From Ekpedeme to Oljas, a scientific look at how the complexity of a given name can shape youngsters’ view of themselves and their world.
by Alissa Fleck
“My name strikes fear in the hearts of many when they first see it.”
So says Ekpedeme Bassey, who was born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents and given a traditional Nigerian name. “I don’t have an earliest memory of my name being mispronounced. My name was always mispronounced.”
Since she was young, Ekpedeme (pronounced Ek-peh-deh-may) sometimes mysteriously becomes ‘Experdeem’ or even ‘Expedermis.’ More often, people are just plain stumped. While Bassey retains a sense of humor about it, she admits her lightheartedness can give way to frustration.
“I always longed for an easier name, like Lisa,” says Bassey, who spent her school years in predominantly Caucasian environments in New York City and Atlanta. Bassey briefly tried going by her middle name, ‘Mfon,’ which she figured would be easier. When that evolved into “Muffin” or even “Blackberry Muffin,” for the color of her skin, she retired it.
Even her own mother struggled to pronounce “Ekpedeme,” as she came from a different ethnic tribe than Bassey’s father, who chose her name. She gave her the nickname ‘Pamay,’ which opened up its own problems: people who call her ‘Pam,’ not realizing Pamay is already a nickname.
Bassey’s memories provide a snapshot of the experience of being the kid with the “unusual” name, and most in a position like hers have a story. Niti Suchdeve was “Lucy” for a year to a social studies teacher who wanted to avoid the awkwardness of mispronouncing her name. Mairéad O’Grady learned to say “here” during elementary school roll call based on the long pause after another student’s name. And after cycling through such odd derivations as ‘Fez’ and even ‘Coleslaw,’ Oljas Toleu eventually adopted the nickname ‘OJ’—the first and third letter of his first name, and the only ones most people seemed able to pronounce together—but would also settle for ‘Jim’ or ‘Josh.’
While occasionally a name that’s difficult to pronounce may spellbind the public and dominate media coverage, as it happened when a young Quvenzhané (kwuh-VEN-zhuh-nay) Wallis was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” for many, having one is just business as usual. Growing up with a name others find burdensome can be more than just an occasionally comedic, teaching moment. Sometimes, it can influence everything from your personality to the kind of job you have.
Names are inextricably bound up with personal identity and sense of self. They may not be something you spend much time ruminating on, unless yours has been regularly garbled, but experts in the fields of psychology, neurology and sociology agree there’s a lot to a name.
Pediatric development researchers Dennis P. Carmody and Michael Lewis reported in “Brain Research” in 2006 that hearing your own name has “unique brain functioning activation specific to [it] in relation to the names of others.” Hearing your name triggers a physiological response—it’s comforting, it draws your attention and generates the the so-called Cocktail Party Effect, or “selective attention,” which enables people to segregate their own names, for instance, among other various auditory stimuli. Your name is yours and yours alone. Others may share it, but what it means to you is unique on many levels of personal identification and association.
Your name could also, potentially, impact the outcome of your life.
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2011 titled “Why People Like Mr. Smith More Than Mr. Colquhoun,” found there are certain advantages to going through life with an “easier” name. The study, led by Dr. Simon M. Laham, demonstrated that people are more inclined to “form positive impressions of easy-to-pronounce names.” For instance, lawyers with more conventionally pronounceable names were more likely to rise to higher positions in their firm’s hierarchy.
“I remember my name being mispronounced from an early age,” says Mairéad (Ma-ray-id) Siobhán (Sha-von) O’Grady, born in the U.S. to parents of Irish descent who wanted to give their three daughters characteristically Irish names as a way to adhere to their roots, even if they were “unpronounceable and non-phonetic.”
O’Grady grew up in Milton, Massachusetts, the most Irish-Catholic town in America, although her early schooling did not reflect that statistic. Her elementary school was more than fifty percent non-white, she says, and students had many different types of names.
“The first day, or even week, of school would be a continuous lesson in my name—and every time we had a substitute teacher, forget about it,” recalls O’Grady. “Most mispronunciations are something along the lines of May-Reed, Marry-Ed, My-Red.” Sometimes, however, they’re a little more out there. “My elementary school’s computer system couldn’t account for the accent mark on the ‘e’,” says O’Grady. “My name became ‘Mairhead.’”
