What’s in a name

I’m one of those people that is quite attached to their name. I really like it and I’m ever so thankful that Dad stumbled across the name on an American waterskiier competing at Moomba and managed to steer the namingship away from Digabeena, which was my mother’s choice for feminising Digby.

I’ve often been called Camilla, which, to be absolutely clear, I do not like to be called. A girl at high school once said to me after I’d told her not to call me Camilla that it just rolled of the tongue more easily than Camille. I think my muttered response was to put the brakes on her tongue.

One of the things I like about my name is that it is not common. I know of a couple of Camille’s but have only come across someone with the same first name a handful of times in my life. Perhaps that uniqueness is one of the reasons why I, shamefully, was distressed about being placed as an advisor in college alongside a guy called Kamil. Thanks to my response, the lesson in taking my name’s uniqueness too seriously was repeated as I now work alongside a guy called Camilo (and I’m pleased to say that I didn’t have the same reaction to the situation fifteen years ago, but rather was able to see the funny side of it).

Here in Colombia I have had to deal with the Camilla saga all over again, as Camila is a popular Spanish name and every time I say my name they think I’ve said Camila. To make my life easier, I told my Colombian family to call me Camil-ee, pronouncing the normally silent ‘e’, which was a good way of establishing that my name is not Camila.

I have also started to simplify it even further in cafes where I have to give my name and always use ‘Cami’, a common short-form of Camila or Camilo here. However, despite my best attempts, every time I say ‘Cami’ at Juan Valdez, they always need me to repeat it. Perhaps it is because they don’t quite believe that is my name because I don’t believe that my accent in Spanish is that bad.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a busy café and ordered my lunch to takeaway. They had also implemented the name system, and I said ‘Cami’ to the person behind the counter. I then sat and waited to hear my name called out.  I waited, I heard someone call out Carmen, then I waited some more, heard them call out another name and then I realised that my name had been written down as Carmen. When I approached the counter I said I thought they’d gotten my name wrong and was that a tex-mex burrito as that was my order. They were a bit reluctant to give it up and I repeated a number of times that my name was Cami not Carmen. I eventually got my burrito, although I left in a cranky mood.

I went back to that café again this week and stood patiently in a really long line to order the tex-mex burrito again. To get my revenge from the last visit, I said my name using my Australian accent, not providing any concessions to the Colombians behind the counter. I was asked to repeat it and said it exactly the same way. A look of confusion flit across the girl’s face, but she didn’t say anything more.

I sat down to wait, and made sure that I paid attention to the customers who were in front of and behind me so I didn’t miss my lunch being called out. Only my name never got called out. Instead the girl handing out the orders just held up her hand and waved at me. I’m not sure whether any name was even attached to my order, or whether they remembered me from last time, or whether I was just the only foreign looking person in the café. At least I left this time with a sly smile and a win instead of with an argument.

Walking back to the office I thought of a friend who regularly posts photos of the botched names she gets on her coffee cups in different places around the world. I’d really love to know if someone has researched if using names actually makes people feel more connected to the place, or whether the incorrect spellings or pronunciations outweigh the positives.

I’m not even going to say that the incorrect name issue is an expat or foreigner experience – although many expats would have plenty of tales to tell about having to repeat their names and spell them out all the time – because there are plenty of Australians whose names I would not be able to spell or necessarily even understand. And when the shoe is on the other foot, I’m also guilty of mis-hearing peoples names here, and although I’m more familiar with names in Spanish speaking Latin America now, I get lots of names wrong when I’m in Brazil. I’m therefore always thankful when there’s an exchange of business cards!

How do you adapt your name or the pronunciation of your name when you are in a foreign country?



One thought on “What’s in a name

  1. my last name is Cuellar and I lived in Germany for almost 3 years. In german, ue is pronounced “oi” like in Deutschland. Now if you want to see a look of total confusion you should see the girl calling my name at my doctor’s appointment.

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