What’s in a name?

What's in a name?What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
/By any other name would smell as sweet.

I can’t say I agree with Miss Capulet on this one. I’m sure if the flower we know as the rose were called the stinky poo-poo weed instead, Valentine’s Day would have a completely different vibe. Names are magical things, after all. They’re imbued with cultural, historical, or linguistic significance. They express our individuality or conformity. They invite our assumptions about people, and possibly, ourselves.

Naming a child is a weighty matter. Most parents take that responsibility seriously and labour to make the right choice. Does it have a pleasing sound? Does it work nicely with the family name? Does it have an acceptable meaning? (If you don’t want to saddle your son with a name that means “heavy, slow, or foolish,” your probably shouldn’t name him Brutus.)

There’s also the Playground Test to consider: will the name cause your child to be beaten up or mercilessly teased on the playground? This category includes initials that spell rude words, names that rhyme with rude words, names that lend themselves to rude nicknames, or names that can — by the slightest stretch of juvenile imagination — be rude.

Few of us have the option of choosing our own names; we’re pretty much stuck with what our parents gave us. But many expats get a second chance at the name game if they live in a country with a different language and/or writing system.

This never occurred to me until Chef Boyardee came home with his new business cards. As is the custom in Singapore, one side was in English and the other was in Mandarin. “What’s this?” I asked, pointing to four characters that were in a large, bold type.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think it might be my Chinese name.”

“You have a Chinese name?” I was instantly jealous. “What is it? What does it mean?”

He had no idea. Someone — he didn’t even know who — had given him a name without consulting him, and presented it to him as a fait accompli. I was indignant. He was indifferent.

I took the card to Lihong, my Mandarin tutor. She wasn’t impressed with the name he’d been given. She took special exception to Fule, the family name. Pronounced foo-luh, it was clearly chosen to sound like Foley, but it felt inauthentic because traditional Chinese surnames have only one syllable. Since the first character, 福, is very auspicious and means “good fortune,” Lihong and I decided to keep it and drop the extraneous second syllable. And that’s how I got my Chinese surname. It totally fails the Playground Test, but I don’t hang out in the sandbox very much these days, so I don’t care.

As for my given name, I was a little disappointed to learn that Maria (a form of Mary, which, by the way, has the delightful meaning of “bitter”) is one of those Western names that have a standard Chinese counterpart: Mali. The first character, 玛, is related to the word “agate” (and the right side of the character means “horse”). The second character, 丽, means “beautiful.” I absolutely love it, although I could have done without my daughters calling me “Pretty Horsey Mama.”

Here’s my full Chinese name, Fu Mali:

The girls’ Chinese names were chosen primarily for their similarity to their English ones, but we looked at other factors as well. For example, I liked that the first character in Elder Daughter’s name, Ailin, means “love”:

The first character in Younger Daughter’s name, Meiqin, means “beautiful,” and I thought it was sweet that it sounds like the Mandarin word mei mei, meaning “little sister.”

These days, I only call myself Mali in my emails to Lihong. But I feel so privileged to have had the experience of living with this lovely name. I can’t explain it, but being Mali feels somehow different than being Maria. Mali is much more fun, and I really should make the effort to take her out more often.

(After publishing this post, I found a video on YouTube about names that don’t translate well. Loved it, so I’m sharing.)

How about you? Do you have a name/identity in another language?

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
This entry was posted in Identity, Language and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to What’s in a name?

  1. My parents named my two younger brother’s Hans and Ludvig. We lived in America and it was the seventies, how were they to survive with names like that? I thought.
    Well, they took some ribbing on the playground, thats for sure.
    Today they are two grown men, and are both proud of the heritage behind their names.
    These days it seems people look for names that are unique, instead of popular…

    • Maria says:

      I think sometimes people grow into their names. As a child, I hated mine. All my friends had cool names like Jennifer and Karen, and I wished my parents had called me something pretty like that. But now, I couldn’t imagine being named anything else. (Except Mali, of course) 🙂

  2. mkbanin says:

    Hi Maria~

    What a fun post! And I had similar experiences with picking up names when living in different cultures. In Russia, I became “Rita” – nickname for “Margarita” which corresponds to my name “Margaret” which, for most of my life, has been shortened to Margie. I felt a lot freer as “Rita” than I did as “Margie” – I think the new name just was the icing on the cake of being able to explore aspects of myself that hadn’t been developed in my home culture.

    Here in Japan mostly I just phoneticize my name, but sometimes to help someone remember my last name, I tell them just pretend it’s “馬人” (“horse people”) which has the same pronunciation as “Banin”. I really love the image I get from these characters, too, of being some sort of global nomad who is free to travel on their horse wherever their spirit may take them.

    Hmmm…seems there is a repeating theme of freedom here in being able to re-label oneself!

    Anyway, that’s all for now…as always, love ALL your posts, even if I fail to comment regularly. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

    ~Margie-Rita-Horse Person!

    • Maria says:

      Oh 馬人, it’s always nice to hear from you! Interesting that we both have “horse” names — my younger daughter, who lives and breathes horses, is jealous. 🙂 I hope all is going well for you in Japan, and thank you for loving my posts.

