the number of people who see my name written down as Stephen and pronounce it Steffen. This often happens when I check into a hotel. I say "I have a reservation, last name Cobb" and the receptionist says something like "Yes, for one night, Steffen Cobb." I started correcting people by pointing out "My name is Stephen, like in the Bible" assuming people would know the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, as described in the New Testament (Acts 6-7).

That strategy really didn't gain much traction and I decided that comparing myself to a saintly martyr seemed a bit presumptuous. So I developed what I thought would be a more amusing way for people to get it right, by referring to what I thought was a well-known Christmas carol: Good King Wenceslas. The opening verse of this carol, which was sung religiously, pun intended, every year in church and school when I was growing up in England, goes as follows:
Good King Wenceslas looked out,
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even.
I would then point out that if you pronounce Stephen as Steffen, then change "even" so that it rhymes with Steffen, then the outcome of this verse is quite different, and not very religious (the snow being deep and crisp and effin'). Sadly, this got just as many blank faces as the more direct reference to the martyr. I found myself explaining that the day after Christmas is the feast of Saint Stephen, also known as Boxing Day in England, and that King Wenceslas who was actually a Duke, would himself go on to be a saint, revered in both Bohemia, of which he was Duke, and England, which is where I, Stephen, learned to sing the words you see below. Altogether now, let's hear it G G G A G G D...


  1. Hi fellow Stephen,
    I feel your greif of the name for I have it too. I used to scorn people for calling Me 'STEF-en' The only concern I have with being called 'STEF-en' is if the name gets spelled like -Stefan- I too am predomanantly 'STEEV-en' but for the phact rules have changed that P and H are two consenents which compels people to pronouce it 'STEF-en' There are many other names with counter-intuitive pronunciations. I processed it for a year because there were many occasions when people read my name, I was called 'STEF-en' and at one point I even intro'd myself as such.
    I usually intro myself generally as -Steve-. Having a name that is duelly pronounced can be hard but I have been trying to immunize with it instead of getting ophended,lol. I have combed the internet obsessively relating to the name -Stephen- of course most pron. it 'STEEV-en' and some pron. it 'STEF-en'
    It seems with this name if you pro. it one or the either people will always pron. it the counter. The usuall suggestion if you want to be called 'STEEV-en' get it legally changed to -Steven- other wise immunize.

  2. I'm glad to have re found this complaint. I've been getting pretty accosted with the pronunciation of "STEF-en" and I have made a new found jihad to educate people about Why is pronounced "Stee-Ven" The way I say it is the "ph" is a "uni-letter" like this Æ coupling for F but an F isn't always an F, it becomes like V when in a submissive position in the word or name meaning in the flow or the end of the word or name. I've heard Alex Trebek say JOS-eV for Joseph. I'm in the good fight to fight what I call the heckle. Need to talk Hit Me Up, or join Us in the fight and support.

  3. Stephen W. above passed this issue of your blog on to me. Thanks for your excellent work and it's wonderful to hear another Stephen put it so well. In my opinion it is different in the past 10 to 20 years. Clerks in hotels and stores are the worst. But in the past it seems it was more widely known that the name StEEven had two spellings. One of the first times I saw this crumbling was when I met a woman who named her son a name she pronounced STEFFAN, but spelled it Stephen! I just immediately concluded that she and her husband were illiterate! That is still my opinion. It is the lack of exposure to literature and history more than anything that fuels the mispronunciation! Anyway, Stephen W. above and I met on a silly Facebook group I created for just such steam blowing-off. It is called "my name is Stephen, not Steffan, you moron!" Please consider searching for this group and joining us! Your presence would class up the place a lot! I look forward to more great submissions in your blog as well. I plan on becoming a follower! Cheers! Stephen Nelson

  4. […] That’s not exactly what is represented in the series of British stamps you see here, but the story they illustrate, that of “Good King Wenceslas,” does relate to Boxing Day, which is also the feast day of Saint Stephen. That is the day on which the Saint Wenceslas miracle occurred (involving the high born Wenceslas and his page taking alms to the poor in the snow, a story to which I relate for the strange reason noted here). […]