Everybody Talks: What’s in a name?

Tanvi Potdar 25 January 2015

If I could sit my fresher self down at the very beginning of Michaelmas term, year one, I’d have plenty of things to say. Don’t start skipping 9 A.M. lectures in a couple of weeks. Don’t leave multiple supervision submissions till the last minute. Cindies on week nights is a phenomenally bad decision. And stick to your own damn name. See now, most of these would feature on many of your lists, I’m sure; but that last one, I believe, is privy to those of us with the ‘interesting’, or even, ‘exotic’ names.

University is a monumental life change, and a rather scary one at that. Like all of us, when I packed up my life and moved to Cambridge, I was prepared to embrace the independence, intellectual freedom and crappy food that university life promised. I expected to be attacked by homesickness, inadequacy and the daunting Cambridge workload I’d heard so much about. What I didn’t expect was that I’d have an irrational fear of my name by the time I returned home for Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong, it was extremely exciting during fresher’s week. What had been a fairly common name in India had suddenly become ‘wicked’ and unusual and was perhaps even remembered for longer than the staple 30 seconds most
names get. However, as I moved further into the year, I began to positively dread introducing myself to others. It was always met by either confusion or an enthusiastic probing into the tiniest syllables in my name (followed by confusion). I finally resorted to introducing myself as the ‘tangent of v, tan(vi)’, which, while still incorrect, did at least vaguely resemble the correct pronunciation and not to mention, made me a big hit in my Maths supervisions. Even this, however, did not work for so many other everyday things. The number of times I’ve ordered a Panther taxi for ‘Candy’ or bought coffee for ‘Ten’ is astonishing really.

Finally, mid­way through my first Lent term, I decided to do away with it for all public purposes. I adopted my British friend’s name as my own, giving birth to a new tea-­drinking, scone-­having, British version of me who could introduce myself without panicking and stammering nervously. It’s not that people didn’t want to know exactly how to say it or that they glossed over it and asked me to provide them with an anglicized version. In retrospect, I think it was just me. I was so desperate to fit in and not be a source of awkwardness to complete strangers that I disappeared into another name. I mean, what’s the big deal, right? What’s in a name?

Oh Shakespeare, if only you knew. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I wasn’t so much fitting in as I was fading away.

Unsurprisingly, it was Starbucks that brought on this epiphany: the place so famed for ruining names, they should probably sell it with their coffee. I went there with the aforementioned friend whose name I’d stolen and as I stood at the counter, for an entire minute, I simply could not remember how to correctly pronounce my name. As ridiculous as this sounds, it is completely true; I had not said it in months and I was suddenly swamped by that old panic and confusion that I had so willingly abandoned, along with my name. 

It was this unsettling experience that made me see how important names really are. They form such an integral part of our identity, define our individuality and carve us our very own niche to see the world from. Without them, we are all but anonymous to ourselves. Now, I make it a point to explain to people how exactly to say my name, right down to the subtlest of sounds.

And to all of you with the ‘exotic’ names, if you want to avoid the inevitable identity crisis in a corporate coffee shop, which is as mortifying as it sounds, say your name and say it with pride. Trust me, it’s worth it.