What's in a Name? (Part 2)

In the previous post, we talked about the need to pay attention to others' names, even if they are tricky for you to say. A person's name is his or her identity. It may come from a special relative or have a special meaning in their language or culture.

The need for flexibility. Most Americans have three names: given-middle-family (which are called “first-middle-last” ). This means most officials and and clerical information-takers in the United States expect clients, patients, and customers to follow this pattern. When internationals present their unique names, the Americans are flummoxed because there are standard boxes to fill in, but the names don’t cooperate. Additionally, sometimes American names can create problems. The following list represents the diversity of naming features that might cause confusion.

  • Some Americans and internationals change over from a maiden name to a married name.
  • Japanese traditionally have no middle names.
  • African American first names may or may not be of African origin, but may represent neo-African sounds to the parents: La-Keesha, Tashonda, Jawon, DaShawn, LaToya, and Jaleesa.
  • Some British people have two middle names.
  • In the Middle East and Muslim Africa, some have the same first and last name, like Sirhan Sirhan or Mohamed Mohamed.
  • Some Indonesians and Indians have one name only (no middle name, no last name), for example: Suharto.
  • Some names have mixed upper/lower case, like von Beethoven, da Silva, Le Clerc, ten Broek, McDonald, MacGinty.
  • Capital letters can come in the middle of a name (without spaces), like JoAnne, LeBron, PaulaSue, or MarcQus.
  • Transliteration from another language (for example, Russian) yields many forms: Katya, Kattya, Ekaterina, and Yekaterina.
  • Some famous entertainers are known by only one name: Cher, Ronaldo, Bono, Madonna, Tiger.
  • Brazilians alphabetize rosters by first name, not by last.
  • American males are named after their predecessors, with abbreviations following the whole name (and a comma): Sr., Jr., III, IV, V, etc.
  • Diminutives for female first names come with many endings: -ette, -ina, -ita, -inha, -etta, -ie all mean “little.”
  • Feminine forms of masculine names are made by adding -a at the end: Robert/Roberta, George/Georgia, Steven/Stephanie.
  • Irish or Scottish names begin with an O and an apostrophe: O’Dell, O’Reilly, O’Toole.
  • There are special nicknames for an American son named after his father, for example, Sonny or Junior.
  • Czech women add -ova to their husband’s last name. For example, Mr. Fictum’s wife has the last name Fictumova.
  • Some Americans and internationals use hyphenated last names.
  • Both Americans and internationals may have long names that won’t fit into the blanks of a form.
  • People of the Sikh religion all take the last name of Singh.
  • Some Americans and internationals have first names with hyphenation, like Jean-Claude (French) or Karl-Oskar (German).
  • Coming to the U.S., Koreans may anglicize their first and middle names (1) together or (2) hyphenated or (3) separately: Jeesun, Young-Sam, or Jang Young.
  • A name can have multiple forms: Allen, Alan, Alain, Allen; Mohamed, Mahmoud, Mohammad; Catherine, Kathryn, Catharine.
  • Family identity can play a role in Arabic names. A man named Mohamed may go by Abu Mazen (“Father of Mazen” ).
  • American boxer George Foreman named all of his five children George.
  • Some Nigerians name their children by the day of the week they were born on.
  • In Scandinavia, the surname Svensson is the “Son of Sven” and Jonsdottir is the “Daughter of Jon.”
  • Spanish names have (de +) the mother“s name at the end. The person’s name is alphabetized by the middle name, which is the father“s last name.
  • Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans give their surname first, and their “first” name last.
  • In order to stand out, some names are given with non-traditional spellings: Skot, Robyn, Isiah, Ocirris.

Let’s end with a little humor regarding names. The famous U.S. Olympic skier Picabo (pronounced “peek-a-boo” ) Street is not just an athlete; she is also a nurse. She currently works in the Intensive Care Unit (I.C.U.) of a large metropolitan hospital. She is not permitted to answer the telephone while she is at work, however. It simply causes too much confusion when she answers the phone and says, “Picabo, ICU.”

Two notes to non-native speakers: 1. Picabo Street is not really a nurse. 2. American parents play a game with their babies by covering their faces, then pulling away the hands or object hiding the face, and saying, “Peek-a-boo, I see you!” This makes the baby laugh.

Have you had a difficult time with Americans saying your name? Do you need help with a colleague's unusual name? Write to tell us about it. Between us and our readers, we're sure to have some suggestions for you.

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.