If They Can Learn to Say Tchaikovsky

Nigerian wax cloth surrounds the quote, "If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevysky they can learn to say Uzoamaka."Last week during the United States Democrats’ National Convention, I practiced all week, “Comma’ + ‘La’= Kamala. Kamala, Kamala, Kamala.” I hadn’t realized during the primaries, even as she was one of my top picks, that I was saying Senator Harris’ name wrong.

I have seen women and men confidently correct a new acquaintance when their name is said incorrectly. It can be tricky to make that correction though, and in interviews, I have seen Senator Harris mention that she doesn’t mind when people mispronounce her name because it has happened all her life. I know some people do care.

My college friend, Siobhan, was told by her mom to just figure out how someone new was going to say her name so that she could remember to answer to it. That is a lot of emotional labor to put on a teenage kid.

So, I particularly loved this vignette by the actress, Uzoamaka Nwanneka Aduba, that popped up on YouTube for me one day. 

If you’re not at a place where you can watch this, Uzo tells her mom when she is in middle school that she would like to be called “Zoey.” And, her mom says, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”

The names people are given and the names they choose matter. As I enter a new school year and this new COVID-19 world, this was a helpful reminder for me. 

Do you have a name that people mispronounce? Do you have a hard time getting some people’s names right? How do you deal with that?

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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17 Responses

  1. Brita says:

    I have a rare first name, and now a rare last name too, and both get mispronounced more often than not. I don’t get upset about it when people who I’ve just met get it wrong, but I tend to believe that people who won’t learn how to pronounce my first name properly after a long time don’t really value me. That was especially hurtful in one ward I lived in where barely anyone pronounced my name right even though I lived there for many years and introduced myself frequently.

  2. Em says:

    I think these are important points. Mispronouncing names consistently can also be racist (see: Tucker Carlson deliberately mispronouncing Kamala). It’s a (Not very) subtle way of signaling “if you belonged here you’d have a “normal” name”. Even when race isn’t part of the equation, spelling or pronouncing names incorrectly creates an atmosphere of exclusion and disrespect.

  3. Heather says:

    You are so great at combining humility & insight. I’m a huge fan.

    • Anna says:

      I have kind of an opposite problem with my name being mispronounced. Because my last name is uncommon, people assume it won’t be pronounced like it would sound out in English, and give it a Hispanic pronunciation. So, sometimes people try too hard to properly pronounce a foreign name and mangle an English one.

  4. Caroline says:

    As a kid, people would sometimes pronounce my name Carolyn. It bothered me quite a bit and as a shy kid, it was hard for me to correct people. As an adult, I don’t care how they pronounce my first name. But I do get a little annoyed when people refer to me by my husband’s last name. They often call us “The McQueens” (I made up that name, but you get the point), referring to my husband’s last name. I realize it’s easier to say that than to add in my last name in there, but if feels like an erasure.

  5. PBJ says:

    I have an unusual first name (at least for this century!), and it. is. slaughtered. Constantly. I would get teased for it when I was younger. My way of coping in school/ college, was to mentally deduct IQ points every time someone student/teacher/ professor said it wrong. I stopped doing that as I got older (everyone couldn’t have negative IQs!) But it is frustrating.

    I can count on 1 hand how many times someone has looked at the spelling, and said it correctly, before I said anything. (First time, I was 13!) I say I’m ok with how people say it wrong, but I’d really like to be called by my name. It just generally isn’t worth explaining how letters combinations make different sounds. (Even though they use those same sounds in other words.) (omg, your name is so hard to say!)

    (Hit a nerve on this one!)

  6. Di says:

    We gave our daughter an Irish name mainly because we loved it and also partly because of heritage. It’s not pronounced the way it looks. She’s pretty good natured about it but I know it can be grating sometimes when people totally mangle it. Once told the correct way to say it people generally remember for future encounters 🙂

  7. Nat Whilk says:

    How do you pronounce “Drumpf”?

  8. Risa says:

    I love Uzo Aduba. She was incredible in Mrs. America in her portrayal as Shirley Chisholm, which was about the only thing I enjoyed about that mini-series. She lent so much humanity to the role of Suzanne on Orange is the New Black. She took that character from a joke to someone the audience grew to care about and root for.

    And her mother was 100% right.

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