For many kids socializing and interacting with the broader outside world for the first time, school is the epicenter of their lives, where they grow and form an identity, the basis of which lasts their whole lives. It’s where they learn about cultural sensitivity and self-respect. It’s where the idea of the self in relation to the community begins to take shape.
“Identity formation is a social endeavor,” says Christine Patton, a postdoctoral research associate at the Society for Research on Adolescence. “Teens use the cues and feedback of others around them to understand who they are and who they might become.”
But this process, we must assume, starts taking shape a good deal earlier than adolescence. Disregarding the pronunciation of a student’s name may not seem as grave an offense as discrimination based on the color of a student’s skin or religion, but it can equate to turning a blind eye to diversity, thereby perpetuating the cycle of marginalization. As a child, it can be daunting to participate in a classroom where your name is continually mispronounced with little regard for accuracy.
O’Grady has always corrected those who mispronounce her name, as she considers it an important part of her identity, even though she does not otherwise maintain a strong bond to the Irish community. “If it’s not being said right, I just can’t listen to it,” she says.
As O’Grady notes, and Laham’s study proves, a name that’s not yours does not affect you in the same affirming, physiological
way. A blasé mispronunciation may be taken as a slight or signify a lack of respect.
In the eighth grade, ‘Niti’ (Nee-thee) Suchdeve (Such-deev), had a teacher who was unresponsive to the repeated corrections of her mispronunciations, continuing to bungle her name for a full year. “It made me feel insecure about my work. I felt that she liked the other kids, the white kids, better,” says Suchdeve.
Growing up in the primarily white, upper-middle class town of Babylon, Long Island, Suchdeve, who immigrated to the U.S. from South Asia at the age of three-and-a-half, felt uncomfortable correcting the mispronunciations, eventually settling on letting people call her ‘Nee-Tee,’ which seemed a little easier. Ironically, she was actually born with the name ‘Devyanka,’ but her mother, concerned Americans would not be able to pronounce it, renamed her after her best friend, Niti—a simpler, yet apparently not simple enough name.
Laham says he hopes his research on name discrimination will force people to examine their biases when it comes to hearing an unfamiliar name: it’s a process, conscious or not, insinuating that one’s own cultural background is a focal point to which the unfamiliar is always the other.
Imagine, then, the intimidation an American teacher might instill in a young child from another country—imagine the courage needed to stand up for herself, and to repeatedly do so when she is ignored and that courage is rebuffed. It’s often easier for a child to try to assimilate whose “unusual” name is coupled with a different country of origin, a different racial background or a distinct accent.
Ultimately, it’s not as simple as merely taking the time to learn each student’s name. This process is complicated by behaviors and human barriers on the part of both students and teachers, even well-meaning ones. Students may be too intimidated to speak up or simply not care. Educators may be overwhelmed, forgetful or even affected by learning disabilities, which can make it hard to keep track of numerous names.
So what can educators do? Pamela Kelly, who for three years taught in an inner city school in Memphis, Tennessee, that had children with “unique first names” but more conventional surnames, offers one possible solution. “I called my students ‘Scholar (insert last name).’ It made the children feel smart, and I respected their unique names without engaging in wasted conversation or ridicule.”
The easygoing Oljas (Ol-zhas) Toleu (Toe-le-oo), who was born in Kazakhstan and moved to the predominantly white, middle class town of Lakewood, Minnesota, when he was twelve, has a different outlook when it comes to his name.
“I felt like adjusting to the system would be easier than trying to fight it,” he explains, of his experience. “I am lucky that I came here as early as I did because it was very easy to adjust.”
Toleu insists emphatically he does not care about or bother correcting others’ blunders—in fact, he doesn’t even broach the subject. “Different culture, different names and rules,” he says. “Whatever works for you is fine.”
Toleu is content being known as OJ, though he semi-jokingly worries about the implications of that name when hanging out with “a lot of white or black people.” He also says he hears a fair amount of jokes along the lines of “do you drive a white Bronco?” or “did you really do it?”
