What’s In a Name? – A Hell of a Lot

Okay, what is wrong with people?

My name is simple. It’s only two syllables both of which are used easily in everyday conversation, so why do Americans have such an issue pronouncing my name. I even use an anglicized pronunciation of my name, I have since I was a child.

My name is Naamen. Traditionally it should be spelled NeAmen but on my birth certificate and in everyday life it’s spelled Naamen. Traditionally with either spelling it should be pronounced “Na-ah-men” (side note: my Hawaiian friends and acquaintances consistently pronounce it the correct way and spell it Na’amen, whcih I’m fine with). As it is I don’t even ask for that, only my father’s side of the family uses the correct pronunciation. For most folks it’s “Nah-men” and I think we can all agree this is not a “hard” name to pronounce or remember. But ever since I can remember people have been re-naming me and I’ve allowed it.

I’ve been called Norman, more times than I can count. I’ve also been called Naw-man, Nay-man, Day-men, De-ah-men, and the list goes on. I used to hate my name, to blame it for me not fitting in, for being different. When I played games with childhood friends I insisted on being called Alex or Adam. Even in high-school and my first few years of college whenever a teacher asked if there was a namewe preferred to be called I always instituted a nickname of Adam or Alex. When I dreamed of being a huge science-fiction writer I knew what pseudonym I would use, Saturn Walker, because I hated my name so much (although I actualy do use a pseudonym when submitting fiction it’s no longer because I hate my name).

None of these things ever stuck I was still Norman, Nay-man, Nay-men, etc. Maybe it was because I wasn’t so stringent in enforcing my nicknames or maybe it was because I didn’t do it as completely as possible, still allowing old friends to call me by my real name etc. Whatever it was I’m glad now that I didn’t allow the ignorance of people to rename me.

I’ve known so many folks who like me are first generation, their parents being immigrants, who never go by their birth name. They have an “American Name” that often has absolutely no connection to their actual birth name. Example, one of my best friends in middle-school who everyone knew as Sue, well her real name was Thuy. It was all over, a lot of my friends in high school and college were called Vincent, Phoebe, Alice, Jeanie, Linda, Chris, Pamela, Jennifer, Esther but their real names were nothing similar to those – their real names were from China and Taiwan, Japan and Nigeria, Ghana and Vietnam, Iran and Ethiopia, Guatemala and UAE. They or their parents had decided that those names were secret, hidden, only to be used among friends and family.

I know so many of these folks who are now angry and trying to reclaim their name, have people stop calling them by their “American Name”.

The history of re-naming people who are different and especially POC is dark and ominous in America. We know what happened to all those Africans who lost their names, and fought to keep some of their culture alive. So why have been so ready to give up our names for something more “All-American”?

I’ve actually had folks say “I’m just gonna call you _____” which when I was younger I agreed to, this gave me a large smattering of nicknames in high school all connected to some mangling of my name but nowadays I simply say “Actually I would prefer to keep my birth name if it’s all the same to you.” If any one of us had trouble pronouncing David or Solomon, would there be the audacity to ask to call them something else? No. Because they’re names are normative and ours are “weird” or “foreign”. So we give up our identity or names to be more like everyone else.  (I could get into the theft of “foreign” names for Fantasy novels and such and they way everything should be exotic and magical and the way that ties into this but that’s a separate post altogether)

One of the reasons we do this is because all too often Americans act like they can’t pronounce our names. Often it’s not a conscious act, they’ve been told that all those foreign names are incomprehensible so why even try, right? The saddest part of this act is that for most it’s unconscious and that those of us with names outside the norm buy into it too. And so when we tell them our names  and they lean forward with that “huh?” and small smile inviting us to share in the joke of our own name, we smile back because we’ve been taught that yes our names are funny. We’re taught that our names are so different, so foreign with both of these being understood to mean “bad”, “strange”, “not one of us”.

We often don’t stop to think about if on a simple linguistic level our names really are that hard. Most often it’s not that they can’t pronounce two, three or four simple syllables. It’s that societally they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge our lives and choices. We are a conscious reminder of change, of immigration and “the others” who are becoming more and more populous. Renaming us is a way to makes us less threatening, to change our identity and rob us of some agency by naming us as if we were a pet.

