inclusive language

The violence of naming

About twelve years ago, a classmate asked me for help with an assignment. Dear Jennifer, his email began.

That’s not my name, I replied. Please call me Jena.

I don’t like nicknames, he said, and continued to call me Jennifer.

I didn’t help him with the assignment, at least not beyond the bare minimum. And in the intervening years, I’ve forgotten his name, except that it was a commonly shortened one. He was frustrated, I’m sure, because people wouldn’t call him Daniel or Michael or Gregory. And to cope with that frustration, he imposed upon me the exact same behavior he disliked: he chose a name for me.

My legal name is not Jennifer, and it never has been. But even if it were, his behavior would not be acceptable. Naming is about consent. Here’s what happened in this story: I said, This is what I want. And someone else said, What I want matters more.

*

Key and Peele have a bit where a Black substitute teacher comes into a White classroom. He mistrusts the students from the minute he walks in the door — and he mispronounces all their names. Instead of Jacqueline /ˈdʒæk.ə.lɪn/, he says Jay-QUEL-inn /dʒejˈkwɛl.ɪn/, Blake /blejk/ turns into Be-LEH-kay /bə’lɑ.kej/, and Aaron /ˈærən/ becomes Ay-AY-ron /ˈejˈej.rɑn/.

The skit is funny because it flips our expectations. If we saw a White teacher walk into a Black classroom and act this way, it would be merely tragic. It would be business as usual.

As Nancy McGinley Myers writes: “Students of color and recent immigrants are so accustomed to their white teachers mispronouncing their names that they know to respond even if the teacher has completely mangled their name. Many times, they don’t even try to tell the teacher how it’s really pronounced. In my own ESL classes, when I have tried to practice saying names correctly, the students have told me, ‘I don’t mind how you say my name. It’s an African name. I don’t expect you to be able to say it.’ The privileged white students in Mr. Garvey’s classroom didn’t know what to do! They thought it was perfectly reasonable to tell Mr. Garvey how their name should be pronounced.”

*

Who has the experience depicted in the skit? Who has had someone else insist that they are wrong about their own damn name? Whose name gets mispronounced? Who gets saddled with a nickname they didn’t choose? Who gets renamed entirely?

Many of my high school classmates were immigrants. Quite a few of them took on ‘American names’ preemptively, as a defense against mispronunciation. Some preferred those names; many others preferred the ease of using them.

Yet Seamus and Siobhan and Chloë aren’t pronounced according to English rules of pronunciation, and most of us manage to say them just fine.

Here’s another question: are you surprised that it was a man who renamed me? This is, of course, precisely the same question. Who speaks for others? And who makes unwanted compromises so that others won’t speak for them?

*

In the U.S., my last name is most often pronounced um, can I call you Jena?

Every time I talk to customer service on the phone, they ask for my last name. Then they decide to call me Ms. Lichtenstein anyway. When I’m feeling salty, which is most of the time when I’m talking to customer service, I correct them.

Sometimes I pre-empt these mistakes. I used to tell my students that it was better to call me Dr. B. than to misspell or mispronounce my name — but I would offer semi-joking extra credit for getting it right. In Spanish-speaking countries, I choose to become Juanita Vargas. In French-speaking countries, I use only half of my last name, and it’s /bɑʁˈʃɑ/ and not my usual /ˈbɑr.kəs/.

I like traveling to German-speaking countries the best. They pronounce my surname better than I do.

*

Jane Hill’s book The Everyday Language of White Racism doesn’t have a chapter on proper names, but it could.

Speakers of all languages change the pronunciation borrowed words, including names: they get as close as they can, while using only sounds that appear in their first language. This process is called nativization, and in the case of English-speakers, we often talk about it as anglicization. If you’re an English speaker who’s ever used the phrase raison d’être, you know what I’m talking about.

But Hill writes, there and elsewhere, about the hyperanglicization of Spanish words — that is, moving beyond the standard English pronunciations to make them as English-sounding as possible, often for comic effect. This hyperanglicization, she argues, both expresses the extreme social distance of the speaker from Spanish, and denigrates the Spanish language — and its speakers.