One mispronunciation that stands out in his mind—when a teacher called him “Olzz-Hass”—he calls “the funniest thing ever,” saying he never did correct her.
“Some people pronounce the “J” as soft, like “José,” which makes me sound Mexican or Scandinavian,” he explains. “Some actually get it right. Usually people do their best, and aren’t demeaning in any way.
“There were two other Asian kids at the school, who were adopted and had ‘American’ names,” he remembers of growing up in Lakewood. “Some kids made fun of my name—it bothered me at times, some kids were worse than others. But it’s kids.”
“I went to the University of Minnesota when I was 15,” adds Toleu, whose mother pushed him to study rigorously. “Part of the reason I wanted to go to a bigger school was to blend in.”
Until a few years ago, “Americanizing” names used to be common practice for immigrants to the U.S. However, Cheryl R. David, former chairwoman of the New York chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the New York Times in 2010 that practice has all but dropped off, pointing out to the fact that the U.S. is generally more multicultural today than in the past, and ethnic identity can even be a “potential asset” as in the case of affirmative action, a notion which pushes back against Laham’s findings.
As Kelly notes, the days of a class being filled with multiple “Michaels” and “Jennifers” seems to be behind us anyway. “There is a generation of children born to young mothers who embraced uniqueness as the calling card for children’s names,” she says.
While what Kelly describes is different from immigrants who feel comfortable having foreign names while living in the U.S., it reflects certain attitudes about the desire, pride and potential benefits of standing out.
“For example,” she adds, “‘Delasone’ was a name that made me pause. But it is pronounced “‘de last one.’ It was the mother’s footnote to herself about having any more children.”
“I don’t think my students thought these names were out of the ordinary because it was common in their generation, in their circle, to have names that were spelled and pronounced differently than their parents or grandparents.”
Ease of pronunciation is entirely relative, and how and whether your name impacts the course of your life is heavily dependent on contextual factors. The outcome of Laham’s study precludes this dimensionality: an unusual-sounding name is not necessarily a deterrent or limiting factor. In fact, it can prove to be just the opposite.
In her early 20s, Suchdeve redefined—or redirected—her life by adamantly coming out about her “real” name and insisting people get it right. She likes the new-found opportunity to assert herself, she says.
“I deserve respect and like having the opportunity to communicate that,” says Suchdeve. “I am making up for all the mispronunciations now.”
Recently, she worked with colleagues who were themselves intent on learning how to pronounce her name accurately, and she says she noticed a change. “Having a group of people pronounce my name correctly felt really good.” Others interviewed reflect this sense of delight at having their names suddenly understood for the first time, whatever their age. Suchdeve has even taken to seeing her unique name as a benefit.
“I enjoy not being Sara, Megan, Katie or Christine,” she explains. “In my adult life I like having a unique name because it leads to conversation. It gives people an opportunity to ask where I’m from. I like talking about my background because I’m damn proud of it. I like telling people that it’s Sanskrit and means ‘wisdom personified.’”
According to O’Grady, “one of two things can happen when you have an “unpronounceable” name. “You either become a shy, embarrassed child who allows any variety of versions of her name,” she says, “or you become an outspoken, gregarious kid who takes it upon herself to correct every person who mispronounces her name.”
“I definitely became the latter,” she adds, “and I actually quite enjoyed correcting teachers and having my own chance to ‘teach’ them to say my name.” O’Grady has since become a teacher herself, and still enjoys the ways people react to her name. “Having an interesting name makes me feel like a more interesting person,” she says. “I feel fairly certain that even if I did all the same things I currently do with a different name, I wouldn’t be quite the same person I am today.”
Bassey, now an author and CEO of a start-up promoting interfaith dialogue, and head of the Pamay Group, an e-learning design company, also reflects positively on her experience. “Having a name that is hard to pronounce, by American standards, has been the source of much comedy and character growth in my life,” she says. “It has contributed greatly to my lifelong journey of self-definition and respect for all people from all backgrounds.”
Toleu, who is a financial analyst at Wells Fargo, echoes the sentiment about individuality. OJ Simpson jokes aside, with a name like his, “people remember you,” he says. “I think my name sets me apart.”