"How Do You Spell It?" Life With A Name Nobody Knows How To Pronounce

Having your name mispronounced is a cousin of being called the wrong name altogether. It carries with it a sense that you're somehow not worthwhile enough to be bothered with.
Publish date:
May 13, 2013
names, assimilation, mispronunciation

After I order coffee or food, I have a habit of Instagramming the coffee cups and receipts with my name written on them.

Or rather, what the cashier thinks is my name.

My name is Elahe Izadi, pronounced Eh-law-heh Ee-zah-dee. And I love this little exercise because it’s the perfect visual representation of my day-to-day, of walking through life surrounded by people butchering my name.

Let me be clear: I’m not grumpy about this, nor do I fault people for not being able to properly say a name the likes of which they’ve never heard -- it even looks intimidating, all those letters next to each other, arranged in a way never seen before. Hell, even I have problems pronouncing it. When asked, “How do you say your name?” sometimes I take a moment to remind myself of the exact way of saying it before I respond.

That sounds kind of insane, but there are a couple of reasons for this. I rarely hear my name pronounced correctly by others. Also, I didn’t always go by Elahe. Just like my Iranian parents gave me Elahe as a newborn, they also bestowed upon a too-young-to-decide me the nickname “Ele” (which, hilariously enough, also tripped people up since it’s pronounced “Ellie"). It was an effort at assimilation -- they likewise had taken up “American” nicknames -- and lovingly, to make life easier for me in our rural town.

While in college, I published my work under Elahe and decided that Elahe was a lady for the professional world. Soon I asked myself, why not own it fully, and make a break with Ele? There’s no need for me to assimilate; I’m fully American -- born and raised -- and Elahe is just as American of a name as Ele or Ellie or Susan or whatever else.

The process wasn’t quick. It took a few years to get my friends and family to call me some variation of Elahe, and then a few more to get them -- and myself -- to pronounce Elahe correctly.

In my line of work, I’m meeting new people often so I’m also constantly giving my name, repeating it, spelling it, repeating it again and calculating within the span of a second as to whether it’s worth correcting someone. It’s like second nature -- just like when I was a child and preemptively said my name as my teachers neared “I” when calling roll.

I’ve had few people tell me that insisting on the proper pronunciation isn’t a big deal. Sometimes even I can’t be too bothered to care. In some situations, there’s an awkward power dynamic -- what to do when you’re supposed to be showing deference to the person mispronouncing your name? Then there’s the unpleasantness of not correcting someone the first time, and then the mispronunciation sticks forever. (Try correcting someone months in with a “By the way, that’s not how my name is said.” No, thank you.)

But having your name mispronounced is a cousin of being called the wrong name altogether. It carries with it a sense that you're somehow not worthwhile enough to be bothered with. I'm thankful to have had friends and colleagues who encouraged me to realize that it's OK to insist on a correct pronunciation.

Really, no one actually wants to mispronounce a name. The onus is on me to correct a person the first time -- I’ve become quite vigilant in this respect. I also love when people ask me how to pronounce it, say it back and ask, “Am I saying it right?” It’s as if they’re throwing me a bone here -- yes, I decided to go by this difficult-to-pronounce name, but hey, we’re in this together, this business of being fully who we are and respecting others for doing the same.

As for the baristas of the world -- they can butcher Elahe all they want. In fact, I delight in it. What else would I Instagram?