And that’s just what we see with the unflinching mispronunciation of certain names, or the refusal to even attempt them. At best, it communicates, these names are weird and I don’t know what to do with them. At worst, the message is, these names aren’t worth getting right, which is to say, these people aren’t worth getting right.

*

If you’ve ever wandered into a discussion about last names and marriage, you know how deeply felt names are. These discussions always seem to go the same way: first, someone critiques the systemic nature of sexism. They note that even if we accept the premise that all members of a family need to share a single last name, there’s no reason that only women should shoulder the burden and stress of taking on a new identity.

Invariably, someone else argues that their name change was an individual choice made in the absence of all social pressure, and thus there must be no patriarchy in play.

*

Taboos around names are widespread:

Why is there so much avoidance around names and naming?

*

Names have power.

There’s even a Latin proverb: nomen est omen. Names are destiny. That’s an oversimplification, but it’s true that names encode expectations.

Who names their children Faith and Chastity? Christian parents. Who accepts faith and chastity as virtues? Christians. So it’s hardly surprising that people with these names might be more likely to enact these values.

*

I am particular about nicknames, although I had many as a child. Some family members call me Jay, and others call me Jen; if you’re not related to me, odds are I won’t let you get away with either. And call me Jenny at your peril.

Lovers nickname one another: it’s a way of staking a claim.

I have a friend who insists on calling me my Jena, as if his Jena were different than mine.

*

Sticks and stones can break my bones. What comes next? I’ve heard it two ways: words can never hurt me and words can really hurt me.

For linguistic anthropologists, no question — it’s the latter. Language can, itself, be violence.

When we talk about language as violence, we don’t just mean the obvious cases of slurs. Language can reflect, reproduce, and recreate structural violence: we can talk about groups of people in ways that not only assume them to be unequal but also make it hard to imagine them as anything but.

Silence, too, can be violence. This week, the current US government decided not to collect data on gender identity or sexual orientation on the 2020 census. This decision renders some categories less visible than others. In effect, it erases them, and that lack of recognition, too, is violent.

*

Whose names are difficult? Which names do we make the effort to learn?

When Uzo Aduba was young, she asked her mother if she could be called Zoe instead. And her mother replied: “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” Those names are difficult for English speakers to pronounce, but we’ve managed to figure it out.

At the 2013 Oscars, a reporter called nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis ‘Annie’ after the character she had just been cast as. She replied, “My name is not Annie. It’s Quvenzhané.”

Nobody seems to mangle Giada de Laurentiis or Saoirse Ronan quite so regularly. We’ve managed reasonable English approximations of Gérard Depardieu and Jean-Luc Godard for quite some time now. When John Travolta turned Idina Menzel into Adele Dazeem, it was seen as so newsworthy it practically broke the internet.

People usually apologize for getting my name wrong, or they ask permission to use my first name.

If you’re understood to be White, your name is at least worth an attempt.

*

At the very beginning of the Bible, God names darkness and light, and in doing so creates them. To name a thing is to see it — to call out its very essence.

Names are inseparable from identity. I have called myself by this one for thirty-some years.

That’s why deadnaming a trans person — or refusing to learn someone’s name, or nicknaming someone without permission — is an act of violence.  Who are you, to define someone else?

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89 thoughts on “The violence of naming

  1. Fruma says:

    “Silence, too, can be violence. This week, the current US government decided not to collect data on gender identity or sexual orientation on the 2020 census. This decision renders some categories less visible than others. In effect, it erases them, and that lack of recognition, too, is violent.”

    Maybe in this regime it’s a good thing NOT to draw attention to gender identity and sexual orientation….she says thinking back to the lessons her parents shared of 1935-1945….

    Liked by 6 people

  2. This is very interesting and timely as my name IS a shortened version of a name and today, again, forever, I had a discussion with someone about how disrespectful it is not to call me by the name I introduced myself as regardless of whether or not they think that is my “real name” or if they “don’t like nicknames” because it is how I prefer to be addressed and shockingly it is my real actual name and is not short for anything……..not that it matters.

