Sunday, 15 November 2009

What's In A Name?

"Poor kid," my husband murmured the other day as a teenage boy walked past us. The kid looked okay to me. "What's wrong with him?" I asked. "Is he sick? Have his parents split up?"

My husband shook his head. "He's fine. It's his name."

"What is it?"

He told me. I clapped my hand over my mouth. "You've got to be kidding!"

"I'm not."

"Maybe he can pick another name. Or use his middle name instead."

"Pick another name?" my husband snorted. "It's his last name."

Poor kid!

I'm not going to tell you what the word is. This is a kid-friendly blog. My kids know the word and so do most, but I don't like them thinking it's okay to bandy it about. Let's' just say that this word is about the worst you can get. When it comes to shock effect, it trumps the F word any day. And this poor 15-year-old boy is walking around with it.

"Hope he never goes to live in an English-speaking country," I said. My husband nodded. But this kid is around English-speaking kids every day. If he hasn't been ribbed about it yet, it's just a matter of time.

When I lived in New York, I knew a Japanese girl whose name was Mariko, a perfectly common and respectable name in Japan and one which means nothing unpleasant or embarrassing in English. But when Mariko went to her first ESL class in Brooklyn and was asked to introduce herself, she brought the house down when she shyly said, "I am Mariko." Her almost entirely Spanish-speaking class heard this as maricon, which is Spanish slang for gay. It took Mariko weeks to work up the nerve to speak in front of the class again. She also took to calling herself Mari. "I got tired of everybody laughing when they heard my name," she said.

In Japan, I taught a boy named Shu, which is pronounced exactly like shoe, a girl called Mami, which is pronounced exactly like Mommy, and a boy called Yu, which sounds exactly like you. Shu's and Mami's names always made me smile, but Yu's name really tripped me up. When we practiced third person present, it always felt weird to say, "What does Yu do?" Once when our class went out for coffee together, I had the interesting experience of asking one of his classmates, "Is Yu going?" It didn't sound right.

When Yu told me he was going to study in the States for a year, I was thrilled for him at first, then I frowned. I hated the idea of telling someone to change his name, but Yu seemed to be heading for confusion.

"Umm...have you given your name any thought?" I asked. He smiled. "Someone told me Scottish name like Euan is good idea in America." I let out a sigh of relief.

In my years as an EFL teacher, I've also taught a Saiko (pronounced the same as psycho), a Tuba and a Tuna. But I never once taught an Anus. My mother did.

My mother used to teach in a tiny one-room school in the backwoods of Western Kentucky. Many of her students came from humble families with illiterate parents. One day a new boy showed up in her class. When she asked him for his name, he promptly replied, "Anus."

My mother blanched. She had grown up among people with Victorian ideas and for a split second, she wondered if the boy was trying something funny. "Spell that," she almost whispered.

The boy licked his lips. "A - N - U - S."

My mother studied his face: there was not even the slightest flicker of a smile.

For a week, my mother taught Anus. "But I could not call on him by name in class," she told us. "I had to point to him and say you,and I felt so rude doing that." She decided to pay Anus' parents a visit.

Anus' parents were good, simple people though obviously illiterate. When my mother brought up the subject of his name, his father proudly said that they had gotten it from the Bible. My mother was vastly relieved by this: they had been aiming for Enos, but hadn't thought to double check the spelling. When she suggested that they might want to change the spelling, Anus' parents were confused. Why?

My mother was the sort of person who never even used the words damn or hell. As a child, she'd had her mouth washed out for calling someone a fool, so she was way out of her depth trying to explain what Anus' name meant. For a few awkward minutes, she hemmed and hawed. She explained that ENOS was the correct spelling, but Anus' mother shrugged. So their son would have a different spelling for his name, what was wrong with that?

My mother flushed. "It means something bad."


Sadly, my mother's Victorian sensibilities made it impossible for her to spell it out. For one entire year, Anus was referred to as You in her class. Too bad he couldn't have called himself Euan too.


Patrick said...

