Eric Quesada’s grandparents insisted his parents give their children white-sounding names.

“They didn’t want us having strong ethnic names, for assimilation purposes, essentially, so my brother, my sister, and I have Nordic names,” he says.

It’s always been kind of an issue.

“It doesn’t help my case when I’m trying to say I’m Mexican,” which he says happens frequently.

Our names place us into distinct tribes that continue to develop our sense of identity and culture. They determine if we pass and where we belong in society. Our names also allow us to inflict otherness onto others or, with a well-selected nickname, dodge the bullet of otherness that could keep us from getting a job or plunge us into embarrassing situations.

As I listened to the live broadcast of “So Well Spoken” on Monday, I nodded along as Davey D, host of KPFA’s “Hard Knock Radio” and lecturer at San Francisco State, made a crucial point about how we name our children. He said people are losing their identity to make others feel comfortable.

“If you want to name your kid the way that reflects your culture, it might be in opposition of what society wants,” he said.

The folks on Twitter were feeling what Davey D had to say too.

When I was in elementary school, I rated my teachers depending on how well they pronounced my name, Adizah Eghan. On the first day of school, I would sit in the classroom surrounded by my peers.

“OK, time for Mr./Ms. X to say my name,” I’d think. “If they get it right, I like them. If they get it wrong, they’ll have to spend the whole first semester regaining my trust.”

My little game was the same for substitutes, and it continued into college.

Over the years, I’ve heard many variations of my name, including my personal favorite: “Oh gosh, I’m not even going to try.” In an effort to make the people around me more comfortable, I’ve collected a sampling of nicknames. Most of them I love, like Deez, Deeza and Deezie. But there are some I really hate — like Addy. That one was given to me by someone who wanted to be more comfortable, but I still used it (mostly for coffee orders) up until a few months ago.

Arjun Adamson, a resident of San Francisco, encounters the nickname predicament too. He says people often struggle with his two-syllable name.

“I think, well it’s two syllables and it’s not even an unusual sound for the English language: Ar-jun. [Pronounced are-jun]. The arrangement somehow is new and so they’re having a hard time understanding that. And I say, ‘No, I don’t have a nickname. You can just learn my name.'”

This is about the barriers that more “ethnic” names create. On one hand, these names might honor a culture and family’s traditions. They should be preserved. On the other hand, they make it easier to make the oh-so-common snap judgements that lead us to the assumptions, stereotypes and misinterpretations that we are trying to address in this series.

And my name? It’s pronounced: Uh-deez-uh.

So what do you think? Have you ever butchered someone else’s name, or been on the receiving end? Share in the comments below. Be sure to keep the conversation going on Twitter and Facebook.

What’s in a Name? Everything 6 October,2015Adizah Eghan

  • Fess12

    If you have a name that is unfamiliar to the region where someone is trying to figure out how to pronounce it, I think you need to cut the speaker some slack. In my former neck of the woods everyone knew how to pronounce “La Jolla” because it was San Diego and there are lots of Spanish names – they’re familiar. Take that same name to Narragansett and you’ll probably get “La Jal-la.” I, OTOH, had a lot of trouble with “Narrgansett” the first few times I ran across it. How do we know how to pronounce Steven Colbert’s last name? Because he made a big deal out of the pronunciation on national TV. I went to school with a girl whose last name was Zanzot, “Zan-zo.” We laughed hilariously when each year the new teacher mispronounced it. Another girl’s last name was Sjogren, “Show-gren.” In the Nordic world that’s a no-brainer, in LA it was difficult. Have you seen how Celtic names are spelled vs pronounced?! In the autumn of my life, I now know that Siobhan is “Shuh-von.” Who knew? “Adizah” isn’t too difficult to decipher or to pronounce – it sort of rolls off the tongue and is pleasing to the English speaking ear. Now, the “Madelaine” who twittered above, is she “Mad-a-lane,” “Ma-de-lane,” or maybe “Mad-lyn”? Hard to know without hearing it first.

    P.S. My name is Suzanne. Why does anyone in the English speaking world think that is pronounced “Susan”? I’m OK with Spanish speakers opting for “Susanna” because that z is difficult in Spanish and Susanna is close, but “Susan”? Give me a break.

    • jodyna

      No slack needed. Learn to pronounce other people’s names correctly if you care. It will take only a few tries. I think that many people don’t really care to connect deeply with others and so taking a little time to learn how to say a name correctly is low priority (hence making up or asking about nicknames)

      • Fess12

        The author said:
        “OK, time for Mr./Ms. X to say my name,” I’d think. “If they get it
        right, I like them. If they get it wrong, they’ll have to spend the
        whole first semester regaining my trust.”

