Why You Should Think Long and Hard Before Naming Your Child

At a Christmas party for a magazine I often freelance for, after some wine and perogies (pigs-in-a-blanket are so 2007 apparently), the editor of said magazine felt comfortable enough, or boozy enough, or both, to tell me about her first impression of me.

“When I heard your name for the first time, I thought to myself: that girl has got to change her name, she’s not going to get writing jobs because her name is so hard to pronounce,” she said.

I laughed nervously, took another swig of my $9.99 Malbec (this was a magazine party after all) and shrugged it off.

But this wasn’t the first time by name has come up as a source of adversity of sorts. It was, by last count, the 1,236th time.

A few years ago, my childhood friend, a book agent in Chicago, sent me a copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake complete with a Post-It note inscription: “I hope you like this; I cried a lot since it’s about identity, immigration and growing up: all topics close to our hearts!”

I loved it for all those things but above all, I loved it because I could relate to the title character’s life-long struggle with his name, Gogol. If you haven’t read it – and you should – the story is a hauntingly beautiful tale about the child of immigrants who struggles with identity, culture, family and yes, his name.

For anyone else out there with a name that is hard to pronounce, odd, or just spelled in a way where you know your parents were trying really hard to be different—No, Sara without an “h” or Ann without an “e,” you do not count—you’re probably all too familiar with what I like to call, the “Five Step Program to Not Smelling as Sweet by Any Other Name” a.k.a. “Why you really shouldn’t name your child Pilot.”

Step 1: Ridicule.Children are cruel and will eventually find something, anything, to tease about, but the mockery comes a lot sooner when your name sounds like a popular processed cheese.

As a kid, if I walked into my grade-school classroom only to see a substitute teacher, I would break out in a cold sweat immediately. My Polish first name is spelled with a “w” but pronounced Mal-veena so it tends to be tricky for those not of an Eastern European descent. I’ve heard it all: Mal-whin-ah, Mal-win, Mal-weena. So when a teacher, unfamiliar with my name’s pronunciation would read out roll-call, as soon as she or he got to the Gs, I’d white-knuckle my desk, bracing myself for the storm of giggles that would engulf the entire room as soon as she’d read out my name phonetically, always accentuating the “w,” it seemed.

Playground nicknames also included “Weiner” (I refuse to use the word in every-day life now, opting for sausage instead), the aforementioned “Velveeta” (oh how everyone always thinks they are the first to call me that) and later on in life, thanks to Jerry Seinfeld, “Mulva.”

Step 2: Isolation.Mother Teresa (my mom, not the saint) always told me not to complain. At least it was unique, she said, and unlike in her grade-school class, I didn’t have three girls with the same name who would reply in unison when the teacher called, “Teresa.”

But being different often means you’re walking in this world alone. (That is, until you find a support group, but that’s another story.) On a trip through Portugal one summer, my husband and I stopped at a gas station to fill-up. As I went in to pay, I stopped dead in my tracks as the girl behind the counter turned to take my money and right there, on her nametag, it said: “Malvina.” I was so excited that here, in a far away land, I came across someone who shared my name, well, sort of. I proceeded to pull out my license, pointing obnoxiously to my name while flapping my arms with excitement. She indulged me for a mere second and then, the moment was over.

Coincidentally, there was one other Malvina (but again with a “v”) the same age as me in the small-ish (190,000 people) city where I grew up. But rather than being a comfort, it was more of nuisance. She, it seemed, had a much more active love life than I did.  Even years later, post high school regrets (hers I think, not so much mine), I was asked if I was the “Mal-veena” who slept with a friend of a friend’s friend. I wasn’t.

Step 3: Avoidance.What didn’t kill me didn’t necessarily make me stronger, but it did, eventually, make me care less. I’ve heard so many versions of my name over the years that sometimes – most times, actually – I can’t be bothered to correct people. I may have taken it a tad too far recently when a colleague came up to me and asked why I had never corrected her mispronunciation of my name in the past two years.

At first, I didn’t really care, and since I didn’t see this woman on a regular basis, it didn’t matter. And then as time went on, and it was obvious I would run into her every few weeks, I started to feel bad about correcting her.

Step 4: Acceptance and even, Admiration.Maybe acceptance starts out as avoidance but there comes a point where you learn to embrace your weird name. All it takes is one person (OK, maybe three) who says your name is cool/different/neat. And you like it, you like it a lot.

After a semester in Australia, I came back with a sun-kissed glow only to be asked by someone if I was from Argentina. At first, I didn’t get it, but for the stranger, all signs—my name and my tan—pointed to the Islas Malvinas (a.k.a. the Falkland Islands). And from then on, that became my go-to. “What an interesting name you have,” someone would say. (This would happen of course if they didn’t see how it was spelled.) “Yes, it’s the same as the famous islands in Argentina over which you might remember the Falkland War of 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom was fought,” I would answer.  Sometimes, depending on the person, I needed to follow that one up with Seinfeld’s Mulva episode or a quick Velveeta reference.