I'll feel weird too if it was me, calling them by their name, unless I'm close with him/her.

Kim Ayres said...

And I thought Kim being widely perceived as a girls name was bad enough...

Barbara Martin said...

Those certainly are different names. I remember when boys were called Lesley and Marion. Once I knew a girl whose name was Michael. Parents don't often think about names, and in the cases presented here some are unaware.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've had many students with odd names here, Orangello, Doctor, Sanguinette are just a few I remember well.

Mary Witzl said...

Patrick -- I might be able to call someone Anus eventually. But it would take me YEARS before I could do it without cracking up.

Kim -- The honest truth is that when I first saw your name, I thought you were a girl. Now whenever I see the name 'Kim', I picture a guy. A rose by any other name, eh? But you are right: it could be SO much worse.

Barbara -- I've known two guys called Lesley and one called Marion. And I once knew a woman called Paul -- no E on it or anything. Maybe the parents were doing the 'Boy Named Sue' thing and trying to make their kids rugged individualists who could stand up for themselves.

Charles -- Orangello is pretty cool. Sanguinette? No thank you. Sounds a little too vampirish for me.

My mother had some relatives with incredible hillbilly names. But Anus made her grateful that the people in her family had, at the very least, basic literacy.

veach st. glines said...

At the beginning you declined to write a word you think is the 'worse you can get' (in order to protect younger readers), but finished by decrying the 'Victorian sensibilities' of your mother.

I'm surprised by this dichotomy, from someone so adept with words.

MG Higgins said...

Delightful story! I work with a young Laotian man named Xou (pronounced Sue). Living in a large Laotian community, he doesn't seem bothered by his name in the least. It only gets confusing when differentiating between Xou and our office manager Sue.

Kelly said...

My friends' parents' lawyers' name was Dick Short! Really! Imagine being called last name first for roll call...

A Paperback Writer said...

Okay, at the risk of getting in trouble for saying this, I've taught:
Wilden Wulle (pronounced Wild 'n' Woolley)
Wynter Vigil
Honey Graham (no, her brother was not Teddy -- I asked)
Heaven Leigh
and this year we have Annakhan Skye Locker (pronounced Annakin Skylocker -- no, I'm not joking)
I've also taught kids with smirk-producing names, such as
Johnny Johnston
Ben Bennett
Chris Christensen
Mike Fuchs (pronounced fyooks -- thank heaven)
a family with the last name of Butts
siblings Arwen and Merlin
Gypsy Rose Nice (she had no idea she was named after a stripper)
Molly Brown (as in "The Unsinkable"-- and she was on the swim team)
and an ESL girl who's name was pronounced identically to the name of the town where I teach.

And, for Kelly and her story about Dick Short, may I add that I went to school with a fellow by the name of John Bates, who was on the debate team. The team followed very traditional rules for competing, so each kid was Miss Last Name or Master Last Name (master being the term for a young, unmarried boy). Imagine the look on John's face when he was presented with a name tag that read "Master Bates." He insisted on wearing one with his full name -- and the judges made an exception just for him. Go figure.

A Paperback Writer said...

OH, to MG HIggins,
so you actually know a boy named Xou? I'd be humming the Johnny Cash "A Boy Named Sue" song all the time when near him!

Miss Footloose said...

@ Great story! My dh is American and I am Dutch and when we were trying to find baby names for our children, I knew that we could never use my father's first name for a boy - Sikko or my grandfather's name: Hessel. Just imagine the poor kids in an English speaking environment with those names! Sikko sounds exactly like Sicko and Hessel would no doubt become Hassle.

What's in a name? Plenty!!

Mary Witzl said...

VSG -- You've caught me out! I'm actually a bit of a closet Victorian, but WAY more earthy than my mother. Here were a few of the words that could never be spoken in our house: 'fart', 'hell', 'damn', and (in the 'Wow!' sense) 'God'. Given my upbringing, I'm pretty proud of being able to come out with 'crap' occasionally.

