What’s in a name?

I was in India a few years ago at a workshop … me and 49 locals and one French girl who may as well have been Indian she’d lived there that long. As an ice-breaker, we all formed a circle and the first person introduced himself. Hello, my name is Lakshminarayana. Then the next introduced herself: Hello, my name is Kajal and this is Lakshminarayana. And then the next: Hello, my name is Anand and this is Kajal and Lakshminarayana. And so it went around. I was number 35 or so in the circle and I was stumped. Had it been in Ireland, I’d have had a reasonable chance. We have simple names like Peter, Paul, and Mary. But aside from having a terribly bad name/face recollection, I couldn’t get my tongue around the names. Embarrassing. And particularly embarrassing when the last person, No. 51, introduced herself and remembered every single name in order. And she was 80 something.

Earlier still, when in Oxford studying, a number of my classmates came from China. They anglicized their names to make it easier for English-speakers to pronounce. Hi, my name is Vivien. I’m from Guangzhou still sounds odd.

And further back again, when I was at my swearing in ceremony in the USA, every Asian being conferred with US citizenship had chosen a new, American name. Xinran became Amanda. Mengyao became Matt. Qiuyeu became Connie. And it didn’t sit well with me.

Mark Twain supposedly said: Names are not always what they seem. The common Welsh name BZJXXLLWCP is pronounced Jackson. The man had a sense of humour; you get the picture.

Anyway, I’d forgotten how mispronouncing people’s names irritates me until I saw a clip of a UK politician being interviewed about Vona Gábor’s recent foray to the UK. Now, of all the Hungarian names out there (and yes, I have problems with György and Gergely and as for Fruzsina…well…and that’s not even touching the family names) but even I can manage not to mangle Gábor. Don’t get me wrong – he’s not on my Christmas card list – but I was a tad upset that those on the public airwaves whose pronunciation will be copied with a religious fervour, didn’t bother to check the pronunciation of his name, or that of his party, Jobbik.

Confucius reckoned that if names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things. And he had a point. But on a more basic level, I reckon that we’re just getting lazy. We can’t be bothered making the effort, and in readily taking the easy way out, we quickly come to accept a new norm where others must change to accommodate us. That is wrong on so many levels.

Yes, it’s difficult. And yes, I regularly make a hames of people’s names here in Hungary because I simply cannot hear the different sounds, let alone repeat them. I’m tone deaf. But I refuse to anglicize them. I like to think that my efforts, no matter how pathetic, are seen as well-intentioned. But perhaps I’m wrong… perhaps my Hungarian friends secretly wish that I wouldn’t try too hard. I wonder.

First published in the Budapest Times  31 January 2014

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  • 6 Responses

    1. You’re quite right. I have no patience with people in Budapest who refer to district rather than kerület, Rose Hill rather than Rózsadomb etc. etc., in other words just won’t try. Lazy certainly, and of dubious politeness. As a foreigner one’s natural vowels and consonants won’t be immaculately Hungarian (nor vice versa . . .) but it’s very little trouble to try.

      1. Oops – guilty on the district… but I use utca, hid, tér, and all the local names… wonder why I’m blocking the kerulet?

      1. Trying being the operative word Zsolt…um… Joel… thanks for the encouragement – can’t help thinking though that it has something to do with you being out of hearing range 🙂

    2. Trying (or not) as an individual is one thing, but that media professionals should not have the resources or foresight to check for themselves how a name is pronounced does baffle me. I once got quite annoyed when listening to a Guardian books podcast where the guests (all of which from the media and publishing worlds) discussed well-known, foreign contemporary authors, each name inevitably followed by “or however you pronounce that”. It just made me feel like listening to something else.
      Now you make me wonder in what ways Vona Gábor’s name can possibly be mangled (he was apparently born Zázrivecz Gábor, perhaps he already had an international career in mind when he switched to Vona!).

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