Step 5: The Guilt.You’d think the guilt would come before admiration and acceptance but in most cases, it doesn’t. With just a little tweak of one letter, I would have easily solved all my problems. “Weiner” would likely be something like “Vino” and it’s so much cooler to be teased for having a wine-related name than one that conjures images of hot dogs.

But every time I changed that “w” to a “v,” I heard my father’s voice: “You are Polish and your name is Polish and you should be proud of that.”

Sometimes, when I am at a coffee shop and they ask your name so they can write it on the cup, I will spell it out to the barista with a “v”. I tell myself it’s for their sake and a time-saving measure so I won’t have to watch the poor gal or guy, espresso in hand, trying to figure out how to pronounce the weird name on the cup. Plus, it doesn’t count since I’m not the one actually writing it down. Yet the guilt sets in eventually and I get rid of the evidence immediately after the last sip of coffee is gone.

So what’s in a name you ask? A lot. Maybe a life-long journey through the above five steps, or, there’s always a quick death. Just ask Romeo or Juliet.TC mark

image – iStockPhoto.com


More From Thought Catalog

  • http://glorydrugstalkloud.blogspot.com/ Laurens Verdonkschot

    Should be: 'Why You Should Think Long and Hard Before Having a Child'. But the points made in the article are still valid.

    • ricky schitltiiz


      • savagegirl

        Haven't I seen you use this response multiple times?
        More like…. lame

  • liyana

    This is adorable. My name's not as unique, but unique enough, and I sympathize fully. Own your name babe!

  • Keziah

    So good. It seems only 10% of people can pronounce my name the way my parents had in mind, so I totally dig this. There's probably a few people wandering around out there who I never bothered to correct too. Oh well.

  • JP

    My sister's name was Gillian. Our parents are Brits but we were raised in the US. Her name was mispronounced with a hard G her whole childhood, like Gilligans's Island and it was really devastating to her to hear her name mispronounced over the school loud speaker.

    Meanwhile, our last name was Payne, and needless to say the kids had a field day with it … still do actually and we're not kids anymore by a long shot!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=58215584 Victoria Merida

      Its freaking Gillian!!! What kind of an ignorant redneck mispronounces it with a hard G?!?!

  • http://twitter.com/simbelsim simbel

    My name is Signe (“yes, baby swan without the t”), I can relate to this tale.
    P.S. Your name is lovely.

  • manish

    my name is Manish and I agree with your article!! I've gotten Mannish, Mah-nish, Monish, Moonish, Manush…sometimes it's just easier not to corrext people. I also feel the guilt when I give my name as Jack to a barista or a Jamba Juice person

  • Paideumaxx

    Whenever I go in to get coffee at some place that asks for your name, I just give an alias to avoid the five minute spelling/pronunciation lesson I'd have to give them.

    • Humblecore

      My friend Joao does the same exact thing.

  • http://tattoosnob.com Julene

    I never found my name to be especially “weird”–maybe that's because it's mine. I spent a lot of years growing up being given nicknames I didn't like, correcting people as they tried to compare me to a Dolly Parton song or any other name similar to mine (almost) but missing a consonant. After high school I got all the paperwork to change my name to “Jessica” before realizing that maybe, just maybe, that was overkill.

    Hit the nail on the head with this one. Big thumbs up.

  • Kyra

    this was great! And the substitute teacher thing – I had the same sweats!

  • Kristi Wietecha

    Thanks for this article! While I don't come across too many first-name slip-ups, aside from the improper spelling, my last name definitely brings me lots of trouble. Like you Malwina, I have simply given up on correcting people all the time…instead embracing how different my Polish last name is from the Johnsons, Smiths, and Jones of the world! And I can always pick out the telemarketers on the phone!

    Thanks for this article! It's refreshing to know that other people have these struggles too!

  • Ischra

    When buying coffee I always say something easier or cartoon-like, typically Batman or Robinhood. Usually it's better to be stared at because I give a boy's alias being a girl, than explaining and spelling Ischra.

  • Michelina

    I l o v e d this post!

    My name is Michelina, pronounced Mik-a-lina, so I feel your pain AND your joy. Every emotion you spoke about I have experienced. Regardless, I wouldnt change my name for anything.

    ps. The Namesake, as well as everysinglething written by Jhumpa Lahiri, is incredible.

    • ricky schitltiiz

      oh ya i remember you, you posted something dumb in some comments a while ago


      • Michelina

        Ohhh Ricky, if by “something dumb” you're referring to my comment stating that people have the right to read what they would like and the right to choose not to read what they don't like on TC, then yes, thats me.

