Headbloom Blog

What’s in a Name?

“The sweetest sound to the human ear is that of one’s own name.” — Proverb

The difficulty of it all. Adjusting to life in a new culture can be especially difficult when it comes to using names. Names have all sorts of cultural information attached to them. Some names denote age, seniority, or birth order; nicknames are limited by who can use them and what gender or group they are attached to. For foreigners, knowing how to pronounce names in the United States can be particularly tricky because the centuries of immigrants to this country as well as the original natives from North America represent hundreds of cultures and languages, further confounding the rules and pronunciations. Americans who have foreign-born co-workers can help out these internationals by being extra sensitive to the myriad names which confront a person every day.

Names in U.S. history. In the past, immigrants to the United States were coaxed, prodded, or forced into changing their names to “fit in” in ears, brains, and writing system of predominant English culture. Immigration officials shortened long names, rewrote “unpronounceable” names, and substituted “unrecognizable” names with anglicized ones. A recent New York Times article talks about this history and how it has changed, with many 21st century immigrants keeping their names (and spellings) intact.

My paternal grandfather, Gustav Einar Hedblom, emigrated to the United States in 1920. In order to keep the original Swedish pronunciation, he anglicized the spelling of his surname to Headbloom. Originally, the name is a compound noun: hed (meaning “heath” or “heather” ) and blom (meaning “blossom” or “flower” ). My younger brother reverted to the old spelling years ago, while my parents, sisters, children, and I all used the new American spelling.

The need for flexibility. Most Americans have three names: given-middle-family (which are called “first-middle-last” ). This means most officials and and clerical information-takers in the United States expect clients, patients, and customers to follow this pattern. When internationals present their unique names, the Americans are flummoxed because there are standard boxes to fill in, but the names don’t cooperate. Additionally, sometimes American names can create problems. The following list represents the diversity of naming features that might cause confusion.

  • Some Americans and internationals change over from a maiden name to a married name.
  • Japanese traditionally have no middle names.
  • African American first names may or may not be of African origin, but may represent neo-African sounds to the parents: La-Keesha, Tashonda, Jawon, DaShawn, LaToya, and Jaleesa.
  • Some British people have two middle names.
  • In the Middle East and Muslim Africa, some have the same first and last name, like Sirhan Sirhan or Mohamed Mohamed.
  • Some Indonesians and Indians have one name only (no middle name, no last name), for example: Suharto.
  • Some names have mixed upper/lower case, like von Beethoven, da Silva, Le Clerc, ten Broek, McDonald, MacGinty.
  • Capital letters can come in the middle of a name (without spaces), like JoAnne, LeBron, PaulaSue, or MarcQus.
  • Transliteration from another language (for example, Russian) yields many forms: Katya, Kattya, Ekaterina, and Yekaterina.
  • Some famous entertainers are known by only one name: Cher, Ronaldo, Bono, Madonna, Tiger.
  • Brazilians alphabetize rosters by first name, not by last.
  • American males are named after their predecessors, with abbreviations following the whole name (and a comma): Sr., Jr., III, IV, V, etc.
  • Diminutives for female first names come with many endings: -ette, -ina, -ita, -inha, -etta, -ie all mean “little.”
  • Feminine forms of masculine names are made by adding -a at the end: Robert/Roberta, George/Georgia, Steven/Stephanie.
  • Irish or Scottish names begin with an O and an apostrophe: O’Dell, O’Reilly, O’Toole.
  • There are special nicknames for an American son named after his father, for example, Sonny or Junior.
  • Czech women add -ova to their husband’s last name. For example, Mr. Fictum’s wife has the last name Fictumova.
  • Some Americans and internationals use hyphenated last names.
  • Both Americans and internationals may have long names that won’t fit into the blanks of a form.
  • People of the Sikh religion all take the last name of Singh.
  • Some Americans and internationals have first names with hyphenation, like Jean-Claude (French) or Karl-Oskar (German).
  • Coming to the U.S., Koreans may anglicize their first and middle names (1) together or (2) hyphenated or (3) separately: Jeesun, Young-Sam, or Jang Young.
  • A name can have multiple forms: Allen, Alan, Alain, Allen; Mohamed, Mahmoud, Mohammad; Catherine, Kathryn, Catharine.
  • Family identity can play a role in Arabic names. A man named Mohamed may go by Abu Mazen (“Father of Mazen” ).
  • American boxer George Foreman named all of his five children George.
  • Some Nigerians name their children by the day of the week they were born on.
  • In Scandinavia, the surname Svensson is the “Son of Sven” and Jonsdottir is the “Daughter of Jon.”
  • Spanish names have (de +) the mother“s name at the end. The person’s name is alphabetized by the middle name, which is the father“s last name.
  • Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans give their surname first, and their “first” name last.
  • In order to stand out, some names are given with non-traditional spellings: Skot, Robyn, Isiah, Ocirris.

Bottom line: A person’s name may have special meaning to him or her. It may be given to commemorate an occasion, to represent a heritage, to honor a special friend or ancestor, or because it has a special sound or meaning. Here are some do’s and don’ts about that Sweetest Sound:

  • Don’t automatically shorten someone’s name or give them a nickname for your own convenience. It’s not yours to choose.
  • Make every attempt to write and say another’s name correctly. It is a sign of respect.
  • Don’t be embarrassed to ask several times for the correct pronunciation. People with unusual names are usually practiced and patient.
  • Practice saying or writing a newcomer’s name correctly. This will help you learn faster.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask about an unusual name’s meaning or origin. Most people like to talk about their name’s history. In the process of learning, you may make a new friend.

Let’s end with a little humor regarding names. The famous U.S. Olympic skier Picabo (pronounced “peek-a-boo” ) Street is not just an athlete; she is a nurse. She currently works in the Intensive Care Unit (I.C.U.) of a large metropolitan hospital. She is not permitted to answer the telephone while she is at work, however. It simply causes too much confusion when she answers the phone and says, “Picabo, ICU.”

[Two notes to non-native speakers: 1. Picabo Street is not really a nurse. 2. American parents play a game with their babies by covering their faces, then pulling away the hands or object hiding the face, and saying, “Peek-a-boo, I see you!” This makes the baby laugh.]

If you have an example of a sad or confusing or funny story related to names, please let me know. I’d love to share it with my readers. Here’s one that someone just shared with me.



Alan Headbloom