My own personal experiences bear this out if only because people who want to be friendly with me, new co-workers or friends of friends have very little trouble pronouncing my name. They may forget my name later, but that’s a completely different thing. Compare that to the security lady at my office building who has asked for my name over 5 times and still can not get it.   

Another huge reason we change our names or allow them to be changed is because of the way that “foreign” sounding names can count against us (I think with this reason it’s more often parents who create an “American Name” or change the family name to better fit in with American society) . Having a name that is so obviously not American can work against us in numerous ways in our everyday life.  A 2003 study saw that names that sounded white were 50% more likely to get a callback than names that sounded stereotypically African-American. Now in this day and age of immigration reform and a much more insular America having a name that marks you as not American affects your life every single day from people. trying to change it, to people making fun of you for it, to people assuming that you must be an illegal (which can land you in a detention center for months whether true or not).

That’s really the least of it, our name is our mark on the world, it’s a huge part of our identity to see it so easily tossed aside, mangled or chalked up as a negative is simply hurtful.

This is not to say that you may not mis-pronounce anyone’s name in your life. I do it too, except I try to never do it more than once. I repeat the name to myself or write it down or a million other methods used to remember things. So yes, there are some names that you might find are actually hard to pronounce and you might need some coaching to get through the first couple of times but re-naming someone…well this ain’t the south and my name ain’t Toby.   


28 responses to “What’s In a Name? – A Hell of a Lot

  1. No joke about starting early in teaching people about banning self-definition and allowing others to define them.

  2. My parents are just about the only people in the USA who pronounce my name correctly, but Americans by and large cannot pronounce it right because it’s not a sound syllable emphasis in English. So I go with the American pronunciation (even my spouse uses the American pronunciation).

    It’s not only Americans who have this problem, though. When we lived in Mexico, we quickly ceased attempting to introduce our daughter Rhiannon as Rhiannon and just started telling people her name was “Anna”. Occasionally she still does this in certain circs.

    I think maybe people who grow up exposed to multiple languages/cultures have a better sense of multilingual naming, while mono-cultures (like many in mainstream America) get blocked mentally by those, um, furrin names. But there are certain names I have the worst trouble with because I have NO familiarity with the language they come from. In those cases I find the only way I can remember them is to write them out transliterated. It’s like i have to construct a slot for them.

    You have an awesome name, by the way.

  3. Kate –
    I think maybe people who grow up exposed to multiple languages/cultures have a better sense of multilingual naming, while mono-cultures (like many in mainstream America) get blocked mentally by those, um, furrin names.

    I think that you hit the nail on the head. Being multicultural for myself meant that I have a better chance of pronounciations of syllables that do not exist in the English language. I also think there’s this added expectation that everyone know English and speak it perfectly which adds to the fear and ignorance around those furrin names.

    You have an awesome name, by the way.

    Thanks. It took me years to be comfortable with it but now that I am – I’m very proud of my name and the variations in it.

  4. Growing up with an immigrant parent (as I did) is always a plus on these matters.

    I’m guessing your name comes from a Hamito-Semitic language group because it’s got such correspondences with, say, Biblical Hebrew (where what we call Canaan is pronounce Ke-na-ahn). Not to mention Hawaiian! *g*

  5. Ohhhhh I so hear you on this post. Even though I’m sure my name puzzles people less than yours — because they think they can pronounce mine, but then they don’t & even after correcting them a thousand times they still do it wrong. 😛

    I hate hate hate when people throw up their hands & say things like, “I can’t say Person X’s name right, I would sound like a poser!” (someone said this to me in reference to a French intern at an old workplace, whose name was Violaine — vee-oh-len — but this person insisted on calling the intern vee-oh-lane to avoid “sounding like a poser”) & I think it’s worse when it’s not a nationality that might be vaguely familiar (like French).

    “Another huge reason we change our names or allow them to be changed is because of the way that “foreign” sounding names can count against us”

    Yep… my uncle, whose birth name was Joaquim N[Filipino last name here], changed his name to JACK NELSON, presumably for those kinds of reasons. Augh.

    Ohhhh I could totally rant about this subject for ages — but that’d be a damn long comment.

    (& hey, just an fyi, if your name was Filipino it’d probably be Na-ah-men too. 🙂 )

  6. (! I hate the automatic emoticons — the tongue-sticking-out one always looks much happier than I mean it to be.)

