Last night, I attended an author talk where the host had one job: introduce the talents and present them well. Said talents were two Nigerian ladies, one the author, the other the visual artist who had produced a beautiful cover for the book. Both young women were poised to meet and impress a new audience as they celebrated the product that had come from their labor. It should’ve been a celebration of their accomplishments, a way to identify and distinguish these two women with similar backgrounds but very different talents. Yet the hostess butchered one name by making it sound like the other. Okay, maybe said host had a bunch of other jobs behind the scenes but the reason they’re behind the scenes is because I’m not supposed to have to think about them. She knew in advance that these people were coming, she had ample time to prepare, practice their names, say it a hundred times if necessary. Yet, when she got in front of the audience who she was supposed to be priming to see these women as talented professional artists, she bumbled on the thing that we use to identify them.
I have a pet peeve about names being mispronounced. My name is pretty easy to recognize and pronounce so this irritation isn’t at offenses against me. But names are important as identifiers and I bristle when I hear a person not respect someone else’s identity.
When I was in high school and college, I had some classmates with unique names. At the beginning of each new semester, I would cringe in anticipation of the teacher going down the roster, encountering this new name and maligning it. I imagined that the owner of the name cringed harder at every new encounter and potential mispronunciation. I grew to respect the teachers who, on seeing the unfamiliar word, asked first, how do you pronounce your name, instead of assuming and getting it wrong.
Over time, I’ve learned that when I introduce someone with a unique name, I can pause for effect, and pronounce it, maybe give a clue on how to say it properly, or ask the person to introduce themselves so they can provide that rhymes-with clue.
Last night at the event, I had a hard time letting go of what felt to me like blatant disrespect when the speaker said, after she mumbled something that sounded like the name of one of the Nigerian women, but was really closer to the name of the other, “Oh, I told her I was going to butcher her name”, like that made it okay. Like, just because you’re from another country, it’s okay that I don’t try to say your name properly. I know she probably didn’t see it that way, but that’s the message we send when we don’t even try to learn the pronunciation beforehand. It says, I am superior because my language is easy (to me) and I will say your weird name however I want because you should be honored that I am even saying it at all.
Maybe it was just a stumble but in my book, those stumbles aren’t excusable. When you introduce someone to the world, do it well – find out how to pronounce their name and say it right. Honor the gift their parents gave them, honor the contribution they are making to the world by sharing their gifts. If names are how we identify ourselves, then honor our uniqueness and say those names well.
(Amazon affiliate links included)