    Liked by 3 people

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  6. I totally agree. In my English class we have read so many books (The Crucible being one) that talk about self identity. The minute I saw this post, I was able to relate (perhaps not my first name, but often times my last). It’s so true that names have power; it’s one of the most obvious components of our own identity.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: The violence of naming – Street Psychiatry

  8. Fantastic piece. My maiden sounds like a common Hispanic last name. When I would be called by the incorrect name, I would politely correct them. Surprisingly, I get the “Are you sure? Because it’s sounds like this name in Spanish”. What do they AM I SURE?? As if I were to respond, ” Yes, I’m sorry, I’ve been saying and spelling it wrong for the last 30 years. Thanks for correcting my identity.”

    I am a Jennifer. If I’m comfortable with someone, I go by Jenn. In business, I am always Jennifer. Yet, there are so many out there who assume I’m ok with them calling me by Jenn. They don’t ask, they just do it on their own. I never utilized “Jenn” in my profession, so they chose to use for me. It does bother me, but I don’t know how to comfortably address it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s so much harder once you let it go, too.

      When I first meet someone, it’s easy enough to say, “Actually, it’s Jena.” But if I don’t say it right away, I feel rude correcting them!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Sarah G says:

    Phonetically, how would you say your name? Also, any tips for me on how to hear the sounds of the different Chinese names in my classroom? I try, but find the sounds so hard to reproduce. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m somewhere in the realm of /d͡ʒɛ.nə bɑr.kɘs lɪk.tn̩.stijn/ – thanks for asking!

      I don’t have any great tips, unfortunately, beyond asking people what they prefer. Practice and exposure is really all I can offer. For what it’s worth, I don’t expect people whose first language doesn’t have all the sounds in my name to say it the way I say it — I generally expect a reasonable level of nativization, and in practice that’s how I treat names with phonemes that don’t exist in English.

      Like

  10. Fantastic post, a topic that I can relate too. My name is mispronounced on daily basis, especially my first name, Maja, which should be pronounced as Ma-yah (but I’ll settle for Maya). Lived abroad for so many years now that my name is soon the only thing about me that’s Swedish, so I refuse to change the spelling of my name or let anyone mispronounce it!

    Liked by 3 people

  11. I have always believed that the language we use plays a much larger role in reinforcing stereotypes and power stuctures than we realise, but had never considered how this also applies to names. Very interesting read and a good insight into the significance that names/being named hold for individual people.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. “At the very beginning of the Bible, God names darkness and light, and in doing so creates them. To name a thing is to see it — to call out its very essence.”

    Wow.. this is beautiful.
    Believe I know what you’re talking about. I can relate, and it feels good to know you ain’t alone in that struggle.
    Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Mia cara Jena: good morning and thanks for this excellent article. I have fought tooth ad nail since I came to the USA with arrogant ignoramuses that think that they know the Italian language because they once ordered a Domino’s pizza. My name is not “mErio”, it’s “mArio.” And with my French last name it gets even worse. Our names mark our genetic and cultural identities, for which we should never, ever surrender its property. I will become a follower of your blogging and I invite you to visit my writer’s web page and wellness blog at:
    https://drmolaplume.com
    Un baccione e arrivederci!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so curious to find out where in the US you are — there’s also a regional element to the vowel you’re talking about! I say /ɑ/ rather than /æ/ in the name ‘Mario’ (and did so before I learned Spanish), but that’s definitely not universal all around the US.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. There are studies which show that, when we are presented with pictures of strangers and given an option of two names to pick from, we pick the actual name of the stranger significantly more often that statistically we should.

    The implication being that over time we take on the image of our name – i.e. the way that we interact with the world as a Jennifer compared to a Jena alters the way we end up looking.

    Our experience of life and the world becomes written on our face, and our experience is (in lots of complicated ways) affected and led by the name we have. Or choose.

