“I think you should change your name to Vic.” The recruiter had completed a quick scan of my resume and this was her first helpful suggestion.
I smiled at her and said “My official name is Vishwanath and since that’s a whopping 3 syllables, I’m using the shorter name my friends gave. Isn’t Vishy easy enough?”
“Well, it’s not hard.. but it’s not American. Vic will be easier.”
I said “Hmmm” and walked away pondering about the vagaries of life.
In my parents’ generation, South Indian children were invariably named after gods and goddessesses. However, this naming convention once became a bone of contention. My cousin was given a perfectly mellifluous sounding name (goddess inspired of course). A pragmatic relative might have gently suggested that any four syllable name was apt to get shortened. Something else was in store for her when she joined elementary school. The initial syllables of her name (in Hindi) mapped to an animal name so you can well imagine how harrowing her initial days would have been. The feisty dynamo that my cousin was (still is, actually!), she convinced her parents that “there was NO way she’d go through life with THAT name”. An official name change (to two syllables) was executed soon. Not sure if a school change was also done because elementary school blighters are not known to be afflicted with amnesia.
In my first job in Chicago, my Indian colleagues and I were so envious of Gary Smith.. because he NEVER had to spell out his name on customer service calls. The American struggle to correctly pronounce Indian names is primarily because American phonetic rules mandate an emphasis on the second syllable (whereas most Indian names either require first syllable emphasis or an even emphasis on all syllables). This kind of mispronunciation is actually not bad — because eventually after a few corrections (and re-attempts) they’d get it right. For many other Americans (usually folks you are conversing for the first time - like the customer service folk), one look at a sequence of characters they have never previously encountered is enough for them to “throw in the towel”. Over the years, I’ve changed my tactics — instead of repeating my name, I’d urge them to give it a fighting try. More often than not, they’d get it right.
I was reminded of all this after reading Anand Giridharadas’s splendid Oct 20 The Ink newsletter “Kamala versus Daenerys” - a post on names, Mayflower mouths, and the politics of mispronunciation and dispronunciation. If you’ve been following American politics even perfunctorily, you know all about Kamala Harris. Anand draws a clear distinction between mispronounciation (a matter of “limited tongues”) and dispronunciation (a matter of “limited hearts”). When the infamous Republican senator David Perdue dispronounced Harris’s name, the #mynameis Twitter meme got started. Many gems in that meme and I’m including below the ones highlighted in Anand’s post:
- #mynameis Meenakshi. I’m named after the Hindu goddess, as well as my great great grandmother. I come from a long line of strong women who taught me to be proud of my heritage and to demand respect—especially from racist white men like @sendavidperdue who are threatened by us.
- #mynameis Zara. My parents spent a lot of time and energy picking out a name that would be easily pronounceable for non-Indian people. But they shouldn’t have had to do that. It shouldn’t be on POC to shave off pieces of our culture to make life easier for white people.
- #mynameis Linh Thuy Nguyen. Linh, meaning spirit, soul from Sino-Vietnamese. My dad wanted a traditional name for me to honor our lineage & where we came from. Name pronunciation, and taking the time to do it right, emphasizes safety & belonging, and is a sign of respect.
Anand writes blisteringly about the “tax of not being John or Michael or William or Brian”
I say “tax” deliberately. A mis- and dispronounced name is not necessarily a gate that locks you out, though it can be. It’s a tax you must pay several times a day, every day, simply to keep moving through life. Before virtually every encounter you have, there is this phase that other people get to skip. A phase in which everyone is reminded that you are not entirely of us, you do not belong to our default, you need to be explained, you come with instructions, you are a hard case, you take extra effort, you don’t just glide into the mix, you require extra preparation by us, you may get offended at us.
The tax is paid in various currencies. Sometimes you say nothing, and in that case the tax is within, the slow grating of misrecognition, of accepting as yourself something that is not you but must be tolerated as though you. Sometimes you correct or even protest, and in that case the tax is social: you are now making a fuss, expending precious middle-school social capital, being a stickler, not chill at all, for something as seemingly trivial as the emphasis on a syllable? Sometimes the people doing the mispronouncing hear themselves failing to say what they have heard you say and, without needing to be corrected, apologize for their limitations of tongue — and here, too, there is a tax, and a rather strange one: the need you feel in that situation to make them feel OK about having said your name wrong, the need to restore their sense of goodness which trumps any need to get your name said right, the need to make and keep the already-centered comfortable.
With the confidence that can only come from a born-in-America citizen, he writes:
I know deep in my bones that I don’t live as a guest in Senator Perdue’s country. He lives as my fellow citizen in the country we share. Either mouths like his will learn to twist and blow and yawn and trill and roll in at-first unfamiliar ways, or, in the times that are coming, they will marginalize themselves. It is already a country of many names and many sounds; it is becoming all the more so by the day. This election is a referendum on whether America is a John-Bob republic or a country for us all. The John-Bobbers aren’t winning.
For the dispronouncers, I have little hope. But for the mispronouncers, I have plenty. We are laboring every day to become a country without a center — without a single image of a certain kind of person as the default setting of all people. And in this push toward greater justice, name pronunciation has its place. We are here. We’re not going anywhere. Our names aren’t “I don’t know, whatever.” It’s time you told your mouth.
On a closing note, turns out my cousin was prescient in picking her new name many moons ago. Very few Americans can butcher her name even if they wished to.