Identity, Life

The names they give me

"Your complicated name is not easy for me to pronounce, so I'll just shorten it, or change it."

Reading Time: 4 minutes

A few years ago, one of the lesser work supervisors walked past my cubicle, calling out, “Annie, we need to talk about this document,” as he glided past and on to his big office with the big windows.

Annie? Since when was it so hard to include the one extra syllable on my quite simple and easy-to-pronounce name?

Since when was it hard to include the extra syllable on my name? Click To Tweet

But I really don’t have much to personally complain about.

I have it relatively easy.

My name is not something difficult for an English tongue to pronounce, like, maybe Nqobile (the Q being a clicky sound made on the roof of your mouth) or Mncisi (the C being a clicky sound made just behind your teeth). Nqobile may be reduced, like someone else I know with a Q in their name, to just: Q. Very James Bond, I know, but with no need for top-secret code-names, what is the reason here?

I think, often it’s pure laziness and sometimes, superiority.

I imagine that the name-changer-person is thinking: Your complicated name is not easy for me to pronounce, so I’ll just shorten it, or change it, or reduce it to one letter.

And I’ll cover it all up with the facade that this all brings us closer together, this use of “nicknames” that may have been imposed, not out of camaraderie, but convenience.

Your complicated name is not easy for me to pronounce, so I'll just shorten it. Click To Tweet

Convenience for whom?

What’s in a name? Why does it seem that people with “ethnic” or “foreign” names have to anglicize their names to suit western tongues, for the convenience of people who make minimal to no effort to pronounce their names correctly, or even to remember full names?

In a place like South Africa, with eleven official languages (nine of them being traditional African languages), there’s heaps of room for interesting and sometimes tricky to pronounce names. Tricky, but not impossible, especially with a little practice. But people often won’t expend even a modicum of effort to get a person’s unusual name right.

Names come rich with heritage and culture. They are a symbol of who we are and where we come from, and when we are expected to change a beautiful name like Siphiwe to “Sips” or sometimes go by a wholly new creation, like calling Nkululeko “Johnny,” we are silencing that history and making it seem unimportant, less than, compared to Western culturally-acceptable names: “normal” names.

I’m sure it’s not that hard if people took two minutes to really listen to an interesting name and try to pronounce it before jumping to ask for a simplified version. I mean, have you ever heard of a Jane changing her name to Badrunisha to accommodate her fellow humans

There are actually loads of really odd names here in South Africa, like Boi Boi or Killmequick Jeffery Sanderson, or Victor Don’t-Worry Sambu.

But this is not just a South African problem. It’s a problem for American immigrants too. I was listening to a podcast the other day where one of the hosts of Call Your Girlfriend (a podcast for long-distance besties everywhere) was lamenting the fact that at every hurdle she needed to get through for her citizenship paperwork, people seemed to push the idea of changing her name on her.

Her name is Aminatou Sow, and she often shortens it to Amina, yet still, people assume she’d like to simplify it further. She went on to muse that that’s why so many Asian Americans have such English sounding names.

The citizenship civil servants seemed eager to push name changes on people. Are they just good-naturedly trying to help people to assimilate more easily by changing interesting names to something more palatable?

Or is there some darker unconscious bias at play?

It’s a problem for American immigrants too. Click To Tweet

On the other hand, I read this old-ish article in the New York Times about how immigrants are now sticking to their given names, and are not leaping at the opportunity to westernize their monikers. However, another interesting thing jumped out at me: some people still change their names to avoid being stereotyped or discriminated against, for example, some guys who are choosing to use middle names (or other names altogether) if their first name happens to be Muhammad.

In G. Willow Wilson’s novel Alif the Unseen, the main character hides behind a single letter, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, Alif, instead of his given name, which he feels is common, but which many would think is powerful and iconic. A hacker who lives the better part of his life online, but only a few people IRL know Alif’s real name. The anonymity that the internet brings by allowing us to use whatever names we choose, whenever we choose it, is seductive. But it is often also destructive, evidenced by trolls who are too cowardly to use their real names.

I’m sure it’s not that hard if people took two minutes to listen. Click To Tweet

Nowadays, with all the hassle of bank cards and driver’s licenses and countless other admin that seems way too unwieldy to deal with, people may be realizing that changing a name is quite a bother, apart from all the issues of identity and culture.

I’m sure it’s not that hard if people took two minutes to really listen to an interesting name. But what happens when we shorten or simplify our names at a time in our lives when we feel insecure and less-than, only to reclaim our power at some later point – can we go back and reclaim our names, telling everyone that no, in fact, my name is actually Earth Queen Mendoza and I would appreciate you calling me by my full name.

Or what of Princess Consuela Banana-Hammock (Friends, anyone?)?

Names are important.

People should make more of an effort to get them right.

Otherwise, find me mispronouncing your “Western” name, Beck-ehay.

Aneesa Bodiat

Aneesa Bodiat

Aneesa Bodiat is a freelance writer and editor from Johannesburg, South Africa. Find more work here: http://aneesabodiat.com/.

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