        She’s was judging someone by a first attempt at an unfamiliar name. If you take the name “Julio” to Winnepeg, how many people reading it off a list are going to try “Ju-lio” vs the correct pronunciation of “Hoo-lio”? I was recently in Madagascar and, believe me, Malagasy names can be challenging (Andrianatompokoindrindra, Rakotondrandria) – it takes a while for a novice to remember the order get it right. How about those Hawaiian place names with 14 vowels? I get that insensitive clods who make no effort to learn that Ivan from Russia is “Ee-vohn” not “Eye-van” are only fit for the ninth circle of hell, but the rest of the world just needs some direction and space to figure it out.

  • My parents sort of compromised by giving me a two part name – a first name from a western relative and a middle name from an okinawan one, theoretically meant to be used together (think Mary-Kate style). Unfortunately, my middle name – the non-american one – is one that people tend to be bad at dealing with, and honestly it’s less painful to just go with my (more american) first name rather than listen to people mangling my full name all the time. I try to hold on to it though by always using my full name in writing.

    Honestly I just treat the name thing as a game at this point – how will people try to pronounce it this time? It’s always interesting because despite being mixed and having an asian last name, neither I nor my name look very asian to most people, so it’s fun to see what people do with it – I can often guess how people are reading me based on how they try to [mis]pronounce it (it’s usually either between italian or latina, despite my not having any connection to either).

    The thing that I’ll never understand though is how many people seem to just…add random consonants when pronouncing or writing my name. I can totally see getting some vowel pronunciations wrong, since I do that with other people’s names all the time, but where do the extra letters even come from?

  • Anne

    I have what one would think would be a pretty “safe” name but it’s miss-pronounced more often than not, which I find interesting. Many people confronted with “Anne” pronounce it as “Annie.” (I don’t think Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife went around as “Annie Boleyn.”) My last name is common in Germany (Huber) but apparently not so much outside the Midwest when it comes to the US. It should be “Hue Burr” but I often get “Hub Burr” or and added “d” – Hubbard.

  • Marisela Cristina Gonzales Gin

    How about this one. Marisela. It’s the only name I got. I go by Mari for short. But still people can not for the life of them understand that it is not an English name and does not follow English phonetics. So every time someone has to say my name they are forced for that moment to speak Spanish. However, most people I’ve encountered don’t take the time to listen and understand to how my name is pronounced. So sadly, by this time in my life, I’ve figured out when it’s work my effort to really stress my name pronunciation. With new coworkers, I make sure they know from day one how my name is pronounced and try to put into an English equation to help them better understand. It’s usually something like “take the name Maud and put an ‘e’ sound after it”. That’s not even correct but I just gotta take what I can get. On the other hand, when I’m ordering my Starbucks I go with my husband’s very common, gender neutral name, Alex.

    My husband, who is proudly Portuguese-Italian-American, and I have decided that our future children will also have the blessing and subsequent hardship of ethnic names. It’s difficult in grade school but it’s a battle that helps build an identity and no one can take that away from you.

    • Jessica Chandras

      Good point! My parents decided to go with a super Anglo-centric name- Jessica. Though my middle name and my sister’s middle name reflect our paternal Indian heritage. So now I have this weird reconciling to do to justify my Indian heritage. On one hand I’m grateful my parents chose to make a segment of my life easier by choosing a very common English language name for me. On the other hand it’s harder to justify my mixed race heritage and I’ve had people ask exactly how I am Indian. An ethnic name is a blessing I feel, though I know daily practice may suggest otherwise. It’s up to the “others” who confront “ethnic” names to take the time and effort to call individuals by how they prefer to be named. But in my opinion this should be standard practice no matter the origin of the name. 🙂

  • Amy Mostafa

    This is such an interesting topic, Adizah! I had a similar experience moving to the U.S. from Egypt in middle school. At first I went by my Egyptian name but when I found that more people pronounced it wrong than right (mostly teachers and peers), my dad recommended that I choose a random American name to go by, and I did. Over the years I stopped going by my Arabic name entirely – which I hestitate to refer to as the “original” one because neither seems less authentic to who I am. But there’s something to be said about not even attempting to go by the Arabic name that goes beyond saving time. Something about not wanting to seem more “foreign” or less Americanized than I feel. And that desire to seem more or less Americanized shifts depending on who I’m around (I tend to want to seem “more ethnic” around my egyptian friends, etc.) Thanks for highlighting this!

  • TNway

    Both my first name, a common Slavic and Syrian Christian name and my anglesised Syrian last name were always mutilated by teachers and other people. What is funny, even my very easy to pronounce married English surname also seems to give some people trouble. Whatever, I just don’t care. My Syrian roots are not injured by the years of my name being mispronounced. I would rather deal with that minor inconvenience than live in Syria under sharia law where my human rights would be trampled on daily. Freedom to be a female without a veil or for being allowed to be an Eastern Orthodox Christian makes me grateful for this country even with its problems.


Adizah Eghan

Adizah Eghan is a reporter at KQED News and a writer for KQED Arts. She caught the radio bug as an intern for PRI's The World and landed in KQED's newsroom after a stint teaching English in India. She covers culture, the arts, and global music in the Bay Area. This is where she tweets: @Adizah_E

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