What's in a Name?

“The sweetest sound to the human ear is that of one’s own name.” — Proverb

The difficulty of it all. Adjusting to life in a new culture can be especially difficult when it comes to using names. Names have all sorts of cultural information attached to them. Some names denote age, seniority, or birth order; nicknames are limited by who can use them and what gender or group they are attached to. For foreigners, knowing how to pronounce names in the United States can be particularly tricky because the centuries of immigrants to this country as well as the original natives from North America represent hundreds of cultures and languages, further confounding the rules and pronunciations. Americans who have foreign-born co-workers can help out these internationals by being extra sensitive to the myriad names which confront a person every day.

Names in U.S. history. In the past, immigrants to the United States were coaxed, prodded, or forced into changing their names to “fit in” in ears, brains, and writing system of predominant English culture. Immigration officials shortened long names, rewrote “unpronounceable” names, and substituted “unrecognizable” names with anglicized ones. A New York Times article talks about this history and how it has changed, with many 21st century immigrants keeping their names (and spellings) intact.

My paternal grandfather, Gustav Einar Hedblom, emigrated to the United States in 1920. In order to keep the original Swedish pronunciation, he anglicized the spelling of his surname to Headbloom. Originally, the name is a compound noun: hed (meaning “heath” or “heather” ) and blom (meaning “blossom” or “flower” ). My younger brother reverted to the old spelling years ago, while my parents, sisters, children, and I all used the new American spelling.

Bottom line: A person’s name may have special meaning to him or her. It may be given to commemorate an occasion, to represent a heritage, to honor a special friend or ancestor, or because it has a special sound or meaning. Here are some do’s and don’ts about that Sweetest Sound:

  • Don’t automatically shorten someone’s name or give them a nickname for your own convenience. It’s not yours to choose.
  • Make every attempt to write and say another’s name correctly. It is a sign of respect.
  • Don’t be embarrassed to ask several times for the correct pronunciation. People with unusual names are usually practiced and patient.
  • Practice saying or writing a newcomer’s name correctly. This will help you learn faster.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask about an unusual name’s meaning or origin. Most people like to talk about their name’s history. In the process of learning, you may make a new friend.

If you have an example of a sad or confusing or funny story related to names, please let us know. We’d love to share it with our readers. Here’s one that someone has shared with us.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.