How my last name gave me thick skin

What if your last name prompted a joke wherever you went? It just might make you prouder

Headshot of Robyn Doolittle

Photo courtesy of the Toronto Star

About once a week, I’ll introduce myself to someone only to have them answer back, “Doolittle? Ha! Can you talk to animals?” In the last month it’s happened at the bank, in my HR department and with a government official I was contacting as a journalist.

We’re all dealt a hand in life. For me, the most unrelenting annoyance has been my last name. Funny, then, that I chose a profession where my work is identified by my name—my byline— and where I have to say my name about 20 times a day.

The taunts started in grade school. If Smiths were blacksmiths and Masons worked with stones, the kids figured my ancestors must have been famously lazy. “Do you do little?” “Robyn Does Little.” “Do nothing!” My younger sister, Jamie, got the same. We’d come and vent to our parents. “Yeah, I’m sorry. I had an awful time too,” my sympathetic dad confessed.

I remember commiserating one day at summer camp with a girl whose last name was Butkus (pronounced butt kiss). We both decided that we were just happy that one day we would grow up, get married and be able to get new names.

By the time Eddie Murphy brought the famed veterinarian to the silver screen in 1998, I was heading for high school, where even a few teachers asked if I had a special ability to commune with animals. This is the first time I remember adults getting in on the fun.

In university, one professor took to calling me Eliza, in reference to the poor Cockney girl in My Fair Lady. I might have been annoyed if I hadn’t been so happy about a novel Doolittle joke.

Over the years I developed a bit of a defensive tic whenever my name and strangers came together. My go-to counterattack for Doolittle jokes went something like this: I’d look them in the eye, take a long exhale, purse my lips in an annoyed but passably polite smile and sigh, “I’ve heard that one before.” So about five years ago, when a woman at a Leafs game caught sight of my press pass and shouted across a crowded elevator, “Your name is Doolittle?” I turned to her ready for passive-aggressive warfare.

But she surprised me. “I’m a Doolittle!” she cried excitedly. This not-that-distant cousin of mine was a Doolittle enthusiast and had been compiling a family tree. The original spelling appears to have been de Dolieta, but the name was anglicized after our ancestors—Norman nobles—came to England with William the Conqueror around 1085 AD.

It’s hard to pinpoint when Doolittle moved from my liability list to the strengths side, but moved it has. Today I think of my last name as a cornerstone of my identity. I still hate when people ask if I can talk to animals. And I admit I sometimes feel a tiny twinge of embarrassment when I say my surname.

But I have my name to thank for my thick skin and my compassion for the vulnerable. Plus, it’s unique. I’d be a completely different person if I’d grown up Robyn Smith. And while I might not inflict Doolittle on my children, I think I like the name Eliza for a girl.

Robyn Doolittle is a city hall reporter with the Toronto Star.

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