playing the name game…

I love names. How many people do you know that read baby name books for fun? In the past, I’ve used them to look up fun names for fiction stories that I was working on, or think up what I wanted to name my own kids. But I haven’t written any fiction in quite some time, nor do I have any children. And I still love to read name books. Why? Probably the same reason that I like words so much, but there’s so much more to the choosing of a name.

A parent or a writer will choose a name for the sound, the spelling, the meaning, or a memory. Memories, for good or bad, get attached to names. Nobody wants to name their child after that tenth grade teacher that they hated, or their particularly annoying neighbor. Our favorite names often have our best-loved hopes and dreams attached to them, whether the person was real or fictional. Think of your babynamewizardfavorite book and the hero/heroine of the story. Do you look favorably at anyone who has that name? Of course, some names get both good and bad things dragged behind them, and you have to choose amongst the baggage.

I also love words. I don’t go so far as to reading the dictionary for fun, but I can get into debates about the meaning of a word, or the spelling (I’m an excessively good speller). Or just overuse a particularly splendid big word, in regular conversation. A few weeks ago, some acquaintances and I were having a discussion about “irregardless”, which technically isn’t a word, but still has a listing in Merriam-Webster. It’s listed as “non-standard”, which is probably how they inform you that it isn’t a word, if you take the time to look it up.

You probably know someone who describes themselves as being a “visual person”, who will easily picture what is described to them. My visual friends tend to be graphic designers and computer engineers. Visual people are also very good at redecorating houses, because they can picture what the end result will be, just by looking at the paint colors, wall paper, and furniture. I’ve heard it said that if you say the word “orange” to one of them, they will picture the color, not the word.

I am a word person. If you say the word “orange” to me, I will see the word in my head, first, not the color (of course, don’t we all see the fruit, immediately after?). I can’t picture the end result to how a room will look after you repaint it. I like the example swatches in wallpaper and paint stores that show you the possible end results. DSC_0312-001I can’t see them in my head, so I’ll play it by ear when I redecorate, unsure of how it will look (but figuring it will turn out alright).

When I meet someone, it isn’t unusual for me to ask them how to spell their name, because as soon as they do, I see it in my head (yes, I know that means I “visualize” it, but I think there’s a difference between visualizing real objects and visualizing the intangible). If I can spell it, I can remember it. And if I can spell it, I can usually pronounce it correctly. If I can’t, I’ll ask for the correct pronunciation, and then I REALLY remember it.

All in all, I prefer to know people’s names, so I can address them properly. Or, in the case of a game of Ultimate Frisbee, shout it at them correctly. I don’t like yelling “you in the blue shirt, throw it here!”. By then, they’ve thrown it to someone else. And “Hey, you!” doesn’t work very well, either. What faster way could there be, during a fast-paced game, than to use a person’s name?

Unlike my co-workers, I am against the idea of calling everyone “sweetie” or “baby”, in order to get by. I have come to realize that it’s often a Southern thing, but though I consider myself a Southerner, I wasn’t raised by Southerners. My parents are from up north and why I don’t use the word “y’all” in every day language is a “whole-nuther” discussion. When I don’t know a student’s name, I will call them Sir or Ma’am, to get their attention. Since most of the grad students are close to my age, I think my calling them “sweetie” would be entirely inappropriate, as well as awkward. Pet names are for spouses, best friends, or little kids (in my opinion).

Now, at my job, some of the graduate students that come through our location seem to have the idea that I know almost all of the names of all the students. I guess it’s a reasonable assumption, because I demonstrate my name skills, regularly. While it’s very nice that they think I’m just that good, they have no idea how HARD it was for me to get this point. I know at least 100 names of the students that come through (and can address them by those names), and it wasn’t easy! In fact, it was terrifying, at times. If any close friends of mine are reading this, they’re probably already nodding in comprehension, while the rest of you are scratching your heads in wonderment.

It isn’t usually learning their name that’s the problem, but asking them “Do you go by Rob or Robert?” or “How do you pronounce your name?”. This amounts to something like an official introduction, having them see you’re a real person (and not just an automaton) and it’s STRESSFUL. I hate introductions. You don’t want to see me in a social setting where I don’t know anyone (a certain long-ago wedding comes to mind), because I just want to hide. However, if I’m on my home turf and among friends, I have no trouble.

During the fall semester, I took the plunge and began asking students what they went by (nicknames? middle names?), because I knew I needed to branch out and make an effort (also known as not being a fraidy-cat). Boy, did they like having someone know their name. If I could remember their face, I could remember their name, eventually. It’s much easier with the guys, because the younger girls tend to blend together in my mind (I’m sorry, so many of them dress alike, have the same hair, same makeup, what can you do?). And the graduate students are the easiest, because I see them the most often.

After Christmas break, I got lazy. I knew so many names, why learn any more? I knew perfectly well that the ones I was avoiding were the foreign names (pretty much anything in Asia, because I can handle European-style names), because that was where I had to “embarrass” myself and ask them how to pronounce them. AND I’d been talking to them for months, so I would basically have to admit to NOT knowing their names. For these students, I settled for having extensive conversations (sometimes), without ever using their name. Not at all fair to them, and dreadfully cowardly of me. So, I took a deep breath, and went at it again.

Finally, after about eight months of working at Clemson, I know 20-25 names belonging to the grad students of several nationalities (I really did know some of them before!). My willingness to try out their names became greater after several of the Indian grad students complimented me on my pronunciation. Apparently, most people don’t say their names right. If you have the nerve to ask, and they tell you how to pronounce them, why is it difficult? For example, if you’re an Aussie, and your name is Bernard, then I pronounce it the Aussie way (“BUR-nerd”), not the American way (“Bur-NARD”).

But because of how I see words and spellings in my head, now that I’ve started to ask how to pronounce their names, I’ve started to see the patterns in how their names sound. How the “a” in Anshuman, Kapil, and Naresh sounds like “ah”, and how certain other letters aren’t pronounced. It’s getting easier to figure out, which makes me a little braver.

So…. when another graduate student compliments my pronunciation, I try even harder to get them right, because I don’t like to fail. And I remember that if I can expect someone to pronounce my last name correctly (Dinger rhymes with “ringer”, not “finger”, and it’s not pronounced “din-jer”), then I can get their first name right. And when someone is impressed by all the names I know, I smile to myself at how easy it seems to them. And know that for every time I squirmed over having to ask someone their name, or how to pronounce it… I made someone else happy. They’re pleased that I know them, recognize them, that they’re a real person to me. And in turn, they usually remember me.

After this week of spring break is over, it’ll be another deep breath for me, and away I go. Two months left on this job, and so many more names to learn.

(Side note: My favorite name book is The Baby Name Wizard, and Laura Wattenberg has a fantastic name blog, as well. For anyone else who loves names or needs some help picking one out.)

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