In elementary school, I knew a boy whose last name sounded a lot like french fry. And I am ashamed to say that I was one of the kids who called him Freddy* French Fry. He was small, yet athletic, and his temper frequently boiled over at recess. But in retrospect, he was probably reacting to everyone who made fun of his name. If
we I had been kind, he would have mirrored back that kindness.
Years later, I finally understand the importance of names. They are part of us, intertwined with our identity. For example, our given name is a gift from our parents, and our surname is part of their legacy. Together, our first and last names are an integral part of who we are.
And we’ve all had the experience where someone forgets our name. We feel irritated because a part of us was forgotten.
Similarly, we feel frustrated when others can’t spell or pronounce our name. For example, my wife’s name is Brynn. It’s pronounced like Grin but with a B instead of a G. On the first day of school each year, her teachers mispronounced it as Brine or Brian. She found this aggravating. But, as an adult, she discovered a silver lining: her name is a shibboleth, i.e., a way to distinguish who is part of your group. Friends and family know how to say her name but telemarketers, who pose as just another “friendly person,” are unmasked when they say, Hi, may I speak with Brine?
As a result, I make it a point to remember the names of others. At times, I even write them down and include a fact about the person. One memorable example of this occurred five years ago. A woman named Theresa interviewed for a job and wrote down the names of each of her interviewers. I thought it was a bit unusual in the moment but didn’t give it a second thought until a week later, when I received her Thank you card in the mail. The company hired someone else for the position, and I haven’t seen her since the interview, but I will always remember how she made it a point to write down and remember my name.
Remembering names with unusual pronunciations is difficult, so I’ll write down a phonetic spelling. Or I’ll employ a mnemonic device. An excellent example of this is in the book Elements of Wit. It has a short section on the American-Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and included a way to remember how to pronounce Csikszentmihalyi: cheeks-sent-me-high.
And while we’re on the subject of name pronunciation, do your kids a favor: don’t give them joke names. For example, the name Jkmn is pronounced Noel because the letter l is missing from the alphabetic sequence jklmn. The name is pernicious on two fronts: people will have no idea how to pronounce it, and it’s an abbreviation for the phrase just kill me now.
Funny names are like tattoos: feel free to adorn yourself, but don’t force them on your children.
In summary, remember that names are important. They are part of us. And it feels good when someone from our past remembers our name because they remember us.
And as for Freddy*, it’s been 25+ years, but I still feel bad. I’m going to look him up and apologize. I live in a different timezone than when I was in elementary school, but with the power of the Internet, I think I can track him down.
Be well, my friend.
* I changed his first name to protect his identity.
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