There's a place I go to for a takeaway coffee on a somewhat regular basis. They always ask my name, and then mispell it so it comes up on their screen (in my face) as “Francis.” I find this mildly irritating but as it's an indignity I've encountered since kindergarten, I usually rise above it. Today, however, I must have reached some kind of annoyance threshold so I said, when asked, “Frances with an E.” The barista seemed to smirk at my absurd preciousness, and typed it in with, I thought, the air of one humouring a spoilt child. When I saw the name correctly spelled, the first sensation of triumph was dispelled by an awareness of how trivial this fond record was, how little it mattered. My name printed there was like a name writ upon the strand, or in water. It had no bearing on my identity, or on the exchange of currency for coffee, and it made me look foolish. The barista was right, I then thought, to sneer.
However, I think in the ubiquitous mispelling of my name there is a history that matters. People who don't know any better use the male form because it's more familiar. Various Francises have made their mark on our culture: Francis Bacon, Francis Drake, Francis the Talking Mule. But where are the famous Franceses? Possibly obscured by the once fashionable diminutive “Fanny,” but more than likely they were, like Shakespeare's sister or Michelangelo's niece, born to blush unseen: erased, silenced, or simply left alone by an unaccountable and persistent preference for male achievers. Perhaps statistical evidence would not support my theory; perhaps far fewer girls than boys have borne the name. But I suspect the lids on my misnamed coffees conceal a sinister history of elision, inequity and injustice. Though writ in coffee, the mispelling is every time an affront not only to me, but to every Frances who has lived and died in the shadow of a Francis. I think I'll get my coffee somewhere else from now on. A place where the baristas don't sneer, and the coffee remains innominate.