My first name is incredibly common and yet most people I meet have never heard it or know how to pronounce it. I guess my parents wanted me to experience the double benefits of having a recognizable name and also deal with the constant battle of teaching others how to say it correctly.
Jens is prevalent not only in Denmark, where it originates, but also in Germany, why I originate. There have been a few well-known Jenses out there, most notably the German goalkeeper who played for Arsenal for a number of years. So at least most Premier League watchers of a certain age have heard of someone with my name. Why Germans insist on using Jens, instead of the German form of the name—Johannes—I’ll never know. I guess I could ask my parents. Maybe it’s because there are so many Johanneses in Germany, and we wouldn’t want to be mixed in with that lot.
In fact, most of the versions of my name are quite common in their countries. Go to Spain or Latin America, and you’ll find a lot of Juans. Go to Russia or Eastern Europe and you’ll find Ivan’s everywhere. And in English, of course, the name is John. See, very common, like a potato dish in a German restaurant. Perhaps my parents knew that I would grow up and live in so many countries and cultures that having a name that was both common and uncommon would aptly represent both my sense of belonging in many places and simultaneously my perennial observer status.
I think it’s the ‘J’ that trips people up most. In German, the ‘J’ almost always only appears at the beginning of a word and then it makes a ‘Y’ sound. (What does a ‘Y’ sound like in German, I hear you ask? We don’t really use it, so stop asking.) So no, it’s not ‘Gens’ or ‘Gents’. Occasionally it’s not the ‘J’, but the straight forward parts that become the stumbling block. ‘Ee-ahns’, ‘Yenz’, even a ‘Yonse’. My wife came up with perhaps the best pronunciation guide: “starts with a ‘y’ and rhymes with ‘fence’ not ‘lens’”. Good thing she gets my name right or I’d start to really question who I was.
For a few years, right before and after moving to the US for university, I went by Jimmy. It was just easier. No need to spell my name after every introduction, no need to have the ‘J = Y’ conversation, and especially no need to answer the “Cool name, where are you from? You sound American” non-questions. But besides my American accent and uncanny ability to blend into social situations, I didn’t need yet another thing about me that would connect me to a culture and place that wasn’t really my own. I slowly went back to introducing myself as Jens and so reclaiming the paradox of common yet uncommon that has defined so much of my experience.
Because I realized that it is actually a name with profound meaning. I’d sometimes wonder what it was like to have an easy-to-pronounce name, or a really unique one. But most of all, I thought about those names that carry inherent meaning and what that sort of certainty that must embody: to walk through life carrying a name of purpose, identity, and definition. Did I consider looking up what Jens/Johannes/John meant? Nope—not sure why that didn’t occur to me until a few years ago.
Johannes comes from the Greek, ‘Ioannes’, which in turn comes from the Hebrew ‘Yochanan’. (See, the ‘Y’ sound is right after all.) There are more books in the Bible named after that guy than any other; I can just see the Apostle John getting to the end of his life, writing down Revelation and debating with God on what it should be called: ‘Can we call it the Second Gospel of John? What about John 2? John Returns?’ That’s about what you’d expect from one of the sons of thunder.
I’ve always felt drawn to John’s gospel before the other three, probably because it starts with a cryptic passage about ‘the Word’ and I like books and stories. But it also is less literal, more interpretive, and written specifically to include those outside of the Jewish culture. One of its aims was to encompass the entire world, to shine light out rather than to hold it in. That resonates not only with my experience but with how I think everyone should live: shine out light, goodness, kindness and compassion, rather than holding it in.
When I finally looked up what my name meant, I felt a sense of profound peace:
God is Gracious.
That little phrase encapsulates so much of my 32 years in this world. It reminds me to be grateful, it enlightens the darker moments, it shows me the goodness of God in every situation. Above all, it points to my worth despite the paradox of having a name that is common/uncommon.
And it’s a kick in the pants when I get needlessly grumpy. Especially about having to coach someone through the ‘Y’ sound for the third time.