    Liked by 1 person

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  16. Names are such an integral part of identity. Before college, people had a hard time telling my sister and I apart. It didn’t matter that I wore glasses and had a bigger bone structure while she had bangs and finer features. People who could tell lots of other similar looking girls apart would just walk up to me and ask “which one are you?”. A 4-H leader who had known us for close to ten year once called me my sister’s name, then snapped at me for correcting her. It was like not having my own identity at all.

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  17. Great post, Jena! I used to feel bullied in school when people make fun of my name. I used to hate it and wish I had another name. It’s very true that name has a great impact on a person. It’s more than just a few words, it’s identity.

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  18. Pingback: How powerful is your name? – THE PSYCHE PULPIT

  19. This is such a relatable post. I’m still so surprised at how few teachers at my school in Australia, with English is their first language, always seemed to mess up the pronunciation of “Adrienne”. It’s like they saw me sitting right in front of them, this mix of caucasian/asian/spanish looking kid and decided “Oh it must be more ethnic” and so they would try and pronounce every single letter of my name. But when I would say “It’s like the boy version, like Adrian… you know… or if you prefer, like Rocky Balboa’s wife” and I would do a horrible impersonation of Sylvester Stallone and they would all be like “ohhh that’s easier”. People are so odd.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Jena, I agree with the statement you post here in your blog. I do feel that many times people prefer you to call them by their first name. Therefore nowadays especially for an example: the place that I work at many people or coworkers I come across I always address them by Mrs, or Mr. And when I do say Mr. Or Mrs, then they tell me to to just say call me so and so…. So yeah. I completely agree. Keep up the fantastic work.

    Like

  21. bjolene85 says:

    My husband and I both deal with this.
    I go by my middle name. When it is the first time I fill out paperwork for a doctor’s office or work I joke about my name and blame my mother. She wanted to name her first child after her father and she like the name Jolene. Jolene Billie does not “sound” right so I was named Billie Jolene. Computers automatically use your first name, middle initial, last name. IT has to go in and put my name as B. Jolene on any website I may be listed on so parents can find thier child’s teacher. Work emails are crazy and coworkers who only see you once a month can’t remember if I go by Billie or Jolene.
    My husband was named after his father, Coolidge (first). His family gave him the nickname of Chuck, whick he goes by to this day. I don’t know how many times people have called him Charles.

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  22. Mirna says:

    It’s never a good feeling when your name is mispronounced. Just please try to remember when you’re being “salty” with customer service reps that many of them are South and East Asian workers earning $2/hour in call centers where they’re forced to adopt Anglo names and accents to minimize harassment by privileged U.S. callers.

    Like

    • Totally agree with you.

      I was mostly kidding about being “salty” — certainly the problem I’m calling about almost never has anything to do with the person I’m talking to! Unfortunately, our only venue to express displeasure with the company tends to be that one poor individual.

      Like

  23. pennydanger says:

    I can totally relate to your article. Nuala is my name (Newla.) No one got it right in school. I have people at work that continually misspell it – even though my email signature stares at them and shows otherwise. For years they called me Penny to make it easier. That was okay…I turned it into a screen name: Penny Danger and I use it on here as well. Everything worked out fine!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. This hits so close to home. People get my wrong so much. Someone even asked to call me by a shorter name back when I was 9 because my name is hard. My name should be easy. I wrote a blog post about this same topic, but I wasn’t so eloquent about it.

    Like

  25. A very powerful post. Thank you for sharing your experiences. You have inspired me to write about my experience with names and why I chose a new name for myself at the age of 20, and how others reacted to that. Also as a teacher, I really am conscious of names and pronunciation but like you said in a comment above, it really is about practice and exposure.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Truthfully I never gave much thought to my name until someone gave me a nickname. I used to work at a bakery, and a woman who used to work with my mom came in regularly. She had actually tried to get my mother fired for no reason other than petty envy. Once she identified me as my mother’s daughter, she started calling me “Jessie” whenever I saw her as though to endear me to her.
    It filled me with so much rage.
    It’s not even so much of the name itself as much as the fact that she took the liberty to give me a new name.

