What’s in a name?

A name is a powerful thing. In many cultures’ folklore, to name a creature is to control it, or to have power over it. Names define who we are, and when a person changes their identity, or take control over their identity, they change their name. 

Sadly, I have never felt a sense of strength from my own name. 

I recently read this article entitled “It’s Not ‘Exotic’: Respect The Weight Of My Name On Your Tongue.” The author, Mansi Kathuria, wrote about living with a non-English name that is uncommon in the US, and how she struggled with people not only mispronouncing it, but disrespecting her and attempting to whitewash and Anglicize it. 

Kathuria writes:

“My name is my history and my identity. It is rooted in my family, the language they grew up speaking, and the linguistic and spiritual roots of India. My name was carefully chosen by my father for it’s meaning. My name is not yours to mispronounce, not yours to make a mockery of. My name is a conscious choice I make. My refusal to adopt a more “American” nickname is a choice I make every day, during every new encounter, at every coffee shop. It is not my job to tell you consistently to pronounce it correctly; it is your job to ask.”

“To every person, their name is the most beautiful word, and the one heard the most clearly. Respecting a name is respect for that individual.”

Having lived almost 23 years with an uncommon, non-English name, I related completely to this post. 8 out of every 10 people I meet mispronounce my name when they read or hear it. I have said my name in introduction and had it returned to me two seconds later mangled and incorrect. I once had a teacher call me the wrong name for months, until a friend actually stood up in class and yelled the correct pronunciation. As a child, people would purposely say the wrong name to me, either as a “joke” or to insult or bully me. Even family members would do this. And it only ever enraged me.

Kathuria is right in saying that a person’s name is a huge part of who they are. I have lived my whole life with this one identifier. My family has lived in the US for generations, and they generally have very English and American names. Even my older brother and sister, who have two of the most common names of the last 50 years. But for me, my parents chose a Hebrew name, one they had heard and liked. But the consequences of that naming continue to this day. I know maybe 4 other people with my name, and most of them are very religious. It is not even a common name amongst people with Hebrew names. And, as I have said, it is constantly and casually mispronounced. Though it is connected to my culture, my religion, my history, in my life it’s really only been connected to me.

People love to tell me that my name is “pretty.” I can only shrug in response. It’s not, to me at least. It’s a weight I’ve had to carry. I get social anxiety when faced with having to correct my name in awkward situations. After months of being called the wrong name, how can I correct an authority figure? When is the right time? It is my name, I should never feel shame in correcting someone. And yet, I do. Because when people say my name wrong, it is no longer my name. I have no power over it, it has all of the power over me.

Kathuria feels that names are beautiful to their bearers. I have never felt this. I don’t dislike my name. Because I know so few others with it, my name is wrapped up completely in my perception of myself. I am it and it is me. But it is not whole or strong or stable. It is weak and it is vulnerable to attack.

As a little kid, I was obsessed with nicknames. My mother used to laugh because all of my favorite names, the ones I would give to toys or talk about giving to future children, all had to come with built in nicknames. “Their name is this, but I’ll call them this.” I’ve never had a nickname. I have pet names that my parents and siblings call me, but no real familiar versions of my actual name. No escape from what is written on my birth certificate.

Not that I would ever change my name. Just because I use my middle name at Starbucks doesn’t mean I prefer it. I don’t. Just because I plan on using a pen name if I ever publish doesn’t mean my name is not my own.

Just because I have not used my name at all in this post doesn’t mean I don’t want it to be used. Even though most of the people who read this know what it is. Even if I post this on my Facebook right under my name. Even if some of you still don’t know what my name actually is.

Because I’m taking my name back. I’m taking it home, keeping it safe, trying to give it more strength.

My name and I have been through hell together. And by using it sparingly, I am trying to take the power back.


1 Comment

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One response to “What’s in a name?

  1. I have never known what it means to have a “unique” name, but rather just the opposite.

    When I was younger, I longed to change my name to something more original and “pretty” that didn’t belong to every other Caitlin or Katelyn or Catlynn. It was so common, I felt no ownership over it and I felt people misjudged me based on every other Kaitlin they knew. I never had a nickname either because there were also a million Kates and Caties.

    Unlike Laurens or Marys, there were no famous or important Kaitlins to look up to, which signified to me that despite our vast numbers, Kaitlins didn’t become famous or strong or important (the only exception being recent with Kaitlin Olson from It’s Always Sunny).

    I guess everyone goes through name angst, whether their name is common or uncommon. Side note – have you read The Namesake? Serious name angst for thought.

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