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What’s in a name?

“Hello. Marica Sevelj speaking,” I said rather formally and quickly as I answered the phone.

“Hi,” responded a deep male voice at the other end. I waited for him to say something else but he didn’t.

“Can I help you?”

Again there was no response from the other end.

The silence was a bit unnerving.

“Is anyone there?”

As I still had no response I quickly followed up with, “How can I help you?”

I made the decision to hang up the phone. Just as I was about to do this the man at the other end said rather apologetically, “I was trying to work out how to say your name.”

I smiled, but actually what I wanted to do was to burst out laughing. I should have worked that out. This is not the first time this has happened to me.

“Sorry about that,” continued the male voice at the other end.

I could feel his embarrassment even though I couldn’t see him.

“I respond to anything,” I replied smiling, in the hope that he would get the message that I wasn’t offended. I appreciated that he had at least given it a go – many don’t, instead they make some comment about me having an unpronounceable name. I didn’t want my name to be a stumbling block in our communication so I tried to make light of it. I have to admit though that I have found that a discussion about names can be a useful starting point in establishing a connection with people, be it at distance or in-person, because this is so often something non-threatening and people are happy to share their story about their own name. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the origins of one’s name are local or foreign – there is always something to say about it.

I have grown up never hearing my name said properly, except by my own family and by members of our ethnic community. I am used to my name never being spelt correctly as well. One of my colleagues has even commented to me that she thinks learners avoid phoning me because they are worried about how to say my name.

I dealt with the learner’s query and then dashed off to a meeting.

In the stairwell I bumped into another staff member I hadn’t seen for a while.

“Hi Maria,” he said.

Yes, he was talking to me; there was no-one else around!

“Hi, how are you?” I responded. A brief exchange took place and I continued on my way.

“mmmmm….Maria eh.” My mind wandered to Maria von Trapp and The Sound of Music. I could see Julie Andrews. I could hear her singing. Then the nuns were singing about her in the song ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria?’

Being called the wrong name triggered this connection.

I was also reminded of the growing list where I have been recording the different written interpretations of my name which sits beside my computer. Now you’d think there would be no excuse for getting my name wrong in a written format but even this seems to be a problem.

Here are some of the interpretations of my first name from that list:

Maroca, Marishka, Merica, Marsha, Mirica, Maria, Marcio, Hi Savelj (greeting in an email), Marcia (I have to deal with one on almost a daily basis), Macica, Mars, Maraca, Maracas, Marika, Maricia, Martica, Marama, Marijca, Mishika, Maritz, Moritz.

Here are some of the interpretations of my surname:

Serjiv, Sevelji, Selvelj, Sevelg, Seej, Svelg, Sevelt, Sveli.

You’d be a Nutter to swap your name
Friday September 1, 2006

The most embarrassing surnames in Britain have been revealed in a study of more than 100 million people’s names presented at the Royal Geographical Society’s annual conference.

But the names have also been disappearing for more than a century as their bearers change their names to escape the ignominy of being called Cock, Willy, Daft, Nutter or Bottom.

The study of more than 100 million people bearing more than 500,000 different surnames was the first-ever attempt to measure the geographical spread and size of the exodus of Britons abroad.

Names are laden with stories and information – about different times, places, and people. They are used as identifiers whether we like it or not. They have such importance in our lives that people even change their given names formally when they don’t like them or else they stop using them and take on a preferred name for everyday use. We even acknowledge this fact in our enrolment forms in the institution I work for; we ask for the person’s legal name and then we ask them for their preferred name. This preferred name is entered in our database and we use this in our interactions with our learners.

I was named after my paternal grandmother – Mare Sevelj (nee Simic). I am a first generation New Zealander. Both my parents are from Tucepi on the Dalmatian Coast area of Croatia.

My christening: I am sitting on Baba Mare's lap

English is my second language; I started life speaking Croatian. When I started school all I could say in English was “please” and “thank you”. In those times I was labelled a ‘foreigner’ in my own birth place. Not only didn’t I speak the language but I also had a wierd name which reinforced this stereotype.

“Can we call you Mary?” I was often asked.

“No” was my emphatic reply.