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  27. Wtf, bro?! And, other thoughts... says:

    “Easy” names are a dime a dozen and easily forgotten. I totally agree that names matter, and anyone who names their kid Apple or Deztynee probably shouldn’t reproduce. Enough with the “creative” spelling of easy names. Did you know Neveah is heaven backwards? Yeah, no one else does either. May I also suggest people stick to what they know?! Ethnic names are great. Cultural appropriation: not so much. Also, I’m a firm believer in nicknames. I know about 50 Mikes or Ryans, but only one Squints, Sparky, or Cheeks. Favorite name to date: Avalanche Bento.

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  28. I feel your pain, i am originally from the east Asian region and have been burdened with a long name thanks to my parents and ancestors. Living in the western part of the world, i totally empathize with everyone who misspell or mispronounce my name. I have shortened my name for everyone’s benefit and use that everytime time I write my name or introduce myself, while providing other documents to prove my full name. However some people just shorten my name as they wish and call me by that. It’s never fun trying to explain to them that I don’t like being called what they do. As my name is long and hard to spell, they think it is admissible to shorten it in whatever way they feel. Simply, it is not…

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  29. I like what you guys are up too. Such smart work and reporting! Keep up the excellent works guys I have incorporated you guys to my blogroll. I think it’ll improve the value of my site 🙂

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  30. Great piece! I am actually a huge nerdy anime fan and Japanese culture holds incredible value in names. As in, there is a distinct connection between the soul and your given name at birth and it is said to hold power even after death. I am strictly agnostic but it does highlight the beauty in loving a single term that summarises the entirety of your being.

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  31. Pingback: A Rant About… Name and Identity – Inknjournal✒️

  32. This was such a great article. It’s interesting to read the parallel between the performance of an identity and a name, pointing towards your ‘adaptation’, if I may call it like that (please correct me), in different countries by choosing to use and be known by a different name. I know with my own name ‘Annetta’, which is legally spelled Anneta, I have translated into different forms depending on the language. In Russian and Greek I keep the legal transcript, in English and German I use my choice of spelling (double n and double t). Maybe because I felt I had more autonomy in choosing how I could spell my name rather than in the environments where I was forced to learn/use Russian and Greek. English is my mother tongue so I was more adept to play and demand using the language, German I learned later in high school when I had already established myself as a double n double t, whereas Russian was my parents’ language and they held the authority over me and in Greek (which I learned when I was still very young) my teachers insisted double ‘t’ is not a proper ‘Greek’ spelling (not true).
    I would be interested in hearing your takes on this flow of identity and names through translation.

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  34. A very powerful read…. I’ve been a victim of this for quite a long time. In fact, I still am. But what’s changed is that now, I tell them to pronounce it correctly and then speak further! But when its somebody far advanced in age, I can’t help it… :/
    What I’ve noticed though is that whenever there’s a cricket match (Of course, it happens elsewhere too), the commentators pronounce the names of English, Australian and basically, all white nations’ players and they say them so perfectly! But when it comes to the names of cricketers of the subcontinent, they twist them so ruthlessly that they’re unrecognisable!!
    Why this discrimination?
    Also, I think Muslim names are more affected by these weirdly distorted pronunciations. Nobody bothers to get our names right 😦
    My brother’s name has an ‘a’ in it and its stretched so far that its laughable…!

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  37. This article gave me a lot of things to think about. My name is Mayur and I have a speech impediment which makes my own pronunciation of my name sound like Mayu. I can’t sound ‘r’ distinctly

    After coming to Auckland from Mumbai, I was more than happy to be nicknamed as Mayo. I didn’t mind that, in fact I encouraged other nationalities to call me that. Another thing that I have realized that just like you, I was nicknamed Mayo but a Belgian guy.

    I have never even bothered to let people know what my last name is or how to pronounce it.

    I do know this: whenever I meet people of different countries I try to call them by their name. It is hard and most times extremely funny but I try.

    Thanks for writing this.

    Like

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