Shairlean Railey was sure she heard the doctor say she had just given birth to a boy when she named her first-born Jeffrey. But by the time she realized Jeffrey was a girl, the birth certificate had been filled out and processed.
This month, Railey accompanied her now 25-year-old daughter to D.C. Superior Court to rectify the mistake belatedly: Jeffrey O'Brian Miller was on her way officially to becoming Angela Dale Miller.
"I was young and she was my first child. I didn't know anything," Railey said. "So I told her since I messed it up, I'll straighten it out for you."
About 500 people legally change their names each year in the District. Some have done it for religious or ethnic reasons, others wanted a unique name that stands out, while others simply did not like the sound of the name their parents chose for them.
The process is a relatively inexpensive one. The filing and copying fees total $50. It is also a relatively easy process, provided you are not a criminal and do not have creditors banging down your door.
Typically, a judge initially approves the name change after listening to the applicant's explanation and then orders the applicant to notify his or her creditors and publish the new name in a newspaper for a few weeks.
In recent months, only a few people have had their requests turned down in court. One was a woman who wanted to take the last name of the man with whom she had lived for several years, and the other was a man who wanted to take the name of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) for what he described as social reasons.
Renee Glowaki, a 22-year-old film student at American University, had thought about changing her name for a dozen years. For a while she went through what she described as her street-sign period and then her French stage. For a while, she thought of renaming herself "Renee Jolie."
Then last October she found what she now calls "real love." It was an advertisement for Napier jewelry in Cosmopolitan magazine.
"Something just clicked," said the now Renee Napier. "It was like love. You know it when it's right.
"I'm proud to be Polish, but I've been thinking of changing my name ever since I was about 10 years old in Chicago," Napier said. "I never liked my name. It just sounded bad. I wanted something less cumbersome and something prettier . . . . I won't ever get rid of this one. If I get married it's a great name to hyphenate: Renee Napier-Young."
Washington psychiatrist Ralph Wittenberg said that a lot of people find it difficult to live with a name that does not fit their self-image.
Would Marilyn Monroe have been as glamorous if she had retained her given name of Norma Jean Mortenson? And could Allen Konigsberg have found fame and fortune without first becoming Woody Allen?
"Names are terribly important, and having a name you don't like is similar to having a face you can't stand," Wittenberg said.
Consider the man who thought about changing his last name to "Lovingman" last fall because his own last name was "more abrupt and harsh than I wanted." The proposed name, he explained in his application to the court, would serve as a "reminder of the aspects of myself I want to reinforce."
The man published his proposed name for several weeks in a newspaper, but never applied for the final stamp of approval because he decided the name might call a little too much attention to himself.
One 38-year-old man asked last October that his first names be changed from Jimmy Bobby to James Brian because "they are childish."
"He'll always be Jimmy to me," said the man's father.
Leroy Antonio Joyner repeatedly asked his mother "why of all people did you have to name me Leroy?" before asking the court permission in March to drop his first name and assume his middle one. But Joyner added a new middle one: Nehamieh.
One unmarried woman changed her name last winter to a very common one after she became pregnant. "My parents have asked me to change my name to save them embarrassment," she wrote.
Sometimes, a new name just does not take.
For example, a woman who filed an application with the court May 16 said that she wanted her old name back after changing it two years ago.
When asked recently why she had changed her mind, she replied: "It's too long a story."