Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What's In A Name?

The concept of identity has always been very interesting to me. Because I’m of mixed background and seem to move a lot, it hits pretty close to home. When my academic research focused on international politics and European studies, one of my favorite topics to focus on was European identity; after years of tumultuous wars and conflicts, when your continent decides to live together in peace as a somewhat unified entity (with laws and decisions that affect the Union as a whole) where do you find yourself? And moreover, with autonomous regions within countries, where do these people place themselves? What is their identity?

Fascinating, huh?

This morning, I did an exercise in one of my classes that hoped to teach us more about our identity and our personality, and whether or not the way we described ourselves had any relation to our culture. We had to answer with 15 traits to the question “Qui suis-je ?” (Who am I?)… “I am a woman” was my first answer, which I think says a lot about me right off the bat, I followed with several personality traits such as perfectionist, curious, hard working, and included other traits crucial to my identity such as “I am a brunette” (I am weirdly proud of this), mentioning both my Americanness and my Hispanic background, finishing with “I am far from my family.” In the entire exercise, I did not mention my name… which is what I want to talk about now.

Our names are such a big part of our identity. First of all, a name can say where you’re from, how your parents are (did they name you Apple? Or were you named after Geraldine Chaplin?), I think can also strongly shape your personality, and it's the first fact you ever say when introducing yourself to other people (it's also what people use to find you on Facebook or Linkedin, but that's another story). Within the transgender community, a name can be your first key to a whole new life, your real identity.

When I was a little girl, my favorite cousin’s name was Carolina. I dreamed of changing my name to this and even managed to convince teachers to start calling me that, and I was very jealous of my sister for a while because she got the French name and I got the Spanish one. As an adult, I am a huge fan of my name, I love that it references Diana the Goddess for her strength, and I often joke “Diana… like the princess” when people need to spell it. I am equally invested in other people’s names and will shamelessly compliment you on yours, “Blythe? That is such a gorgeous name!” I gushed to someone the other night, and I can hyperventilate over Czech (all those cool accents) and Greek names.

Now you’d think the name Diana is quite an easy one, not too long, no accents, simple. Its many pronunciations depending on the language certainly affects its spelling, my biggest pet peeve being when it is written “Dayana” by the lovely people of Miami, and so confusing when French speakers call me “Diane,” close but no cigar.  Last week, I learned its Slavic spelling (Dijana) and was fascinated, so many possibilities for such a simple name!

However, as your name has such a strong correlation to your identity, its mispronunciation and misspelling represents a bigger issue. When I moved to the United States, my name was changed to Diane on my official school papers. I spent months running around my High School with my birth certificate and other papers, trying to convince my school that it was not Diane, but Diana. Graduating with the wrong name could eventually lead to a problem in proving that I did indeed graduate from High School. My last name, also a special variation of a more common last name with a V instead of B, gets confused from time to time.

A while back I ran into this video, where people talk about their “Starbucks names” and how they get simplified. Now everyone’s name gets butchered at Starbucks, but what’s interesting is how the interviewees talk about their names, expressing that they usually allow people to mispronounce them or even do so themselves just to make it easier for others, “I don’t want anyone to feel like my name is a burden” says one of the people in the video, and “Like many immigrants, my name is an issue.”

For some time, I’ve made the decision to pronounce my name in Spanish, as it is meant to be pronounced, which confuses English speakers (“Deanna?”), but delights me. Sometimes, I even throw in my middle name to complete my Hispanic Circle of Life. At my university, I’ve met many Asian students who do not use westernized names, and after a few tips, I get pretty close to their real pronunciation (and of course compliment them profusely, because again, I’m a creepy complimenter).

If I ever have babies to name (I was named after the Goddess of Fertility, after all), I will probably try something original, (by this, I mean non-Hispanic) but I will definitely stay away from directions and fruits-- I love the names Oona and Aria for a girl, Miloš for a boy (or anything with a ž really), and Skylar for a gender-neutral/superhero baby option.

PS: How to get your barista to spell your name properly and how do you feel about your name? Do you ever get the "hmm you look more like a Sandra to me" ? (which BTW is rude, stop it).

{Illustration by Garance Doré}