        Maybe you should invest your time into some form of therapy instead of being the most negative person EVER to comment on ThoughtCatalog.

      • ricky schitltiiz

        can you link to said post

  • nla

    life is cruel

  • Cellism

    My second name is near impossible to pronounce accurately unless you know it's Italian so whenever I book anything, I just say my name is Jones. Speeds things up.

  • Kix

    So, your advice is assimilation? Don't name your child anything non-european or different than the norm because they will not fare well in life…that's pretty fucked up advice. The answer is to stop thinking like this and challenge internal discrimination.

  • savagegirl

    Thank you. My mother chose me to be Deirdre.
    Principally rhyming with weird, and massacred by many a teacher, employer, client, random junkmail sender….There were always new tortures devised by ruthless classmates.
    I too, don't always correct mispronunciations. I almost never accept nicknames. When asked for a name for a reservation or coffee, I either use my last name, long but simple to spell, or if with my husband, his first name.
    As a girl, this name was an albatross, preventing me from “passing”. Now I feel it helped to mold me, adds distiction to my professional persona. It's also quite funny. People assume I must be Irish, with the first name of a Celtic princess and a good, solid Scots-Irish last name courtesy of my husband.
    Here it is: for me it's MY name. It fits me or I fit it, but I could never be myself without my cumbersome name, but I was not flattered, but nonplussed when a former classmate, with a completely normal name, gave her daughter my name. Not even being friends with this woman, there's nothing to say, but I wish that other little Deirdre luck..She will no doubt need it.

  • http://profiles.google.com/nrath08 Niharika Rath

    haha oh man, the substitute teacher thing was right on point. except in my case, i got really good at interrupting before the destruction of my name, so id just raise my hand and shout “here” when the sub paused and wrinkled her brow at the attendance sheet. i was never bothered by it because i found it pretty funny, people will probably mispronounce my name for the rest of my life but im okay with that. kudos for mentioning the namesake, what an amazing book.

    • ricky schitltiiz

      yo your one article about girls and being single is really bad

      • http://profiles.google.com/nrath08 Niharika Rath

        hey your article on…oh wait, you havent written an article.
        i thought mine was pretty good and so did other people, how about you go be a sad little troll elsewhere

      • ricky schitltiiz

        you should look up what troll means, as should many internet-lingo late adopters

        i'm giving it to you straight, and also reminding you of what a lot of people also expressed: that your article is some 1980s cosmo “you go girl!” type article of no real substance

        the internet has given bad writers/artists/content producers an easy excuse to ignore criticism: “oh, my work doesn't suck, they're just trolling!”

        sorry dog

      • inflammatorywrit

        You seem like an awful human being.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

    I think you think too deeply about things that you don't need to think deeply about. I'm Greg.. from the ages of 7-16, I was Gaygory. Big deal! People complain too god damn much about silliness. My name, oh no my name is so different that people make fun of me! Do you have cancer? Do you work in a blood diamond mine? Do you eat from the trash? Do you die of diseases that most people don't think still exist? If you can;t answer yes to any of those questions, than you need to open up a history book. For christs sake, your home country suffered greatly throughout its entire existence, notably so in the middle of the 20th century, but here you are.. complaining about yer name.

    • Humblecore

      The “I can't believe you're worried about this silly thing when there are people starving in China or whatever” – another entry for that different types of comments article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sasjam Sas Jam

    I'm similarly afflicted. At least to the point of abbreviation- Sas Jam short for Sasson Jamebozorgi.
    Even the Sas part (pronounced like “sauce”). I just know to whip out the spelling of S-a-s asap for baristas and when giving out my phone number to avoid “Sauce” being written out. Doesn't stop the occasional cocked eyebrow where I quickly whip out, “Yes, it's my name. You say it like Sauce and Yes, I go good on everything. ;)” (Winky face is essential to owning it.)

  • joe

    my name is tom and it's rough also

    • http://fastfoodies.org Briana

      not true, joe

  • Zev

    Too perfect!

    Zev AKA Zeb, Zeff, Zed, etc.

  • Mr. White

    I'm the only one in Finland with my name according to the Population Register Centre.

  • Jabulani

    I feel you on this, Jabulani (juh-boo-lawn-ee, shortened as Jabu), was taken for a phish song (gotta jiboo) which added insult to injury. Thought I must say it all worked out when the soccer ball for World Cup 2010 was named . . . Jabulani

  • TO

    Jhumpa Lahiri grew up in my town.

  • RamonaCC

    I used to work with someone who shared your name and I always used to tell her how much I liked it. I think she thought I was only saying it to be nice but really I just think it's such a lovely name.

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