What’s In a Name?




At almost 33 years old, I still not quite used to the ways my name gets butchered on a mostly daily basis. When I correct people (it’s pronounced Ah-vee-TAHL for the record), it can still take them a few tries to get their tongues around the not so familiar name, but more often than not, they will follow up with a compliment. “Oh…such a beautiful name. It’s quite unique.”

And yes, it is unique. Do I really need to go into the heart crushing experiences of my youth where nary an Avital keychain or magnet was to be found amidst the Jessica’s, Sarah’s, and Rachel’s in touristy gift shops? I am more than well aware that it’s not a super common name. But that knowledge didn’t quell my first day of class nerves that lasted through college as I awaited for the well meaning professor to trip up when they called out my name, or, as occasionally happened, bypassed my first name entirely as they searched the rows of students for some guy named Norman. It also doesn’t quell the annoyance at still having my name butchered at coffee shops or doctors’ offices.

That said, I also know the benefits to having an unusual name. Once somebody finally gets the pronunciation down, they don’t forget about it. The name sticks in their memory – for better or worse.

The reason I bring all of this up is because of 9 year old Quvenzhané Wallis and the challenge her name seems to create for some people. When it was first announced that Quvenzhané had been nominated for an Oscar, it felt like her name turned into an easy punchline for jokes from morning news reports to late night comedians. Some would just laugh while stumbling over the pronunciation while others made actual jokes. About the name of a 9 year old girl.

The night of The Oscars, her name became the focus again – once when the various reporters at E! decided to dub Quvenzhané  “Little Q” to make their banter easier, and again when a reporter informed the young actress that she would refer to her as Annie (as it’s been widely reported that Quvenzhané will be playing the title role in a reboot of the classic film). Thankfully, Quvenzhané  set the her straight, stat.


(This isn’t even touching on the absolutely inexcusable tweet from The Onion. I could rant on about that all day, but I’ll point you over to Bitch, where my friend T.F. Charlton does an excellent job of explaining was was so wrong about it)

Here’s the thing: Names have power. They are a central part to our identities, and they deserve some respect, whether they’re easy to  pronounce or not. PostBourgie wrote a thoughtful analysis about the importance of names and the significance of Quvenzhané’s name, particularly as a young girl of color.

Not saying Quvenzhané’s name is an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to step around and contain her blackness.  Yes, sometimes black people have names that are difficult to pronounce.  There aren’t many people of European descent named Shaniqua or Jamal.  Names are as big a cultural marker as brown skin and kinky hair, and there’s long been backlash against both of those things (see: perms, skin bleaching creams, etc.).   The insistence on not using Quvenzhané’s name is an extension of that “why aren’t you white?” backlash.

 It is easier to be colorblind, to simply turn a blind eye to the differences that have torn this nation apart for centuries than it is to wade through those choppy waters.  And Quvenzhané’s very existence is enough to make the societal majority uncomfortable.  She is talented, successful, beautiful, happy, loved, and adored–all things that many people don’t figure that little black girls with “black” names could, or should, be.  Their answer?  Let’s make her more palatable.  If she insists on not fitting the mold of the ghetto hoodrat associated with women with “urban” names, let’s take her own urban name away from her.

Despite my own hard to pronounce name, I will never be in the same situation as Quvenzhané Wallis. My white privilege assures me of that. So I can only imagine how many more challenges she will face, compared to my own, when it comes to her name. Our identities are intrinsically woven into our names, and when people can’t even be bothered to learn how to say them it sends a clear message – one that devalues, saying you’re not good or important enough to bother. If her turn in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and her handling of the spotlight so far tells us anything, Quvenzhané  is more than good enough.

19 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?

  1. I feel for her. My name has been useful to me as a writer, because it’s so rare, but a lot of hassle otherwise. I had the misfortune to grow up in a part of England where vowels and consonants are in short supply, leading to my second name attracting a string of toilet jokes; never mind that the stress should be on the first syllable. Explaining that this isn’t an affectation but stems from it being the Manx version of McDiarmid/MacDermot only attracted those smug that-sounds-clever-so-you-must-be-stupid glares. As for my first name, it’s the traditional Scottish spelling and doesn’t come from ‘Jennifer’, but I’ve been Jennifered in numerous contexts, including by publishers (problematic as there’s a Jennifer Kermode who is a successful history writer). The worst one recently came in a hospital where a woman shouted out “Mrs Janice Karmody?” and then got angry with me when I failed to respond (I’m not a ‘Mrs’ either). I’m sure it doesn’t seem like much to people like her but it gets really wearing to be treated as if so basic – and unchosen – an element of identity is an inconvenience or a joke. I do hope Hollywood gets it together for Quvenzhané – as a film critic, I’ll be doing what I can – yet I can’t help but recall how much they struggle with established stars like Almodóvar and Sarandon.

