Do you have the kind of name that stresses people out and makes them want to turn around and walk the other way when you say it? Or one that’s so common you don’t even respond when it’s called?
Either way, there’s much in a name.
Whatever you’re called, you likely have some feels about it. Names can reveal ethnicity, socioeconomic class, religious background, and much more—plus we carry them with us wherever we go, so it’s no wonder that we’re attached to our appellations and how they are said, as the latest internet buzz about the mispronunciation of celebrity names shows.
This summer in an interview with Beats Radio 1, pop star Ariana Grande revealed that we’re getting her name wrong. “My grandpa said Gran-DEE. Gran-DEE was kind of the Americanized version of it, made it more chill,” she said. When she was younger, however, her brother Frankie suggested going with Gran-DAY, the Italian pronunciation, and she agreed. Now, she regrets it somewhat. “I grew up saying Gran-DEE — and I think of [my grandpa] and I wish I said Gran-DEE more.”
Last week, a tweet about the tidbit, discussed on Australian morning radio’s Kyle and Jackie O Show, went viral.
This prompted a fan of model Chrissy Teigen to point out another celebrity mispronunciation. Teigen tweeted that she gave up on correcting people a long time ago, but yes, her name’s pronounced “tie-gen” and not “tee-gen.”
Rihanna too, it turns out, is often mispronounced. It should be said “Ree-anna” according to an interview on Showbiz Tonight in which the star herself sets the record straight.
The revelations led to a tsunami of tweets by people whose names are imperfectly understood by others. Some had minor complaints, like reporter Felix Salmon at Axios:
Others had a deep cultural take on name mispronunciation and female celebrities’ responses. Anil Dash, CEO of Glitch, wrote, “Finding out that both Chrissy Teigen and Ariana Grande never correct the popular pronunciations of their names—both of which are wrong!—is really instructive about the constraints put on women in public positions.”
Dash’s point is interesting. Women may be less inclined to lay down the law upon the first encounter because of pressure to seem pleasant. But caving to the patriarchy is probably not all that’s going on, as evidenced by Grande’s own explanation, and especially not for the many of us whose names indicate foreignness in certain contexts.
On not being Becky
In my experience growing up in the US with an Israeli name—Ephrat Livni—I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a kind of balance that must be struck when meeting someone. On the one hand, you don’t want to subsume your identity by taking some other moniker just to make things easy. And on the other hand, you don’t benefit from an insistence on the impossible that makes people feel awkward. English just doesn’t have the same sounds as Hebrew.
When I was younger, it was already a bit of a struggle straddling multiple cultures—speaking one language at home and another at school, being somewhat befuddled by common rituals for pals considered strange by my parents—so turning every encounter into a kind of identity showdown where I demanded people pronounce my name properly would just make life tougher. The compromise was to accept that it would be butchered, to take what was offered and move along.
Sometimes people thought I was saying, “I forgot,” when I said, “Ephrat.” That got me some pitying looks indeed. Others imagined my parents were hippies. Often people would say, “What a cool name” right before asking for a replacement appellation.
So, the older I got, the less I insisted on correctness or even use of my name at all. In my late 20s—after briefly being married to a fellow who took to calling me “Becky”—I realized that my name was profoundly shaping my interactions with strangers and making it difficult to communicate easily. I divorced the dude and finally relented to the lifelong request to offer a nickname instead of Ephrat.
“You can just call me ‘E,'” I tell people now, and their palpable sense of relief consoles me too because the last thing I want to do is start every new conversation with a linguistic challenge, although that is pretty much what happens.
Now, you may ask, “Why not just change?” Wouldn’t a rose by some other name smell more sweet? I believe it could, actually. But I just can’t do it because that’s dishonest. I am who I am, as Popeye would say, and I want people to understand. My name reveals something about my identity, signaling that though I have no accent, I’m not quite as American as apple pie, which is just one reason why I might not express myself as expected.
Increasingly, there’s recognition in academia and education that there’s quite a lot in a name, and that getting foreign names right can make a big difference in a student’s life.
Calling students by their names influences their worldview and learning, Clare McLaughlin writes in Quartz. She argues that teachers must be attentive to the lasting impacts of simple acts like mispronunciation of foreign names during roll-call.
Getting a name right matters, explains Rita Kohli, assistant professor of education at the University of California at Riverside, because names have incredible significance to families. “When the child enter school and teachers—consciously or not—mispronounce, disregard or change the name, they are in a sense disregarding the family and culture of the students as well.”
When you ask a person to be someone else, it’s “a tiny act of bigotry,” according to former teacher and education blogger Jennifer Gonzalez. The act may be unintentional and borne of your own discomfort, but in the classroom it can contribute to forming a student’s worldview and make it evident to them that they are out of place there.
In a 2012 study on name pronunciation, Kohli found that when teachers fail to pronounce a name correctly, students feel shame and embarrassment, which impacts learning and their relationship to themselves, their identity. For those with a monocultural viewpoint, some names sound strange. Trying to get them right is a mark of respect that can have long-term effects, Kohli says. And responding respectfully is more important than getting the name right the first time.
“By pronouncing students’ names correctly, you can foster a sense of belonging and build positive relationships in the classroom, which are crucial for healthy social, psychological, and educational outcomes,” according to the Santa Clara County, California Office of Education. The county started a My Name My Identity campaign to foster awareness and build a more inclusive culture.
The flip side
As Quartz editor Sarah Todd explains, there are also psychological effects to growing up with an extremely common name. “I think of ‘Sarah’ less as a name that’s specific to me and more as a general descriptor—another word for ‘woman’ or ‘girl,’ or something else that applies both to me and to a lot of other people, too,” she writes.
While some names give away a family’s background and even socioeconomic status, extremely common names are deceptively clever. Since people of many ethnicities and classes go with classic biblical names, for example, picking a name that’s been around for some time, rooted in a text that’s traveled the world, makes for a very flexible option. “And so giving your child a classic, common name can be a way to steer clear of cultural stereotypes and unjust discrimination,” Todd writes.
Research has shown that people with familiar, easy-to-pronounce names are perceived as more likable and trustworthy. Not only that, those with simple names are more likely to get positive responses to their inquiries, whether on a dating app or a job application.
There’s also evidence that the name you are given influences the shape of your face and personality traits: A girl by the name of Rose may actually be more inclined to florals and femininity than one named Alex, say.
This leaves those of us with “difficult” names in something of a pickle. Do we risk rejection, and the marks of strained communications, or efface ourselves for the sake of opportunity? The answer isn’t obvious and it may change over time.
Still, one thing is certain. Naming has incredible power. That’s why the pilot Amelia Earhart in 1932 told the New York Times to quit calling her “Mrs. Putnam,” which was merely her husband’s name. And women today increasingly opt to retain their names after marriage rather than subsume their identities to those of their husbands. Obviously, we identify with our identifications.
Naming both brings a thing to life and creates limitations—before a thing or person is named, anything is possible. Once named, there’s a certain shape but also, unfortunately, restraints. For this reason, the ancient Chinese philosophical text, the Tao Te Ching emphasized the infinite potential in the unnamed, stating that “the way is forever nameless.”