What’s In a Name?
By Tony Candela
A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article “Dear Co-Workers, Call Me By My Real Name”. For years, ESPN sports-commentator, Selema Masekela, had gone by the first name ‘Sal’ but finally decided to ask everyone to call him by his real first name. Although he knew it would be more cumbersome for his American-English-speaking colleagues, he knew he would feel better about himself, retrieving a part of his identity in the process. This seems like a modern American phenomenon, given the diversity of people that live and work in our country who have adopted the identity politics of our times. Gone is the notion, if it ever was real, of the “melting pot”, something that worries the most ardent of white-nationalists. Of concern to me is that the “beef stew” or “salad-bowl” concept is also disappearing. (In Canada, they call it the “mixed Salad” or “cultural mosaic”.) This is the notion that people of different national, racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, sex and gender, and I would add disability identities can live together, maintaining their basic selfhood while also adopting a consensus about how we can all live together. We are currently in a phase of our societal development where people are engaging in ethno-cultural siloing more than ever before. We will return to identity politics in a bit, but first let’s talk about practicality and name-manipulation.
On a practical level, it has long been assumed that easy-to-pronounce and familiar names make it easier for one to become part of the group, if for no other reason than it spares others from stumbling over what should be a basic entrée into a relationship and not a barrier. The WSJ article offered up David Chang, originally Shao-Yen in his native Taiwan, who wrestles with this problem. Even easy-to-pronounce English-language names like Robert and William are routinely reduced to Rob or Bob and Will or Bill. Elizabeth and Catherine are often shortened to Liz or Betty and Cathy or Kate, respectively. My name (Anthony) has been reduced to “Ant” and “Tony”, the latter being my preference.
Russian has ways to express the patrilineal and Spanish the matrilineal. Both have ways to express the diminutive/affectionate (Juanita for Juana or Miguelito for Miguel in Spanish; Ivanka for Ivana in Czech). (I don’t know the affectionate for Vladimir, but Vlad as in the Impaler, is the foreshortened version.) If I were suddenly transplanted to Russia or the Ukraine, I would gladly go by Anton to make life easier for others and avoid relational stumbling blocks.
Then there are in this country, mainly Latin-X news reporters who love to speak perfect American English right up to the pronunciation of a key Latin name, including their own. Then they suddenly revert to perfectly pronounced Spanish and those who are not proficient in the language are caught off-guard and emerge with little memory of the name. I surmise this is partly identity-politics and partly an unwillingness to besmirch the name by Anglicizing it. Nonetheless, these occurrences often leave me numb and this after having studied Spanish for five years and using it in my first job. To my chagrin, I recall the opposite happening in California where I lived for 15 years. Many Spanish place-names are pronounced so badly that they have indeed been besmirched. One of several examples I could provide is “Los Gatos” (pronounced ‘loce gottos’).
Identity politics began to show itself on a large scale in the 1950s and 1960s when black Americans who joined the Nation of Islam began shucking their “slave names”, taking on Islamic ones. Malcolm Little became Mālik ash-Shabāzz (Malcolm X) and Cassius Marcellus Clay adopted the name Mohammed Ali. Later and perhaps in recognition that Islam was in its own way both a savior and a colonizer, black Americans began taking on names of African origin. Those who read the book “Roots” remember Kunta Kinte losing his identity when he was kidnapped away from his native Gambia and enslaved, becoming “Toby”. Barack Obama retains his Kenyan name and we know the grief he took from certain quarters for doing so. Today, many blacks have adopted a more uniquely black-American approach for name-giving like Tyree, Kyrie, LeBron and Damar to drop a few recently in the news.
Some of the more orthodox Jewish groups assert their identity by maintaining their Hebrew and Yiddish names such as Shlomo (Solomon), Shmuel (Samuel), Miriam (Mary) and my favorite, Rachel. Some of these names are culture-specific and others, like Rachel, are widely used across many groups.