    • I think that it’s great that you will do your part as a film critic! We all take our cues from those around us – if others demand respect for a person’s name by using it instead of forcing diminutive nicknames, perhaps others will take notice.

      And don’t even get me started on ways my name was teased growing up (Ovulate, Ovaltine, Avocado, etc…). So, I totally feel you on that front! Though, I’m sure most kids, regardless of complexity of names, ensure some sort of playground teasing in that regard. It just sucks when it continues outside that realm.

      On Wed, Feb 27, 2013 at 6:39 PM, The Mamafesto

  2. It’s the not even attempting to try to pronounce an unfamiliar name – even congratulating oneself with a laugh at how lazy one is being by using a nickname – that is the shameful part. It goes part and parcel with not learning foreign languages, I think. As an American living in a foreign country, I see this willful, almost prideful refusal to stretch one’s linguistic capabilities too often among my compatriots.

    • “American living in a foreign country, I see this willful, almost prideful refusal to stretch one’s linguistic capabilities too often among my compatriots.” <— That makes me so, so sad. :/

      On Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 3:37 AM, The Mamafesto

  3. As a teacher I try to learn the correct pronounciation of students names. If I’m not sure I ask and practice until I get it right. Great article!

  4. When I wanted to talk about Quvenzhane Wilis but didn’t know how to pronounce her name, I googled her name and “pronounce.” I immediately found a YouTube video that helped me say this beautiful name properly. There is no excuse for that reporter–how many weeks do they have to prepare?! It’s insulting, and calling her something easy to say (Annie) reminded me immediately of all the Southern Black women who lost their names because employers didn’t want to bother remembering given names, easy to say or not, “black” or “white.”

    • Right? If you (or your producer or assistant or whomever) are too lazy to Google how to properly pronounce her name, there are other ways to get around it (i.e. Miss Wallis) that aren’t condescending or dismissive. But really, you’re spot on – Google is your friend. Use it!

      On Fri, Mar 1, 2013 at 10:25 PM, The Mamafesto

      • Awesome update: I was trying to tell my MIL about the Oscars when I Googled Quevanzhané, so she heard the YouTube video. I asked her this week if she remembered, and she can still pronounce it. After the one conversation. Just saying.

  5. I love this post- why is their so much disdain for African American names? As if they somehow “lower” or less classic than names like “Emily” or “Karen.” I’ve wondered this myself. As a person with a strange name (Yoruba, Nigerian), I have always taken pride in my name because of the meaning (God’s Gift). Names are very significant in my heritage and although teachers and colleagues butcher it regularly, I see it as a humorous opportunity to connect with someone. Bravo on the awesome post!

    • Thanks Bunmi! I have to say, I absolutely love your name.

      Names are so personal, especially if they have significant meanings and tradition behind them – which can cause it to hurt even more when people choose to either ignore or erase that identity by dismissing a name.

      But, yes! I’ve found humor goes a long way when somebody (unintentionally) stumbles over my name.

      On Mon, Mar 4, 2013 at 8:10 AM, The Mamafesto

  6. I can relate. It seems that when names are more than 2 syllabubs, people (particularly white people) have a hard time pronouncing it. Their brains seem to malfunction and I often have to repeat my name a few times as if I’m speaking to a mentally challenged person. After a while I just tell them to ‘never-mind’ and get on with their query. By the way my name’s Fahranaaz (Fah-rah-nahz)

  7. PS: If that’s not enough, you should see the looks I get when I tell some people my son’s name, Mustaqeem. (O_O) Oh golly. I’m of Arabic decent and proud, you wouldn’t look at me that way if I was french would you?

    • I definitely think ethnicity/culture plays a role in how people respond to/perceive a name (which really sucks). I have to admit that growing up with a difficult to pronounce name gave me pause when considering names for my son. In the end, we went with 2 names that meant a lot to both me and my husband and didn’t dwell too much on how hard they’d be for people (his 1st name is not too tricky and his second one is a Hebrew name that trips folks up a bunch. sigh.)

      On Wed, Mar 6, 2013 at 4:06 AM, The Mamafesto

  8. Pingback: That's OK: I Do Not Want to Go "Home" Again - Do Not Faint

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