Why Do I Let People Mispronounce My Name?
“Yeah, that’s basically it,” I say, knowing full well that what they just said is not even remotely close. I come up with excuses for them. They don’t have the accent they would need. They’ve probably never heard my name before. I’m sure they’re trying their best.
We continue our conversation as I try and figure out the reason why I’m like this. A contradictory batch of mixed emotions run through me: guilt, shame, relief, exhaustion. And so life and my relationships with people go on. These people have become my friends, colleagues, people I talk to everyday. They continue to mispronounce my name. I begin to settle. They introduce me to new people. And the cycle continues.
Names are a pretty big deal in my culture. Traditionally, parents cannot name their own child. Lists are compiled from friends and family with possibilities. Parents with newborn children go to astrologers who look at various astrological charts to come up with the most auspicious letter for the child’s name to start with. Because of this, children of my ethnicity frequently go without names for weeks after their birth. This was the case for me, until my auntie, a very close family friend, thought of the name අනුක්, which anglicized to Anuk. My name is a derivative of the word අනුකම්පා, literally meaning “compassion.”
But ever since I was young, I have had difficulty being assertive when it comes to people pronouncing my name. It never really mattered who I was talking to. My childhood friends would just say it how they thought it should sound. “Annook.” “Ahnuke.” “Anock.” I just let it be. My teachers would always have trouble. Like many people with ethnic names, I remember knowing immediately when my name had come up during attendance because of the confused pause teachers would take before attempting it. The beginning of the school year was always interesting as I heard new interpretations of my name that I never even imagined. I’ve tried to correct them a few times, but one of two things would happen: either they would slip back into pronouncing it wrong, or they would argue with me about how my name should be said. And so, I settled.
Probably the most popular of these mispronunciations was “Anook.” Like a singular Nook reading tablet. It was the way that most of my childhood friends had come to say my name, and it spread amongst the students at my school. Up through the end of high school, everybody knew me as Anook. Eventually, I never really paid much attention to it; it became a normal part of everyday reality. I continued to say my name how it should be said. But nobody listened.
You would think that this would have gotten easier as time went on. But it didn’t. In fact, I had a teacher in my junior year of high school that called me “Anock” the entire year and would continuously ask me if they were pronouncing it right. You can probably guess what I said.
I absolutely resented my name at times. I thought it was ugly. I hated that I couldn’t explain to English speakers how to say it correctly. I thought it rolled off the tongue in such a weird way. Most of all, I felt that it didn’t represent me. But looking back at this now, how could it represent me? I barely ever actually heard people say it. It was always some other version that both they and I felt was easier.
I told myself that things would be different in college, a time when you get introduced to so many new people. Potential best friends. Professors. Roommates. I told myself I would correct people. In fact, I was so adamant that I even sent a video to the Swarthmore ’22 group chat explaining how to pronounce my name. But within a blink of an eye, I was back into my old habits. By orientation week, I had met so many people and had told my name to all of them. And nobody said it back to me. Once again, I settled. Friends pushed me to correct them and correct professors. But eventually, I just gave up and gave in after trying and trying over and over again to teach people and have them listen to me.
Now here we are, nearly mid way through my second semester, and I can only name about two people on this campus who say my name correctly. It has gotten to the point where I’m more taken aback when people pronounce my name right than when they pronounce it wrong. Is that sad? Is it a reality of my life that I should just get over? Is it my fault? Is it bad that nearly all my closest friends here pronounce my name wrong and I don’t have the heart or energy to tell them? Am I looking too much into this? I don’t know if I can really say how I’m meant to feel for certain.
A post I’ve seen on a lot of pages on Instagram goes along the lines of, “Your parents didn’t immigrate halfway across the world for your name to be mispronounced.” And the thing is, I absolutely agree with this sentiment. It’s the type of thing I’ve told myself over and over again. But I still have not acted on it. My name means “compassion,” yet I don’t have enough compassion and respect for myself to be addressed as I should be. Names are not just names. They’re markers of identity, of culture, of a person. My name should be a marker of me. But is it still so when nobody says it right? To be honest, I’m exhausted from trying to teach people, and I’m ashamed of that. I’m ashamed that I don’t take more energy to make people listen to me. And I’m angry because I feel like nobody does. Because almost nobody calls me by my actual name.