How do you spell that?

November 20th, 2008
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Back to the plight of the difficultly named. You may recall the Globe article discussed here a while back. It was under the sub-heading “diversity” in the Careers section.

Part of the “awkward”, or difficult experience people have with their names is the apparent or perceived coercion to Anglicize their names. Again, this happens. I had a Greek kid in my grade one class (that would be in 1966). His first name had about six syllables, so on the first day our teacher said “Mind if we just call you ‘Van’”? Of course he said yes. A friend once asked me, only half jokingly, why I didn’t just change my last name to “White”.

Neither of these examples meets the sensitivity threshold Ms Bascaramurty of the Globe suggests. On the other hand, they don’t quite match the social compulsion seen elsewhere – like the Magyarization in Hungary or Armenians in Turkey changing surnames to save their skins.

Family names are one thing. You’re essentially stuck with them. Given names are, well, given. Bascaramurty’s protagonist, Ms Friesen-Kobayashi is put out that people have difficulty with her first name, “Misa”. OK, maybe people should be a little more perceptive but, again, what can one reasonably expect with the proliferation of unusual names and apparently deliberately confusing spelling?

Let’s start with “odd” names. Clearly oddness is in the ear of the beholder. When we had our first child my mother expressed the hope that we wouldn’t choose a “modern” name like Meagan, perhaps not realizing that Meagan was in fact a traditional (if Celtic) name. The weird-name trend in North America likely dates back to the Sixties, with Flower Children giving their kids all sorts of New Age monikers. One thinks immediately of Moon Unit Zappa or River Phoenix.

A friend had the pleasure of camping in Nelson, B.C. and seeing a four year old boy standing on top of a slide. He was urinating down the metal ramp, watching with wonder the descent of the yellow stream. His mother, in a peasant dress and tie-dye blouse, yelled over at him “Now you stop that Charlemagne!” The little boy’s sister was named “Hopi”. I recently read reference to a baby called “Danica”, which I thought that was a type of floor covering.

A weird name may dog a person. One periodically reads stories about how an unusual name forges others’ perceptions of you for life – i.e. a Sigmund isn’t perceived as well as a Steve. Ms Misa may not like it, but some people with “difficult” names actually want to simplify them – my childhood friend “Van” never complained; and some of you may have noticed the number of men, originating from certain parts of the world, who like to be called “Mo”.

Of course some enlightened countries like France and China make it illegal to register children with what the government believes to be an unacceptably weird name. France also famously has a law which forbids one from naming one’s pet pig “Napoleon”. Presumably naming it “Adolf” would be OK.

Then there’s deliberately odd spelling. Back in the day names were generally spelled one way. It was “Laurie”, not “Lori”. The most you might have to ask was “Is that Cathy with a ‘K’”? Spelling your name “Lynda” was considered odd. OK, this was forty years ago. Part of the problem is that English allows for several different spellings of the same sound. (I regret to say that a quick survey of my company directory shows four “Laurie’s”, eleven “Lori’s” and one “Lorie”).

Compared to some real examples today though, the days of “one Laurie” seem even further away. How does it help to spell your name “Camryn” or “Sheryn” given that you’ll have to spell it out for people for the rest of your life? Then there’s the baby in a Winnipeg ad I saw last week named “Cirrus”. Now is that pronounced like the cloud or the Persian king?

Certainly people are entitled to respect when it comes to their names. Conversely, they should be understanding if others don’t clue in right away. That said, I draw the line at deliberately eccentric spellings of common names. Notice there are no Geawns or Djoredjes on this page.

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By John Weissenberger