  3. gkm2011 says:

    I have two Chinese names – 格瑞塔 – And 葛丽泰 – The first is the very phonetic spelling of my name and the second is the version where the characters actually “make sense” if a Chinese person reads them. I also remember in Spanish classes growing up I was always “Rita.” What fun to think of names!

    • Maria says:

      I have an Auntie Rita. I was about 10 when I found out Rita isn’t her real name — she just thought it sounded elegant, so she made the switch. I had no idea as a child that such a thing was even possible. A very good friend of mine changed her name after her divorce. The odd thing is that she kept her ex-husband’s surname. Names are complicated things, but you’re right: lots of fun!

  4. Judy says:

    Russian speakers have what they call diminutive forms of many names such as Sasha for Alexander and Sanochka for Oksana. Often the name becomes longer rather than shorter, but they convey cuteness and familiarity. Mine was changed to Judik and I’m still called that by some of my friends, including my husband at times. I like it! 🙂

  5. naomihattaway says:

    How fun! I hope I get a ‘new name’ when we move to Singapore 😉

  6. Maria, love your blog! I’ve nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award. 🙂
    http://housewifedownunder.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/versatile-blogger-award/

  7. Interesting post, Maria. I’ve been unfortunate/fortunate to only live in English-speaking countries in the main so no unusual names for me. Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve been given some very unusual names by the locals here but not that you’d want me to repeat. I may have to enquire as to the Chinese counterpart to my name… unless you already know?

  8. expatlogue says:

    Spooky! Same idea, different directions! I swear I hadn’t seen this post before I wrote what I posted today! Hope you had a great Easter, horsey lady!

    • Maria says:

      Great Easter, thanks — I’m still trying to shake the chocolate hangover. What did you post today? I checked Expatalogue and Expat Focus, but I didn’t see anything for today. Now I’m dying of curiosity…

      • expatlogue says:

        … let me fix that for you! http://wp.me/p1J9Lk-1cW Seriously, this was straight off the top of my head today. Weird huh? Sleep well 🙂

      • Maria says:

        Ha! With the name tag as well! Except you forgot to write “Donkey” on it. 🙂 Great minds think alike, I suppose. 🙂 If we ever get together for that coffee, we’ll have to discuss our clothing choices beforehand so we won’t end up wearing the same thing.

      • expatlogue says:

        Lol! Could be embarrassing! Who’d have thought I’d end up near my psychic twin in Toronto! One a donkey, the other a horse…

  9. Heather says:

    What a fun conversation! I love all of these stories!

    Growing up in Germany and Austria, I went through my fair share of mispronounciations and misspellings by those who were not familiar with the name “Heather”. Especially as there is no “th” sound in the german language. (Supposed to be pronounced as a soft “t”; got “d”, “s”, and even “f” instead.)

    It wasn’t until we moved to Austria (I was 13 at the time), when someone told me that the heather and heidi flowers were in the same family. From then on, I used the name “Heidi” for anyone who had difficulty with “Heather”. One Korean couple at our international church were the most consistent to use “Heidi”. They were appreciative of the alternate name, as was I. 🙂

    I later learned that the heather flower is really in the erica floral family, and that “Heidi” is not a flower at all!!! Rather, it is the diminutive for “Adelheid” or “Adelaide” in English. “Adelheid” is an old High German name meaning “noble one”, “nobility”, or “of noble birth”. And so, I love my ‘other’ name even more!!!

    • Maria says:

      That’s brilliant, Heather. I love the name Heidi for you. It has such positive associations, thanks to Johanna Spyri’s beautiful book. And it’s such a nice souvenir of your time in Germany.

  10. Sine says:

    What a great topic. If there is one thing I regret about moving to the USA when I was sixteen, it is that I didn’t sufficiently plan my “naming” before arriving. So when asked for a name, I just responded with the truth – Melusine. A name I hated with a passion as it rhymes with pretty much any other German word you can come up with on the playground. If there is anyone who is a prototype for what you wrote about here, I’m it. German kids are very cruel! I even got rhyming nicknames from my teachers, I swear to you. My parents had picked the name from a French fairityale (The Beautiful Melusine) and while the beautiful part is certainly pleasing you can imagine you get teased about that even more by other kids when they find out. Plus I had no mind for being beautiful, as I always wanted to be a boy, not a girl. And while it actually sounds very nice in French, it doesn’t sound nearly so nice in German. Luckily my American host parents couldn’t begin to pronounce it, so we shortened it to Sine, which is what my parents sometimes called me. But that one doesn’t sound as it is spelled, so it never really worked that well. I wish I had made been bold enough to make up a new name when I moved, but bold has never been one of my attributes. So I’m stuck with a name no one can pronounce. At least it makes for interesting conversation. And I am lucky to get all the Viagra spam email because most everyone thinks I’m a guy… (Sorry, just noticed I’ve written pretty much an entire blog post on my own; but you got me started!)

    • Maria says:

      Now I’m sorry I asked you last week how to pronounce your name! It’s true that what sounds perfectly good in one language can tank in another. I noticed that people in France were calling Younger Daughter something different (but similar), and when I asked why, I was told it was because her real name wasn’t French. That’s true, but couldn’t they just give it a French pronunciation? That worked fine for Elder Daughter’s name! And if it’s any consolation, I get those ads for viagra (and worse!) as well.

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