Peter, Paul and Mubashirah

In her “Dear Abby” column, Jeanne Phillips (writing under the pen name of Abigail Van Buren) recently advised a reader of Indian descent to avoid choosing a “foreign” name for his future children, and to instead select a “traditional Western name”.

Phillips said:

“Not only can foreign names be difficult to pronounce and spell, but they can also cause a child to be teased unmercifully. Sometimes the name can be a problematic word in the English language. And one that sounds beautiful in a foreign language can be grating in English.”

The response went viral on Twitter, with many people calling Phillips’ advice “racist”, and saying that she is trying to “erase peoples’ heritage”.

I am in the position of having both a “traditional Western” first name and a “foreign” last name. I have to admit that many people stumble over the pronunciation and spelling of my last name. Interestingly, my father Anglicized the spelling, but this further complicated matters, so as an adult I reverted to the original spelling.

Philips adds: “Why saddle a kid with a name he or she will have to explain or correct with friends, teachers and fellow employees from childhood into adulthood?”

However, my supposedly “Anglo” first name is constantly misspelled as every possible variant of “Karen”. I’ve heard and read “Karin”, “Karyn”, “Karren”, “Carin”, “Caren”, and the list goes on. My husband has the very Anglo name “Matthew” although he is often asked if his name has “One ‘t’ or two?”

“Smith”, the most common last name in the Anglosphere, can be spelled alternatively as Smyth, Smithe, or Smythe.

Even “Jeanne Phillips” can have several variant spellings. At any rate, “Van Buren” is not exactly a “traditional Western name”.

As for Phillips’ comment that other languages can sound “grating” to English-speaking ears, this is simply a perception. The popular beliefs that French is “sexy” while German is “harsh” are simply stereotypes of our perceptions of how other languages “sound”.

It seems we are all condemned to have to spell, “correct” and explain our names, whether they are perceived as Anglo or “foreign”.

So it’s better to choose a name that it meaningful and one that honors heritage and family than to worry about what other people might think.

Posted in: Uncategorized
Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

3 Comments on "Peter, Paul and Mubashirah"

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  1. Gene Brown says:

    Karen: my given first name is “Erryl”. Pronounced like the actor of the ’30s and ’40s, Errol Flynn. In fact, my mother was infatuated with the actor and named her fourth son after him. (I haven’t checked my paternity to be sure he wasn’t really my father, tho!)

    I quickly began using my middle name, “Gene” in junior high (today that’s referred to as “middle school”) since my classmates tried every possible variation to pronounce it: Harold; Earl; Early; Err-ill; and on and on. One day, walking home from school in about the sixth grade, a neighbor girl who always walked with me kept calling me “Early”. I bopped her in the nose.

    We never walked together after that.

    But she also never called me “Early” after that.

    As it’s said: extreme times call for extreme measures. I’ve a very pacifist kind of guy – normally.


  2. Thanks for your comment Gene.

    I would imagine that “Erryl” leads to many different pronunciations and spellings! Even your mother chose a different spelling to that of the actor. (Who is an Aussie by birth, as I’m sure you know!)

    I would also assume that “Gene” might be often misspelled as “Jean”!


    • Gene Brown says:

      Yes, Karen, not only is Gene frequently misspelled, but people often ask if Gene is actually just shorthand for my real middle name of Eugene!

      Can’t win, I tell you. Just can’t win!!


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