What’s in a Name?


During International Week, you might have noticed some brightly coloured paper featuring people’s names on display in the forum. Those pieces of paper were a part of the “What’s in a Name?” project I organized as a way for us to consider what names mean to our culture, each other, and ourselves.

Individuals with uncommon, typically non-English names tend to feel othered or alienated as a result of their names. Often, people with uncommon names are told that their names are too “difficult” or “weird.” Sometimes, these names can be subject to ridicule or mockery. As we use names as a representation of ourselves in our society, these kinds of reactions to one’s name can make a person feel like they are themselves difficult, weird, foreign, and inconvenient to others by extension. While people rarely have malicious intent, joking about someone’s name or asking them to go by something else can have detrimental impacts on people’s sense of self and identity. These interactions make names feel like “markers” for not belonging. Even before a personal encounter, people judge and make assumptions about others based on their names.

Individuals with uncommon names, especially people of colour, are less likely to be asked to participate or called for an interview. They are, however, more likely to face discrimination or bullying. People with uncommon names are often dehumanized in subtle ways as they’re asked to change their name, mocked for their name, or confused with others who may also have an uncommon—albeit entirely different—name. The way we tend to treat uncommon names is reflective of how we tend to treat marginalized people.

My Korean name is Yeon Soo. It is my legal name—what’s on my driver’s license, university forms, bills, etc. It means exceptional lotus and it is a result of very careful deliberation on my dad’s part. He named me to be resilient, as lotus flowers bloom even in muddy waters. In my years of living with this name, I’ve had countless experiences where I felt belittled or othered for having a non-English name.

People often treat Yeon Soo as a joke or an inconvenience. I’ve heard it butchered in more ways than I could count. I’ve had people insist that’s what they’re calling me from now on. I’ve had people refer to having a non-English name as weird. While it might seem hypocritical to carry so much weight on my Korean name but go by another name, I go by my English name out of not just convenience but also to preserve and honour my Korean name. I am Yeon Soo and I am Jennifer—identities are complicated.  

This project asked participants who have uncommon names to write down what their name means to them. In our Canadian, Anglophone society, uncommon names are typically names from other languages and cultures. What we tend to overlook while focusing on foreignness is the fact that most names are personally significant representations of someone’s culture and heritage. Thus, when we mock or dismiss or look for alternatives to someone’s name, we are doing the same to a part of someone’s culture or identity. For some, their name can be a connection to their heritage. For others, their name can be a reclamation towards their identity. This project also asked participants or observers to consider what significance names carry—it goes beyond something to call another person. We should reflect on times that we were introduced to someone with an unfamiliar name and consider how we reacted. We should always do our best to accommodate and include everyone, and the first steps are as easy as pronouncing someone’s name correctly.


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