    (& re: what Kate said — sometimes if I’m ordering food & have to have my name called out, I’ll tell them my name is Hanna or Anna just because it’s easier, sigh. And less annoying to me than being called joe-hanna, at least.)

  7. Kate-

    I’m guessing your name comes from a Hamito-Semitic language group

    Good Guess!
    My name comes from Ge’ez which is a mostly dead Semitic language that’s only spoken by a few churches anymore, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church being one of them. The written form however survives as the written form of Amharic and Tygrina. It basically means “We Believe”, very biblical if I do say so myself. *g*

  8. johanna-
    It’s insane to me that after correcting people they’ll still cling to their pronounciation, even if it’s all wrong.

    I spelled out my name for someone on the phone today because I was making an appointment and they still called me ‘Norman’! I just wanted to scream, I mean in what world is “aa” pronounced “or”? Seriously! It should not be that difficult.

    I understand what you’re saying about the simplicity too and not correcting people/giving shortened names sometimes. Often when I get coffee or take out it’s under the name Adam, just ’cause I don’t want to deal wwith the whole back and forth. And the security lady in my office building still calls me “Namee” after I’ve corrected her over 20 times. I’ve given up because it seems to do no good and just wastes my energy.

  9. I spelled out my name for someone on the phone today because I was making an appointment and they still called me “Norman”! I just wanted to scream, I mean in what world is “aa” pronounced “or”? Seriously! It should not be that difficult.

    From what I know about differences in American pronunciation, I can certianly imagine native speakers of American English for whom your name as pronounced by most Americans is a homonym of “Norman.” The range of sounds that represent the “ah” in “caught,” the “ah” in “cot,” the “ar” in “cart,” and the “or” in “court” is tricky to deal with. (Merriam-Webster has a lot more to say on the matter than most people expect: http://www.merriam-webster.com/help/MWOL%20Pronunciation%20Guide.pdf ) What’s more, Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged dictionary lists one pronunciation of “Norman” as using the vowel sound from “cot” instead of the vowel sound from “court,” which would make a homonym even more likely.

    Still, this is going to be a limited group of people. Mostly, it influences what people think you’re saying when you say your name. If I only heard you say your name, without hearing enough of your other pronunciation, I’d probably guess that you were saying “Norman” too.

    And I have no clue how anyone could have gotten to “De-ah-men” though.

  10. I am so with you! Ironically, I used to use my Chinese first name when I lived in the US, but when I moved to Taiwan, one of the white English teachers there said to my mom, “I can’t learn all these Chinese names. If your daughter doesn’t have an English name, I’ll name her Judy after myself.” And since then I’ve used my English middle name.

    I just… what the hell was that teacher expecting when she moved to TAIWAN to teach English?

  11. Hah hah, I’ve definitely been sent through the extra security at the airport because of my name (“Ahyicodae”), which is just a made-up word that I liked the look and sound of. I changed my birth name years ago — never liked the family-name stuff, in part because it’s patriarchal. My mother’s name has changed with every marriage while my family name reflected only my father’s side. Why should it be that way? So I got rid of the family name entirely and made up my own new name/identity.

    They don’t like me at the airport. 😛 The security checkers read my name and usually let it go after making funny faces at me, sometimes call a superior, and sometimes just put me through the extra security check.

    To be fair, it does work the other way sometimes. My brother, Barnaby, was always called “Burr” or “Bee” by his Korean drum instructor and fellow students, who couldn’t say his name properly. They didn’t know how to spell it either, so on a card to him they put a drawing of a bee for his name. XD I thought that was cute.

    I usually let the first mistake slide. Especially depending on where I am. Like in Ireland, where we have family — a hotel managed to absolutely mangle my Japanese stepmother’s name, despite having it spelled out for them.

    But really, Naamen is not even a hard name to spell, read, or say, by Anglo standards, especially if you go with the two-syllable Nah-men to make it easy for people. It’s clearly not “Norman.” It’s not that long a name. It shouldn’t be that hard for people.

  12. Tablesaw-
    I see what you’re saying but it seems to me the vowel sounds you’re discussing their talking about “r” dropping speakers which seems to be the opposite of what I’m talking about which is inserting an “r” sound when there’s no r but I could have been reading it wrong.