'Adept with words'. I'll be swanning around with that warming me up all day. Thank you.

MCH -- I used to teach a Xou too. (God, did I just write that?) I grew up with people whose names didn't get much more interesting than Gonzalez or Hughes. When I was a kid, I'd have loved having a few Xous around.

Kelly -- Poor Dick! I worked with a Donald Keye once. His nickname was, naturally, Don, and you think his parents might have thought that one through.

APW -- You'd think that whoever wrote out 'Master Bates' would have twigged and come up with something a little less ear-burning. Poor kid! I'm glad that an exception was made in his case.

Love those other examples you gave. How could you keep a straight face while you were teachiing?

Miss Footloose -- Sikko would definitely suffer if he had to go through the American school system. I knew a Japanese-American kid who had the name 'Shittaka' in his family. He was deeply grateful it wasn't his own surname. And I'll bet your kids are happy you never went with Sikko.

JR's Thumbprints said...

... and to think that the convicts I teach seek name changes all the time, but for very different reasons.

Carolie said...

I love your writing and your insights! (And yes, I've been enacting "drive-by readings" but have not had the time to pause to comment in this world of "we're leaving Japan so everyone I've ever known wants to visit NOW!")

I have always been quite happy being named Carolie, despite having to correct people CONSTANTLY ("No, it's not Caroline. No, not Carolyn. No, not Carol Ann. No, not Kara LEIGH. It's KAH-ro-lee, like 'carolling'.

Then I arrived in Japan. I'm overweight, and it's been difficult to be called "calorie" so frequently. Luckily, I've gotten used to it!

Any sight of the package yet, Mary?

Carolie said...

There's a Web site I once ran across which lists the oddest names in America each year (subjectively chosen, of course) but I can't remember the URL. Sorry! I do remember some real doozies though!

My friend Becca gets lots of odd looks and some giggles when she introduces herself -- she has to remember to stress that it's BEH-kuh, not bah-ka, since bakka means something like foolish in Japanese.

Initials can sometimes cause some trouble as well...I have an American friend named after his father, but with his uncle's name for a middle name. The initials? P.O.O.

Chocolatesa said...

I have a client at work, a man, whose first name is Carole. I'm not sure as to the spelling since I'd be way to embarrassed to ever ask him. For all I know he might be Polish and it's spelled Karol. I think that's a Polish name isn't it? I've heard of lots of very weird names having worked in calling centers for the past 3 or 4 years, I wish I had kept a list!
Oh, and Kim would be perfectly normal for a guy if he's Korean, right? Obviously Mr. Ayres is not though :)

Chocolatesa said...

Oh and I just had another male client called Angie.

Falak said...

And I thought it was only my name:)

Mary Witzl said...

JR -- I can imagine that a really distinctive name isn't much of an advantage if you're trying to elude the law.

Carolie -- You're a good sport to put up with 'Calorie', but I can imagine the L and R confusion. A friend of mine told me that he didn't like my name, pronounced Meari (メアリー) in Japanese. Every time he heard it, he pictured 目有り as in 'has eyes'. Even a plain old name like Mary can be creepy, it seems. And my last name caused so much grief I used to wish I could change it.

I can imagine what your friend Becca must go through! I've known two girls called Saiko, one of whom spoke English very well and got awfully tired of all the hoots and snickers.

Chocolatesa -- Yes, 'Kim' is one of the most common names in Korea (it means 'gold'), but it is a last name.

'Angie' must be a tough name for a guy to have, though I'm pretty sure Karol is a fairly common name for men. (Polish or Slovakian.) I wonder what foreigners think of our names?

Falak -- I can imagine that your name might get the odd raised eyebrow when you travel, but just think how much worse it could be!

Anne Spollen said...

My mom has a friend named Candace Ann Kane - which is, of course, Candy Kane. Not icky, but she was made fun of all the time.

The boy who sat next to me in biology was named Kevin Lipschitz. Let's just say I've become a much kinder person as I've gotten older...

Vijaya said...

