Take over the world with your knowledge and talent, even the ugliest name will become pretty. (tweet this)
Somewhere in Nancy Southam's collection of memories about Pierre Elliot Trudeau Pierre is a story about a "how well do you know PET" game that was played at an event in the former PM's honour. Trudeau the elder was in attendance and participated in the game, which included a question about listing all of his multiple names.
Not too many people got it right. Trudeau himself was not among those who did.
I think about that story when issues of nomenclature come up. Names are funny things - we use them to brand other things as much as we do to identify ourselves. Who discovered America? Some dude named Christopher? Are we going with Peking or Beijing these days? Is it Bombay, Mumbai or something else?
In his preface to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence shares an anecdote about his editors, who fretted over his varied spellings of names that appear in his book. Lawrence shrugs that off and throws in more variances. The names, of course, were Arabic - without exact phonetic equivalency in English.
Did you know that Venice - Italian, Venezia - is purported to mean "I made it thus far?" Any curiosity about why that became the name of what's periodically considered the most romantic city in the world?
I've been around the world and heard countless variations on my name - for some, it's maddeningly unpronounceable; for others, it's bland, mundane, falls like a stone off the tongue. It doesn't really matter much to me, for I know that who I am is a different entity for different people. So long as we connect in the middle, that's what matters.
When it comes to other people's names, however, I try to be a stickler. I want to know how they self-identify and be true to that. When I taught in Korea, I strongly resisted the idea of giving people "English names" for the same reason I cringe when we talk about foreign cities or history makers via anglicized names.
This is particularly irritating for explorers - that we record their frontier-pushing stories in history but can't ourselves bother to learn their true names is maddening.
What's even harder to contend with is our urge to reframe people in ways that make sense to use instead of trying to understand them as they are. It's lazy, it's simplistic and it is counter to the whole point of communication, which is to share and to understand.
My friend whose quote opens this post wrote a great peace about names, here. She talks about how we will remember the names of people who change the world, no matter how hard to pronounce they are in much the same way that no matter how busy we feel, we will always make time for the people who matter to us.
Her name, in case you're curious, is Mi.
Maybe in the short run, some names will be better than others, however at the end of the day, they are just letters. We all need to add meaning to them.