What’s in a name?

Try everything. A lot of people downplay the importance of names, but then why do you have people who change their names later on in life? Because a name is just that important – it is your identity beyond your personality, your talents, your ambitions and goals and accomplishments. No matter what you do, your name will always be of the first on-paper indicator of who you are, and if your name is uncommon, this is all the more potent.

Uncommon in this context means an “exotic” name, an “ethnic” name – two words I use dubiously and with no small amount of eye-rolling – a name that is unheard of and, thus, unpronounceable by the majority of people who surround you, and when your name cannot be easily pronounced, two big things could happen:

  1. The person to whom you introduced yourself, or who asked you for your name, asks to clarify the pronunciation with a sheepishly apologetic look, or;
  2. They don’t clarify anything and continue pronouncing your name the way they deem fit.

When called out on the pronunciation, this variety of person usually follows it up with, “Well, it’s close enough.”

Good job, sir. Here’s a cookie for being “close enough.”

Worse, you could get a “Well, your name is so difficult! Do you expect me to learn to pronounce it perfectly?”

Actually, yes, that is exactly what I expect you to do. It’s a name, assigned to me at birth (or later on in life for whatever reason) that identifies and distinguishes me from (most) people. I do expect you to pronounce it perfect. And no, Nee-ha is not close enough.

I have met so many people who insist on pronouncing my name incorrectly that, frankly, it’s getting boring. But that doesn’t stop me from being absolutely obstinate about pronouncing it correctly. It’s two syllables, and two very easy syllables at that.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask someone how to pronounce a name. In fact, I encourage it! But don’t say it in an exasperated, “Ugh, how dare you have such a beautifully unique and complex name, it’s too difficult for my ethnocentric and basic perception of names to be able to grasp.”

Then you just sound kind of dumb. You also sound rude.

Honestly, I’ve just scratched at the surface of this problem. So many people have had a harder time than me with their names. They have been forced to simplify the pronunciation, or even adopt a “mainstream” nickname all together just to be able to avoid the embarrassment of getting your name mispronounced. More than that, we live in a world where your name is often an indicator of how people ought to treat you. Heaven help you if you have an “Arab-sounding name.” You could have a “ghetto-sounding name” and people instantly assume your class, race, and family background. Dare ye have a name longer than three syllables? Time to make a nickname out of the first three letters! Huzzah for convenience!

Okay, the last may or may not be an annoyance. I go by “Nei” more often than not. But really, it’s the intention that counts. If you’re nothing more than an acquaintance…please, just ask. In the immortal words of John Green, “Use your words!” You’d be surprised how helpful that is.

I was lucky enough to spend my high school life in a school with 91+ nationalities, where teachers are accustomed to clearing out pronunciations before they go around mispronouncing them – mostly, anyway – but not everyone gets it that easy. If you’re an immigrant to a place like the USA then you will more often than not have a very hard time of it. And that’s sad. But it’s something that can be easily remedied by understanding that names are different everywhere, and that asking for someone’s pronunciation isn’t going to hurt your ego.

Names are important in nuanced ways. The name “Omar” does not denote your family’s inherent allegiance to al-Qaida or whatever. It’s just a lovely name that is used by Muslims – and of course other ethnicities! – around the world.

And to those who’ve had their first and last name mispronounced, don’t shy away from correcting people. Be proud of your name. You don’t have to compromise it just to fit in, or just to be spared the embarrassment, or just to adhere to a narrow-minded individual’s ethnocentric idea of what constitutes a proper name.

My name is Neiha Sharjeel Khan Lasharie, and boy, will I make you pronounce it right.

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