What’s In a Name

When I was growing up, my surname was Rothschild. My grandfather used to say that we were the “Brooklyn branch” of the fabulously wealthy European bankers. If there is a family connection, we never found it, but people nonetheless made a lot of assumptions because of the name. I learned that it was useful for making restaurant reservations.

Then, 24 years ago, I met a guy named Eric Utne. “Eric what?” I asked. He repeated a name that sounded like a digestive function. “Rhymes with chutney and means far out in Norwegian,” he explained. When we got married, we both idealistically hyphenated our names. For Eric, that phase lasted all of three minutes, but for several years, I doggedly spent most of my waking hours explaining the ungainly hybrid until I decided Rothschild was too pretentious a name to drag around and I’d just as soon share a name with my husband and children. I told Eric that I was gambling that the name Utne would become as valuable some day as Rothschild.

At that time, Eric was starting a magazine. As name after potential name waned and fell from favor, Eric, out of exhaustion and default, named it Utne Reader. Two years later, in 1986, Eric was still squirmy about having slapped his name on the cover, so he invited readers to rename it. More than a thousand people responded, and a clear majority concurred: “Keep it ‘Utne.’ It’s direct, distinctive, easy to remember. In a society where more and more people seek less and less responsibility for their thoughts and actions by hiding behind meaningless, characterless words like EXXON, it’s nice to have a publication where the person responsible makes himself known. So keep your crazy name.”

Fast-forward 16 years. Eric has left the magazine (though he’s still connected-see page 66). I am here, and so is Leif, my stepson. As you can see from our staff photo on page 112, a lot of people have dedicated a lot of their lives to this company. And our alumni association is a phenomenon unto itself. There are many people who are at least as “Utne” as Leif and I are. Over the years, Utne has come to stand for something more than a family’s surname. Like Forbes and Harper’s magazines or Webster’s dictionary, it’s taken on a broader meaning.

As we went through the process of redesigning and reorganizing the magazine, we have had to ask ourselves what keeps us here. For many of us, the bottom line is that this company is about real people leading real lives, doing our best to stay engaged, passionate, and authentic. Utne (the magazine, our other projects, and the company itself) is an embodiment and expression of what we stand for as individuals. We are committed not just to the ideas of connection and community that we espouse editorially, but also to the gritty reality of hanging in with each other when the going gets tough. We genuinely believe in the power of love and the possibilities for change in individuals and the world. And we feel privileged, grateful, and humbled to be part of the larger community of our readers.

Which brings me to dropping the word Reader. After long discussions, we decided it was cumbersome and no longer quite fit us (“too much like Weekly Reader” some said). Also, the magazine is different in some ways from what it was a few years ago, and we wanted to convey this new spirit to the world. We feel that the important elements of “reader” live on in our new tag line, “A different read on life,” and, of course, in you, our readers. On the last page of this issue, you’ll find a photo of our staff, but in the future that spot will be devoted to a new feature, Utne’s Readers, a portrait and profile of a reader. Like Kelee Katillac, a subscriber and this issue’s cover model, you inspire us, and we anticipate that you’ll inspire each other. (We welcome your nominations for readers to feature; see page 112 for details.)

My only regret is that Eric’s and my sons are inheriting a name that carries some baggage. But they can always take their wives’ names.

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