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What’s in a name?

October 03, 2020

First, it’s the pause, then the squint followed by the uncomfortable squirm and this is sometimes followed by a head tilt to the side. His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, there's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti. Well apart from the spaghetti, I can imagine Eminem perfectly describes the cascade of emotions going through the mind of someone looking at my name for the first time, just trying to process how they attempt to pronounce it!

So, what is in a name? We as humans crave familiarity and are most comfortable with things that we’re used to. So, in seeing an unfamiliar and “difficult” name, the cascade of anxiety described above is a fairly natural reaction. We’ve all been there but what we do next is what makes the difference. I don’t mind if people butcher my name, which has happened on many occasions! The fact that they are stepping outside their comfort zone and having a go is what really matters. It intrigues me to see the different ways in which people approach pronouncing my name and I enjoy coaching them on how to say it correctly. It is a small thing, but not everyone is willing to do this and willing to learn when they get it wrong.

But where it does become an issue, is when there is no attempt. Whether it’s because there is a fear of failure (not saying it correctly) or the more likely reason; people trying to make it easier for themselves so that the discomfort can be avoided.

Looking back on my childhood, there’s lots of memories of this happening, but one that sticks out, is when I was 6. I describe it as the birth of “Del”. Only a few days after moving to Stafford my Dad took me to the playing fields where the local Sunday league team were practicing. A few things happened that day; I met a friend who has been my best friend to this day, I borrowed his Villa shirt to play and thus became a Villa fan for life, and I unwittingly acquired a new name.

Stafford was not a very diverse place at that time, so you can probably imagine I didn’t blend in. I remember the coach trying to introduce me to the rest of the boys and asking, “So how do you say your name?”. I started playing but didn’t get much of a touch. After a while, the coach pulled me to one side. What he said then changed everything. I can’t remember his exact words, but was something along the lines of, “your name is a bit difficult to remember, so I’ll call you Del, is that ok?”. As a 6-year-old boy, just moved to a new place, all I did was nod. And there you have it, Del the 6-year-old Villa fan was born. And after that, everything changed – the boys started calling me Del, I was getting the ball and I was actually very good. I felt accepted; one of the group and all I had to do was sacrifice my real name.

To this day I’m not sure whether my dad was present when that happened, and what his view of me calling myself “Del” was. But it was a trade-off that brought social inclusion and I accepted Del as part of my identity from that day.

Del was born because I had to make others feel comfortable and myself feel included. What would have happened if I’d said that “no, I don’t like ‘Del’, please use my full name Dolapo”. Would I have been accepted into the team, which played an important role in my football career? `Would my relationship with my best friend have flourished? Who knows. But one thing was clear for me in that situation, there was an unconscious fear that my “difficult” name could act as a barrier social acceptance somewhere where I was a minority. Make it easier for people, and I won’t feel so different.

I know many people who adopted Anglicized names to make their professional lives easier. My Aunty, for example, whose name is Adeola, has spent most of her adult life in this country being called Joy. I’m not sure exactly when she added Joy to her name, but I can imagine it made her experience of working in the NHS in the 80’s easier. Even my wife, whose name is Toyosi, tells anyone that she will have a fleeting interaction with (ordering taxis, booking restaurants etc…) that her name is Claire. And I know exactly why she does it; to both avoid having to spell it out phonetically or going through the circular dialogue of, “so it’s Tracey”, “no, Toyosi”, “so Tra-cey”, “NO TOYOSI”.

A little bit of humour to illustrate the point

Anyone with a “difficult” name will potentially have faced situations like this and I know for some, at best they feel neutral about it and at worst it’s a negative experience that recurs almost daily. On reflection, and after talking to friends and family, I feel as though there is a certain fear at play. Having a difficult name and not offering a substitute name that’s suitably familiar, or not accepting one provided, presents a fear of ostracization. And that fear is reinforced by the frequency and regularity of situations where these substitute names are offered throughout life.

The best way to mitigate that fear is to offer up something familiar or accept the whichever nickname or shortenings that are offered to you.

The question is why does this fear exist?

I haven’t got the answers. But as Daniel Kahneman says, “familiarity breeds liking”. I guess people will tolerate many things in order to make themselves feel familiar and avoid being excluded. But feeling part of a collective, as a minority person, shouldn’t come at the expense of your name and cultural identity.

There are some definite green shoots. I can’t speak for all people who identify as BAME, but in my experiences there is a much greater desire to really engage with cultural heritage, with names being an important facet. I think that maybe embracing cultural identity somehow outweighs the fear of exclusion.

And with that, I’ll tell you what is “in” my name. A story, and I think every name has some sort of a story. My name is Omodolapo Olaoye and it means “A child that brings wealth together” and “Wealth of the titled one”. In my culture (the Yoruba culture of Nigeria) names are carefully selected and steeped in meaning. My parents obviously had plans for me to bring in the cash!

And my surname has an interesting meaning as well. My surname is actually my late grandfather’s first name. It was tradition at that time where the children would take on the father’s first name as their family name.

Another name of interest is my Oriki name. Oriki names are praise names and are used as part of praise poetry and exaltation, reciting the values of my family. My Oriki is Akanbi and is generally always said after my other names and followed by “Ojo”, which means “pillar of the family” and then the remainder of the exaltation.

Your name tells a story, so it’s important to wear your name with pride.

So, when thinking about what’s in a name, keep these things in mind

  1. Acknowledge that names have meaning, a name is someone's identity and therefore shouldn't be marginalised
  2. Feeling included shouldn't require the provision of a more familiar sounding name as a substitute
  3. If you struggle to say a name, it’s ok, ask the question and as long as you’re willing to learn, I’m sure people are willing to teach.

Hopefully you’ve found this interesting, and next time you’re in Starbucks and see an interesting name, you might ask if there’s a story. Would be great to hear your thoughts and/or anecdotes…

O dabo