While identity politics is important, especially for groups who feel diminished by their social status or because they want the self-respect that comes when others honor their names and place in this world, we must remember that we live in a diverse society. We are part of the great experiment to see how we can all live together and do so in comfort. A cause of primal fear in humans is differentness, so while we strive to assert our individuality, let’s not forget we lose something in the process, at least until we do another thing humans are good at doing: accommodate to each other. Then the fear of differentness usually subsides and we actually come together.
It is not too far afield to offer comparisons to the disability experience. The more people understand the human side of the equation, the less strange we will appear to each other. In that vein, using terminology that bridges the gap between the non-disabled and the disabled is important, if for no other reason than to create comprehension. Thus, the names we use to describe our situations as people with disabilities are important. Consumer organizations long argued, for example, whether people with significant vision loss should use the term “blind” just as those with no usable vision do. The debate proceeded along many lines, some directed internally and some externally. The term “blind” it was argued, provides no ambiguity, something that might make it easier for the general public to understand. The internally directed argument was mainly about self-acceptance.
Amazing to me has been the success I have had in public when walking with my girlfriend who has partial vision. When we need assistance, say to find something in a store, I tell the store worker that we both have “poor eyesight” and voila! We get really good help. I believe the dynamic at play is twofold. First, they now know that she has a visual impairment which is not obvious. Second, they can at least imagine that perhaps I, standing there with white cane in hand, might not be totally blind, easing the initiation of our short-term interaction.
Effective technologies can also bridge the gap, but again, we must use names that the general public can grasp. An example might be “talking computers” instead of “screen readers” – at least for the first go-round. .
So then, what is in a name? In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, their last names (Montague and Capulet) signified differences in their family origins, the enmity between the families causing Romeo and Juliet to resort to desperate measures to be together. Unlike the rose and given the social situations we find ourselves in these days, not all names will smell as sweet. We should be cognizant of this as we express our identities while striving to live together. There is a long road ahead of us, but if we persist, perhaps someday we will all achieve equality of status within society.
Anthony R. Candela, Author
Saying aloud what should not remain silent.
Books by Tony…
Stand Up Or Sit Out: Memories and Musings Of a Blind Wrestler, Runner, and All-around Regular Guy
A memoir about life lessons learned, especially through sports
Vision Dreams: A Parable
A sci-fi novella about how a dysfunctional society forces people to go to extremes, including four blind people who seek out artificial vision.
More About Tony…
Tony Candela has worked as a Rehabilitation Counselor, supervisor, manager consultant and administrator for more than 40 years in the field of blindness and visual impairment. His work has included promoting literacy and employment of blind persons and a special interest in enhancing the career preparation of blind persons who wish to work in the computer science field. He is a “retired” athlete, loves movies, sports, reading, writing, and music, including dabbling in guitar.
Robbie CheadleMarch 1, 2023
Thank you, Tony, for this interesting and thought provoking post. I live in South Africa and I must be honest I find it hard to get some of the names right. I have to practice for a while. Everyone calls me Robbie and many people don’t know that my name is actually Roberta. I dropped it because it gets pronounced so badly locally. Thanks for hosting, Patty.
Patty FletcherMarch 1, 2023
Hi Robbie, thanks for reading and commenting on Tony’s post.
I appreciate it.
Anthony R. CandelaMarch 1, 2023
Thanks Robbie (Roberta) for your comment. I am glad I could provide a sympathetic ear!
Patty FletcherMarch 2, 2023
Hey! Tony! So cool to see you made it in.
I must say, when I began asking for new voices on the blog, yours did indeed fit the bill. My very favorite part of all you write is your tagline. “Saying what should not remain silent.”
Now I’ve gotten you here, I need to start whittling away at getting you into Toastmasters. You have such unique things to say.
No pressure, of course.
Pranav LalMarch 4, 2023
This post gave me something to think about. Sometimes, I think we should have a scoring system for how easy a name is to say; something like the sort of scoring we have for reading ease etc. Blind is a lot shotter than visually impaired but “vision problem” works nicely. <grin
Patty FletcherMarch 5, 2023
WOW Pranav, how wonderful to see you here. As a Toastmaster, learning public speaking and a facilitator of many Zoom calls, where speaking someone’s name correctly is quite important, I like that idea.