    Either way you’re right it’s a limited segment of people and I forgive most people who mis-pronounce my name at first because I can understand that but when it’s repeatedly done by the same person, like the co-worker who called me Norman for 2 years, despite my nametag and everyone else in the place correctly pronouncing it, it just seems a bit deeper than a simple lack of understanding.

  13. Oyce-

    “I can’t learn all these Chinese names. If your daughter doesn’t have an English name, I’ll name her Judy after myself.”

    OMG! I can’t pronounce your child’s name so re-name them or I’ll do it myself.

    That’s so fucking rage inducing and arrogant. Seriously? Moving to a foreign country and expecting them to conform to your standards is such assholishness. I get twitchy whenver I’m told “Oh so-and-so is going to ______ to teach english.” It makes me feel really weird and seems so colonizing especially if they’re pulling this kind of crap.

  14. Ico-

    I’ve been flagged for the extra security quite a bit as well and part of it I’m sure has to do with the fact that a lot of people mistake my name for Middle-Eastern which means an automatic security check in this Anti-Middle East malaise that’s been gripping the country.

    Your brothers case is one instance where I’ll allow a nickname to slide. I’ve run into people who can’t pronounce my name simple because the language they grew up with doesn’t use the syllables of my name often or at all. But like you said by Anglo standards my name is not hard at all which is what makes me think there’s more going on that a simple mis-understanding.

  15. Interesting. I live in a bilingual society (French/English) where most people just accept to have their names pronounced either in English or French depending on the language of the speaker. Because every name has an English pronunciation and a French one and often they can be quite different. I would guess this is true for other languages as well. I mean, is it so bad if someone pronounces your name differently based on their own linguistic abilities?

    Not that Naamen is hard to prounounce in English so I don’t get the deal there, but I mean, is it really so bad to have Violaine pronounced Vio-lane? “aine” is prounounced “ehn” in French but “ane” in English, so what’s wrong with that?

    But I’m really just playing devil’s advocate because I actually hate it when people mispronounce my name. My name is Nicole, which sounds quite different in English and French. Despite being Anglophone I’ve always preferred the French pronunciation. Although listening to an Anglo try to pronounce it in French is just painful so I’d prefer they not even try. But that brings me back to the linguistic ability thing. My mother always insists on pronouncing my bf’s name in French but it’s just embarrassing. Just say it in English! She tries because he’s French but there is a difference between the true French pronunciation and the over-exaggerated Anglo trying too hard to be French pronunciation. (English pronunciation: PHILip. French pronunciation: philIP. Anglo trying to be French pronunciation: Phileeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.)

    Anyhoo, back to me, (and in the end, isn’t your blog all about me? *cough*) Ever since I can remember my nick name has been Nic, but pronounced “Neek”, which takes the French sound for the first syllable. But no one seems to get this. Neither French or English speakers. Everyone insists on calling me Nic with the Anglo pronunciation. Many years ago I started spelling it Nique because I thought this would make the pronunciation clear but nope, ppl still don’t get it, (in Quebec French “ique” is pronounced “ic” whereas in France French it is “eek” – which is also interesting, even in one language pronunciation can vary by region) so I’ve basically just accepted the fact that only family and close friends know how to say my name properly. And maybe it’s ok that people are doing their best and using whatever pronunciation that makes sense to them.

    But… I still cringe whenever people call me Nic or *shudder* Nicky, because that’s just NOT how I self-identify.

  16. Umm… sorry for posting a freaking novel.

  17. When my daughter was a week old she had to be readmitted to the hospital because of jaundice — easily resolved, as it happened, but since she was our firstborn it was mightily trauma inducing at the time to me, as her mother.

    So I was anyway exhausted and terrified as we went to check her in at the reception desk, and the receptionist woman said, “what is her name?”
    And I said, “Rhiannon.”
    She gave me a sharp look and, irritated, said, “can you spell that?”
    I was exhausted and anxious, and she was a week old, and I stumbled a tiny bit as I spelled it out, and she LEAPED on my stumble and made a very rude comment about how if I had given her a real (ordinary) name, this wouldn’t have happened.

    And here Rhiannon is a perfectly good European name! But not, obviously, European enough, not like John, Frank, Nancy, or Joan.