One of the expectations was that we foreigners would take on an English name to make it easier for everyone. I fought this – it seemed so unfair. The other thing that happened was that people would change the official spelling of their names to help ensure correct pronunciation. For example, this happened a lot with the surnames of many Croatian people whose surname ended in “ic”; they became converted to “ich”.

My name links me to my family, my cultural upbringing, my spirituality – it is the essence of me. It links me to the past and the present. I love the name my parent’s chose for me. I am proud of my name.

In the future people will remember a name and link it to another person, a time, a place. It will have some meaning for them. It is each of us that influence these future connections through the people that we are and the way we live our lives. We are remembered for many things and the connection to those memories is invariably through our names no matter how they are spelt or pronounced. I’m sure you could recite many examples of names you like and don’t like, and behind each of these names there is a real or imaginary person you are identifying with.

… a thought put forward by the great German-Jewish thinker, Franz Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig … [he] made the observation that his parents had given no thought other than aesthetic considerations to their choice of name for him. It was, he observed, as if they had seen a pretty name in the window of a shop and had gone in to purchase it without any thought other than the fact that they liked the name. There was nothing else to his name, he complained: it signified no history, no memory, no associations. He finished by observing wishfully that it would have been good to have been given the name of a holy man or a hero or a family name – anything that resonated with some kind of deeper association beyond the merely aesthetic. A person should be named after somebody or something. Otherwise, he concluded, a name is really only empty breath.
Source: http://www.jafi.org.il/education/lifecycle/jewishlc/02-6.html

What’s in a name?

A lot! I have merely scratched the surface here.

Don’t assume anything and don’t make some smart comments about having an unpronounceable name. I suggest you might like to keep these thoughts to yourself. Ask the person how to pronounce their name. Talk to them about it. Tell them you are having difficulty with it. I struggle with people’s names as well but I try to deal with it in a respectful and caring way. Not only do I have problems saying some names I have difficulties remembering how to say them correctly.

Don’t avoid mentioning a person’s name. Deal with your anxiety or fear. Respect the person and address them using their name.

Take the time to check the spelling of a person’s name. In your everyday work check that what you are seeing with your eyes and mind matches what is actually written in front of you. In my case the incorrect placement of one letter, “i”, has alone created many tense moments for me in my life. My name is Marica and not Marcia! If you are ever unsure, check and double check the spelling.

A name is important. It is our identifier. There may be a story behind it. It may mean nothing to the person bearing it but it may equally mean everything. Celebrate these differences and use them as learning opportunities.

Through my own life experience I have learnt to be aware. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – how might you feel and then act accordingly. Remember that behind every name is a thinking, feeling human being.

One more thing before I finish – if you don’t know the story behind your name why not ask someone who might know before it is too late. You never know, you may find out something interesting about yourself.

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2 Responses to “What’s in a name?”

  1. on 07 Jun 2007 at 5:39 am mariamullins

    I happened to google my maiden name yesterday and your page came up. My maiden name is Maria Sevel. I was surprised to read about your heritage as my grandfather, Mijo Sevelj, was from Tucepi. He left there at 17 years old (1920) and settled in Cleveland, Ohio. I still have relatives in Tucepi. In fact, my parents will be visiting them for the first time in September. I was wondering, are we possibly related, or is Sevelj just a very popular name in Yugoslavia?

    My grandmother changed our last name once she married my grandfather (Grandma’s family was from Slovenia, and she was a Moderich), because people kept pronouncing Sevelj incorrectly (pronouncing the j instead of the “ye” sound at the end). I’m sure this happens to you often.

    I live in South Texas with my husband and daughter. I am 38 and my married name is Maria Mullins. I must admit I like my married name better–much easier to pronounce and spell! 🙂

    Would love to hear from you if you have the time!

    Blessings, Maria Sevel Mullins

  2. on 08 Jun 2007 at 3:16 pm Marica

    What an unexpected bonus. I have no idea if we are related Maria but let’s find out. Tucepi is a small, and incredibly beautiful, place so I’d say the chances are pretty high that we are related in some way. I will email you and let’s see what we can uncover.

    No matter what, thank you for getting in touch. Reading your comment made my day. It reinforced to me how important it is that we tell our stories because who knows what we might uncover nor where it might lead us. Wow, I might have relations in Texas 🙂 I never imagined that.

    Take care and please keep in touch.

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