When I was about nine years old, I legally changed my name.
For almost ten years, I didn’t use my current surname. I used my mother’s name instead. There were other reasons at play, but part of it was how much I hated having to constantly tell people they were pronouncing it wrong.
My first name is straightforward. My surname is not. It invites pause.
Only when I turned 18 did I find the guts to switch back. It felt dishonest. And I like my name. It rolls off the tongue nicely, with a soft back of the throat purr. It has a history; it traces back to a figure from the Old Testament, it’s a thin thread connecting me to people who lived thousands of years ago and to my Eastern European ancestors.
Yet it’s also pretty much impossible to pronounce based on the spelling (or spell based on the pronunciation.) My name was badly translated into English and is spelt in a way which is almost entirely distinct from its phonetic pronunciation. When a Polish librarian glanced at my card and told me I was spelling it wrong, I had to agree. Only once has someone (a lawyer) gotten it right at the first attempt, by some witchcraft.
There’s only one way to get people to remember the pronunciation: tell them it rhymes with ‘bitch.’ Mocking my own name is the easiest way to preserve it.
Every time I make a customer service call or try to book an appointment or anything where they already have my details on file, I have to guess at which misspelling they’ve got down. It doesn’t matter how carefully I spelt it out, letter by letter, in the first place. It’s nearly always wrong. I go through a repetitive headache with it being spelt wrong on paperwork.
Every time I think I’ve seen every possible misspelling or mispronunciation, someone surprises me with a new one. Sometimes it’s bad enough that I don’t even recognise they’re referring to me.
It is not in any way shameful to misspell or mispronounce someone’s name by accident.
There are far more names out there than any of us will encounter in a lifetime. Some names have multiple different spelling and pronunciations. Sometimes making a sound that isn’t present in your native language can be almost impossible. I don’t ever expect anyone to get my name right straight away.
The point is, a lot of people just don’t care. Quite often, people do it on purpose. They bastardise the syllables in a mocking way or parody it. They say “whatever” when I correct them or refer to me as “Rosie whatever-your-name-is.” People with tricky first names often get landed with unwanted nicknames or abbreviations or learn to answer to mangled versions.
To a degree * it’s understandable that names associated with minority groups are more likely to be mispronounced — people encounter them less often. However, it seems to be incredibly common for people to refuse to learn names from outside their own ethnicity or to use nicknames more in line with the names they consider normal. There’s some evidence that this is especially harmful when it happens in schools, leading minority students to feel shame about their backgrounds and to lower academic performance. It also leads to situations where students may not recognise their names during roll call (leading to them being marked absent) or during graduation ceremonies.
‘Refusing to say someone’s name or not even giving them the dignity of an attempt is its own form of dehumanization. You rob someone of their personhood when their existence is somehow an inconvenience to you.’
What matters is not getting everyone’s names right first time. It’s making the effort not to do the same thing again and again. It’s taking the extra few seconds to ask, however embarrassing that can be. It’s understanding that you are going to encounter names from other cultures and might as well get used to it.
It’s a similar thing to actually making the effort to remember people’s names in the first place. We all forget names, but it’s usually because we’re just not paying attention. We don’t care enough.
People’s names matter. They aren’t the whole of our identities, but they’re a big part of it.
When someone refuses to even try to get it right it is a gesture of disregard and disinterest in our humanity. When they do, it sends an important signal. There’s a reason names often have such a deep significance in mythology and folklore.
An ex once admitted that, after asking for the phonetic pronunciation of my name, they’d privately practised saying and writing it. They still got it wrong sometimes, but the gesture said a lot.
As Gerardo Ochoa writes:
‘Pronouncing someone’s name correctly can make people feel valued, honored and respected — and mispronouncing their name creates real problems.
… All of us, myself included, are going to stumble and fumble. But it’s not your mistake that matters most; it’s what you do after the mistake. That’s when you have the chance to make someone feel like they belong — or feel like they’re the other. What will you choose to do?’
Gerardo offers three tips for getting names right which I’ll paraphrase here:
Be humble — admit when you’re having difficulty with a name
Gerardo refers to those who confidently, sometimes arrogantly, mispronounce names because they don’t want to look silly and are sure they’ll get it right. But if you’re not sure, ask. Let them correct you.
Be an active bystander
If you hear/see someone saying/spelling a name wrong and you know the correct version, tell them. If they’re doing it on purpose or not making the effort, tell them.
Don’t change someone’s name just because you can’t say it
It’s common for people with unusual or difficult to say names to start using a simplified version or to let people give them nicknames. Sometimes this is voluntary, sometimes people force it on them. I often just use the first three or four letters of my surname when it seems easier.
The problem is, any name that isn’t what they normally use isn’t going to connect. It’s not what they see themselves as. It doesn’t tug at the attention in the same way. Changing their name feels too familiar, too domineering. I personally never abbreviate people’s names unless they introduced themselves to me that way or they have asked me to.
Punita Chhabra Rice writes:
‘I am South Asian American and spent over a decade mispronouncing my name for my own teachers to make it easier for them to say. My name is pronounced Pu-nee-tha; but for years, I said “Puh-nee-da.” I’m not alone in doing this; a lot of South Asian Americans I know offer an Americanized pronunciation of their names (Unn-jal-ee goes by “Anne-julie”), if not another name entirely (Sanket goes by “Prasad”). In spite of offering teachers what I imagined was an easier version of my name, most still pronounced it wrong (“Poo-needa?” “Paw-needa?”).’
To which I’ll add:
Look it up before meeting someone if you’re unsure
There are plenty of websites that offer guidance, like NameShouts.
One day last year, I went to collect my cat, Patti (after Patti Smith), from the vet after an operation. When I picked up the carrying cage, I noticed the vet had affixed a small label with her name on to the top.
For a moment, it perplexed me. To me, Patti’s Patti-ness was so innate that it had literally not occurred to me that someone might look at her and just see a little scruffy black cat. That they would need a label to identify the right animal. She was just Patti to me, that name entirely entangled with everything I felt about her.
It is the same with our own names. They are part of us and the way we relate to the world.
Note: I am not counting myself as a minority, merely as someone with a name that is tied to a minority group.