Oh, Mary, your post made me cry. Even now, it hurts to be made fun of. You can imagine the awful variations ...

A Paperback Writer said...

Well, Mary, not much beats "Anus," but I do try not to smirk when I call on poor Annakhan.

One more fun example, I have a Costa Rican friend whose surname is Paniagua, which is just a smooshed up version of pan y agua or "bread and water."

laura said...

OMG, I can barely type this, tears are running down my face!! Your poor mother! I once dated a man named Hilary and he said getting beat up on the playground was a daily event for him. I have no idea why someone didn't give him a nickname, like Hank for example.

laura said...

Oh I forgot, I also dated a southern man with the last name of Bates and he too had 'issues' with the master thing. I also realize it sounds like I had quite the busy social life, once upon a time! Don't I wish!

Nora MacFarlane said...

I've taught an April May June. I've also had a Shithead (pronounced Shi-theed). Scary what some people will name their children.

Nora MacFarlane said...

Oh, I also had and Uncle Sherley and an Aunt Billy.

Carolie said...

Chocolatesea -- I actually have an uncle named Carroll and a male cousin named Carroll. In the south, quite often last names (especially the mother's maiden name) are used for first names, and I suspect this is where Carroll came from originally -- as well as all the current Morgans and Taylors and McKenzies and Jordans, ad infinitum.

I've got a cousin named Sims and an aunt named Sims, a cousin named Erskine, a cousin named Gouverneur (!!), an uncle named King, a cousin named King, a cousin named Madden, my mother's name is DuBose, a male cousin is named DuBose...I think the family tradition has always been "either a family name or a biblical name for a first name." (Carolie was my grandmother Carol E.'s nickname...go figure!)

Carolie said...

Oh, and I've met lots of male Ashleys, Hillarys, Evelyns, Tracys, Kellys and Kims. I suspect that again, these were last names used as first names to honor a maternal line, and then handed down the family as first names.

Chocolatesa said...

Carolie: DuBose? Wow. I can't remember having come across anyone with a last name as a first.

Actually I just thought of that, the initials of my last name are B.J. but thankfully I never got teased about it.

And I thought my mother horrible for wanting to name my sister old-fashioned names like Bertha or Gertrude! She ended up being named Emily Julianne thanks to me and my best friend brainstorming for modern names that my mom would agree to.

Chocolatesa said...

Oh, and I once dated a guy whose best friend was named Elvis.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Several of these names sound like a set-up for an update to the famous "who's on first" Abbott and Costello routine.

We met someone who named their child Ethan Allen... no, they had never heard of the American patriot, they named him after the "restaurant" chain. My wife was too shy to tell them it is actually a furniture store chain; clearly they had never visited (nor eaten) there.

Mary Witzl said...

AnneS -- Poor Candy Cane! And poor Kevin Lipschitz!

Most of us become a little kinder when we get older, don't we? I never ribbed anyone about a name, but I had little time for people I considered stupid. Divine karma has surely given me the students I now have. Plenty of opportunity to practice my new-found compassion with them.

Vijaya -- I read your comment this morning and was completely puzzled by it. Then reading it again this evening, the light bulb over my head suddenly clicked on and my heart went out to you!! Imagine what the kind of kids who savaged your name did with 'Whitsell' (just switch the W and S around and you'll have the idea). I was teased mercilessly as a kid, but I think that would have happened whatever my name was.

APW -- The truly amazing thing about Anus' story was that his parents gave him his name without any malicious intent. I wonder what Annakhan's mother was thinking? 'Paniagua'? That sounds very soggy...

Laura -- When I was seven, I knew a boy named Crane. He was a gentle, quiet kid and like your Hillary, his name did him no favors at all. Being born to out-of-touch parents is so terribly unlucky, isn't it?

Nora -- Did you SERIOUSLY teach a Shithead? That is utterly amazing! Surely that wasn't his first name? Now I'm wondering whether Anus didn't perhaps have grandchildren and carry on the interesting family tradition of crappy names? And Uncle Sherley and Aunt Billy -- that is priceless. You guys have better stories than I do!

