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What’s In A Name?

As an expectant expat, there’s a lot of thought required when choosing baby names. If you speak the language, but with a “foreign” sounding accent, chances are, the way you pronounce your kids’ names will be a little foreign too.

When thinking of names for my three offspring, a handful of possibilities were immediately off the table because of pronunciation issues. Looking at the list of possibilities, I see “Paige” was briefly on one list; it lasted about three seconds not so much because of my English accent but because most of my in-laws are Texan, which would have rendered the name more like “Pige” to my ears. In addition, I’m from the north east of England, where her name could easily have become “Peeyage” in the thick Geordie accent.Rory, a name I love, was also briefly considered until my American husband pointed out that it might be an “r” too many for most Americans. Personally, I think this was probably a ruse to get the name off the list.

Similarly, with my youngest, we thought long and hard about naming him Paul – a big family name, and now his middle name. In the end I just couldn’t bear the thought of the conversation that would ensue:

Other person – “So what’s the baby’s name?”

Me (British Accent) – “Paul”.

OP – “Pole?”

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Me – “No, Paul”.

OP – (Confused look). “I don’t know that name. Where is it from?”

Me – “Erm, it’s Paul. You know like Paul Newman, Paul McCartney…”.

OP- (Lightbulb.) “Oh… Pol”.

Nick Spencer, a Brit in Chicago and owner of Spencer’s Jolly Posh Foods, is married to an American and a new father to baby Cecily. Nick recollected – “I wanted to avoid names beginning with O as there is little difference between the American pronunciation of O’s and A’s….”. This is especially true in the mid-west where an “O” sounds like an “A” to the uninitiated. The White Sox baseball team is actually pronounced White Sax in British English, Joch becomes Jack and Oscar sounds more like Asker. A variation on the “O” problem, as Nick explains, is found with “Olivia… which goes from a robust “o” sound to a nasal “arlivia”. Of course, “arlivia” in that example, has to be pronounced the British way, without sounding out the “r”.

And it seems these problems arise all over the world, between many nationalities. Nicky Pryce, a South African in Surrey, England, recently told me “I didn’t really think about it beforehand but sometimes I wish I’d never named Carrie “Carrie” … I hear everything from Kerry, Kelly, Cathy and my best, HARRY! Seriously would I name a little girl Harry? I don’t think I speak that badly and dread having to say her name as I know it’s going to take about 5 minutes of backwards and forwardsing. Sometimes I can’t be bothered to get into it and just say yes to the first thing they say.”

British blogger Potty Mummy, who has a Dutch husband, also experienced challenges –“We ended up choosing two very English-sounding names in the diminutive because we reckoned they wouldn’t be too mangled when pronounced by a Dutch person. I remember my OH came up with some shockers when we were thinking of names for our oldest – Tybault was one that comes to mind. My reaction was ” ‘T-bone’? Why would we want to call our son after a steak?” So a name which, according to my husband, is perfectly acceptable in The Netherlands (really?) never even made it onto the list…”

Sometimes you just can’t avoid the confusion surrounding a name. Take mine for example. I didn’t ask for it, I just married it – Hargis – with that “r” in the middle just waiting for the inevitable phone conversation-

Customer sales person – “Can I take the name please?”

Me – “Hargis”

CS person – Ha-a-agis?”

Me (attempting woeful American accent) – “No, Harrrrgis”.

CS person – “Can you spell that for me.”

Me – (Thinking – “Oh yes, ‘cause that will make it so much clearer”.)

“ – “It’s H – A –Rrrrrrrr –G – I – S”.

(Kids falling about in the background at my pathetic accent.)

If I’d known how much trouble I’d have with Hargis, I think I would have kept my uncomplicated maiden name.

Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.

Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here

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