What’s in a Name?

About a year ago 4B introduced me to the British comedy serial “Goodness Gracious Me” and their sketches really are priceless. Many of their sketches explore the conflict and integration between traditional Indian culture and modern British life. And some, like the following, reverse the roles to view the British from an Indian perspective or poke fun at Indian stereotypes.

“Jonathan”

I saw this particular sketch back then, but recently an acquaintance reposted it on facebook and it reminded me of a post I wrote about a year and a half ago called “Pashwa’s Name.” The writing of the original post was inspired by the fact that many of my family members were finally writing P’s name correctly on Christmas cards after 6 years of crazy spellings like: “all sorts of variations, often with “Os” and “Zs” and “Ss” and “Hs” (letters that he doesn’t have in his name at all!) … My dad used to write his name as “Pazz” for several years, while [my Grandmother used the name] “Pashwa” which [she] still kinda calls him.”

The first time my mother met him they went through this exchange:

Mom: “Does your name translate into something in English?”

P: [honestly ponders this question for a few minutes…] “Well, I guess you could say light or maybe bright light.

Mom: [looks a bit puzzled, this was not how she expected him to answer the question. The look on her face was absolutely priceless. She was thinking something like “Patrice” is the French form of “Patrick,” and “P” is the Nepali version of “Peter”] “Huh? Light? I was thinking Peter or Paul or something like that. Don’t you have an English name?”

P: “No, I guess I’m just P_______ or you can call me P__ for short.”

The “Jonathan” sketch also reminds me of my new freshmen students during international orientation. At one point we had them stand up and introduce themselves, and there were quite a few students who introduced themselves by English names instead of their original more “ethnic” sounding names.

This happens a lot with Chinese students, who are often advised by educational consultants back home to pick an English name since many Chinese sounds are butchered by our American tongues. From experience I know that Burmese students tend to have particularly challenging names—not necessarily long names like Thai or Sri Lankan (I have ten Thai students this year and the average number of letters in their last names is 16!)—but Burmese names tend to have strings of letters you don’t expect to be next to each other—this year I have one student whose first name is Hnin Pwint. I tried several times to say it properly, and the poor girl kept correcting me, and finally she said she goes by the name “Snow.” (Also kind of interesting, since I don’t think it snows in Myanmar).

One of our new Nepali students also has a challenging name—Kshitij. I had to check with some friends before I met him to make sure I was saying it correctly—it is pronounced kind of like chee-teej, but when he stood up to introduce himself to the new students he proudly told the audience his name was…

“Ken.”

When I got home that night I told the P family that one of my Nepali students didn’t want to use his Nepali name, and decided to call himself by an American one.

“Why would you do that?” P asked, “Having an ethnic name is kind of cool. It’s different. It makes you stand out.”

I was a little surprised by P’s answer, since his name can and has been butchered as well, however I also agree. My name is “ethnic” in that it is mostly used by Irish-Americans (or perhaps other Irish-in-diaspora communities*), and although the combination of my first name and last name is quite common within these communities (if you google it, you will get pages of “CCs” that are not me, and as the original C____C____@gmail.com email account I get emails for the wrong “CCs” all the time!) it’s not that common of a name in general. Whereas I had a truckload of “Jennifers,” “Elizabeths,” “Marys,” and “Sara(h)s” as friends growing up, it wasn’t until high school that I met another “C” at an event I attended. During my school age years I don’t think I could have dealt with being in a room and someone calling out “C!” and more than one of us turning around to ask, “What?”

If/When P and I decide to have kids, I think we are probably in agreement that we would want to name them something  “different” but we will have to keep in mind that it should be pronounceable by both my family and his.

So I guess no “Jonathans” or “Kshtijs” for us.

* I wanted to quickly note that all my life I thought of my name as very “Irish” not “Irish American” until our (real) Irish friend RH told me that no one in Ireland is actually named “C.” It’s a noun in Ireland, and has been appropriated by Irish-in-diaspora descendants as an “Irish” name. It really rattled my world when I found out that my supposedly super-Irish-name was really inauthentic… although I guess not really, since I am not really “Irish” but “Irish American.” If it is an “Irish American” name, I guess it actually is authentic in my case.

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10 responses to “What’s in a Name?

  1. I think our husbands might actually have the same name! Or very similar.

  2. I know a couple of Kshitijs and I think the problem is that most Americans pronounce it with a hard sh when it’s really a softer s which leads to it sounding like “shit” which is why they resort to changing it :) that’s a problem with names that actually sound like words in a different language. It works both ways too, dome European names sound odd in Indian languages.

    • I definitely thought about that as I was writing out Kshitij that “shit” is not so disguised within it. I have a friend whose Nepali name sounds like “Hashish Dick-Shit,” which I’m sure causes some giggles when called out in a classroom. But I also figured that Kshitij looks so complicated on paper, I could see a lot of Americans just saying “K—what’s your name? K-shit-ja? Can I just call you Kris?” that he just didn’t want to deal with it any more.

      My sister’s name is Maura– which sounds kind of like “stupid moron” or “stupid idiot” in Nepali :)

  3. Ah I can’t watch the video but I will have to ask my P if he knows about these guys. It will be right up his British Indian alley.

    I had a similar conversation with my Grandma who was originally from Mexico and wanted to know what P’s name meant in English so she could translate to Spanish.

  4. romeo juliet from shakeshpeare , Whats ina name a rose would have smelt as sweet with any other name woow love it

  5. This reminds me of an old post I saw on Sepia Mutiny where one of the bloggers states that he tried really hard to get people to pronounce his name, Siddharth, correctly but since they kept mispronouncing it, he started introducing himself as Sid.

    • I have a Sri Lankan “Sid” at my university who was originally a “Siddharth.” I like that name, but the aspirated “Hs” seem to be hard for westerners to say correctly.

  6. heheh cool, maura=mori sid and me is lava hehehe

  7. Ah, “Irish” names. I do love proper Irish names but they are usually unpronounceable to non-Irish people. Like Eoghan (pronounce O-ann), or Niamh (Neeve) or Caoimhghín (Qwee-veen) to name but a few. I discovered that my own (one-syllable) name, which I always thought was easy to pronounce, is tough for people who aren’t accustomed to European / Anglo names. It often has a suffix added – seems to make things easier.

  8. “Jammu and Kashmir”…lol!!

    L’s mum, who’s a Portuguese speaker, only knows the Latinised version of my name (or at least the anglicised pronunciation of my name, which is actually Nepali), despite the fact that my name is only two syllables and the only difference between the latin and english versions is that the ending ‘i’ is turned into an ‘a’. I once asked him if she could just call me my real name (out of curiosity more than anything else) and he insisted that ONE changed syllable is too unfamiliar for her to remember. Dunno how we would’ve gone if I had a totally ‘foreign’ sounding Nepali name…!!

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