Carolie -- Some of my male cousins had last names for first names, and the one thing they had in common was being from the South or having parents who were. Blaine, Warren, Woodson, Drury, and Shadrach were just a handful of the first names for boys in my family. I'll bet you and I could find cousins in common if we looked at our respective family trees. 'Sims' sounds very familiar, and I had an Uncle Erskine too.

Chocolatesa -- You were very good to do that for your little sister! Gertrude and Bertha -- dear God! I hope your sister is grateful to you for interceding on her behalf.

Robert -- I could understand someone wanting to name their son after a national hero, but who in the world would want to name their kid after a furniture chain? I wonder if they might have had fond memories of a couch or other piece of furniture...? And that makes my imagination go a little wild.

debra said...

Years ago, I worked with hospitalized children. Once there was a very very young mother who told us that she was SO grateful that the nurses had named her baby daughter for her. The child was called Fe-mah-lee. Spelled: FEMALE.

Chocolatesa said...

Ooh! I just found a good (bad?) one!

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- That is priceless! And it makes me want to hug Fee-mah-lay's mother; there is something very sweet about her sort of naivete. (I'm guessing Mom must have been Hispanic... Tamale=tah-mah-lay, so Female=feh-mah-lee...?) I hope Female has the sense to spell her name a fancy way and -- someday -- tell this story herself, with charm and humor.

Chocolatesa -- Brilliant. But I can't help but hope that Mr Rammer never sees this.

Charlie said...

This post, and the comments, remind me of the strange, and often hilarious, names Faulkner came up with. The Snopes family, a band of illiterates, had kids named Wall Street Panic Snopes and Montgomery Ward Snopes.

And Dickens had tons of fabulous names too.

Anonymous said...

(sorry I"m late with comments...behind on my reading)

HAHA! Names are fascinating anyway, and when you cross cultures they become even more so. Like my name, Elizabeth. I used to go by Beth, until I moved to a francophone country. In French, it's pronounced Bette, which means dumb or stupid or beast!

There was a PC volunteer in Mauritania named Shayna, which in Hassiniya means "Ugly Girl." You could just see the older women shaking their heads over the cruelty of that girl's parents!

There were baby girls named "Mama." There was a woman named "Madame."

I have so many more but I'll stop there. I've enjoyed reading comments.

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- There were some pretty amazing first names in my own family, mainly taken from the Bible or thought up, but none of them came close to Anus (to my knowledge). I can only speak for those family members I was familiar with though. The ones I never met might have got up to Faulknerian heights.

PN -- I feel sorry for Shayna in Mauritania! I can't help wondering what she did for a name during her stay there; surely she got tired of the whole routine after a while? And I sympathize with you for Bette. I had a friend who used to feel that her name sounded a little too close to 'hemorrhoids' in Japanese.

Marian said...

Hi Mary,

"Anus" was funny enough, but your mom's reaction took the cake. Let's hope the poor kid never finds out what the name means in English.

I used to work in the call centre of a medical laboratory network, and some of the names of patients and doctors were, um, unforgettable.

Like the time the doctor's office needed results for a patient with the last name Ho and first name Phat. Without thinking I said the names in order, aloud.

Then there was the Chinese gentleman called Ting Ling Wang.

Once or twice I got calls from a Dr Soon's office. Turns out his first name is Ok. On the other end of that spectrum was a Dr Deadman. I always hoped he was a pathologist.

Chocolatesa said...

Marian: Those were just great!! :D

Mary Witzl said...

Marian -- I love those! I hope Dr Deadman was a pathologist too; you'd hardly want a surgeon or an internist with that name, would you?

The late Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle used to collect unintentionally funny names, such as Ben Dunn and Wun Hung Lo, or names of people that were eerily close to their jobs. My personal favorite is the name of the man who perfected the flush toilet, Thomas Crapper. And I think there was a famous neurologist named Brain.

Chocolatesa -- :)

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