  18. Nique — if Violaine had said it was okay to pronounce her name two different ways, or had introduced herself pronouncing her name in two different ways (or as vee-oh-lane), that would perhaps be a different story. To me it’s quite different when outsiders impose a different pronunciation, particularly because they say it’s “too hard.” And also particularly so when it’s someone from the US, a country that already has a lot to answer for in terms of cultural imperialism etc.

  19. Nique:
    Don’t worry I don’t mind the novel :p

    Like johanna says I think a lot it has to do wtih permission adn re-naming. If someone says “Oh it’s okay to call me this” or “If that’s how you say it it’s fine.” or if they simply say they don’t care, that’s one thing but to arbitrarily decide that you will give someone a name they weren’t born with? It has some horrible connotations and also robs people of the agency to self-identify.
    That’s where the problem comes in and it’s also about why can you {not you specifically, the person in question} not pronounce the name the way the person prefers it? Because you actually cannot pronounce the syllables or because you’ve given up before you tried, as in johanna’s example.

  20. Pingback: links for 2008-07-10 at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  21. Just a note: Not all Asian Americans have Americanized their name to something that is completely different from their birth name. In fact, many born here are actually BORN Katherine, Elizabeth, James or Edward. Asians tend to use very traditional names or nick names that were trendy several decades ago. I went to school with a girl named Peggy. SERIOUSLY. PEGGY, not Megan.

  22. chinesecanuck-
    Oh I know!
    I don’t think I implied differently in the article and if you felt that it was implied that all As-Am have two names a birth one and an Americanized one I’m very sorry because that was not my intention. I have plenty of Asian friends whose birth names are Pam, Joni, Jennifer, etc. I was just trying to concentrate on people from all over the world not not born with American names who now live in America (or other English-speaking countries).

  23. It seems that most of the post address a person’s call name (first name) but I would like to talk about the mispronunciation / misspelling of my surname – Simons. Over the course of MANY years our surname has changed, finally settling on what we currently have which SO few people in the USA can seem to get right. They always want to spell and pronounce it as if it is spelled Simmons. I have often found it interesting that most other places in the world seem to have no problem getting either right.

  24. “Na-ah-men” – “It’s only two syllables”

    That reads as three syllables to me. Which one is stressed? One problem that americans would have with your name is the “aa” which does not occur in any english word that I can remember.

  25. jed-
    Right after “Na-ah-men” it says:
    As it is I don’t even ask for that, only my father’s side of the family uses the correct pronunciation. For most folks it’s “Nah-men”

    The way most folks (i.e. anyone not on my father’s side of the family) pronounce it is Nah-men.
    A lot of people remember by saying “Oh it rhymes with Ramen” (as in top Ramen) but with an N. Which is why I find it so odd. How many people cannot pronounce Ramen?

  26. There may be a subconscious respect thing going on, too. I was just thinking about this in re the whole Sanders – Truesdale outbreak, as part of a post i’m working on, because my name while being a traditional European one, not all *that* uncommon, seems to be unpronounceable to teachers, bosses, and people who are technically peers but trying to pull some kind of social dominance thing. It’s one syllable, it’s pronounced exactly the way it’s spelled according to the normal English phonics rules, it rhymes with many common English words spelled the same way (alas) and there are a number of public figures I share it with. And yet, teachers, work superiors, and rivals from the playground onward always insist in turning it into two syllables, making it a diminutive or a different name altogether.

    (I’m not talking about people from different linguistic backgrounds, who might legitimately have trouble with the combination of sounds, either – these are lifelong native speakers who don’t have a problem pronouncing the same name when talking about Celebrity X or Historical Figure Y!)

    I think there’s some kind of name-magic going on here, in which rude and insecure people are trying to deny the reality and identity of other people they regard (or want to regard) as social inferiors, by refusing to say our names correctly even when corrected.

  27. bellatrys-
    I completely agree. I think there’s a huge link between respect and pronounciation because it’s never consistent. Because it’s not as if it’s people from a certain region who catch my name better than others. I notice that my friends and others who actually respect me have no problem remembering my pronounciation but people who don’t like me or want to “put me in my place” so to speak will mis-pronounce it all the time and sometimes never get it right even after my telling them 10 times.

    Can’t wait to see your post on this.

  28. Maybe the “Norman” people are responding to your thick Jersey accent? (kidding)

    Does that banner SERIOUSLY say what I think it does? If so, as a NATIVE American, I think I must go kick something…

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