Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Onomasticating



30-odd years ago I was an assistant d’anglais in a lycée in Carcassonne. One of the teachers there, a lovely lady named Renée, had chosen English names for all her students, and by these they went for the duration of her lessons. And what names: these 15 year olds had been saddled with clunky monnickers such as Bertha and Maureen, Doris and Stanley, Enid, Florrie and Maud. Pity there was no way for Renée to tell if a foreign name was trendy or trashy, connotative of glamour or frump, before an insensitive 18 year old colleague had a good guffaw at them.

I have always resisted the idea of imposing English names on my students, unless they ask for one. Few do. Many Chinese students who come to the UK know we find their names hard to remember, and thoughtfully chose themselves an English name to help us. Where do they dig them up, though? A young man who looks like a model for a soldier in the terracotta army really should not call himself 'Gav'. And whatever it might connote in Chinese, 'Potato' sounds plain barmy in English when it designates a young lad. In one group I had Winner, Miffy, Pinky, Candy, Clover and Mo, as twee and nursery-bookish a set of handles as I have ever seen on one register. They were memorable, though, which Chinese names to some of us are not. Looking at the list of the students’ real names, a colleague remarked ‘it sounds like somebody pushing a piano downstairs’.

OK, it’s not on to make fun of foreign names. But… fuck it. A Thai boy called Pipatpong came to Cambridge in the eighties. For the duration of his stay, he could have called himself Pip or Pat but of course went for Pong instead. I think the prize for Most Unfortunate Label Ever Given the Context goes hands down to Germany’s Ms Regula Kuntz.

It works both ways, of course. In Greece I knew a Lisa and a Malachy. Lisa sounds like the Greek for ‘rabies’, and anyone who stays longer than a month in Greece knows that Malachy sounds dangerously close to μαλακία (malakia), meaning ‘a wank’. If you are going to teach Greek teenagers and your name is Malachy, change it now, or live to regret it.

2 comments:

Fionnchú said...

I teach English in L.A., where I've compiled my share of United Nations rosters over 25 years. One Chinese immigrant took her name from the drinking cup brand in front of her one day fresh in the States: epiphany= "Lily." I had a class full of remedial learners that was 14 Korean women out of the 16 enrolled, and it drove me insane trying to distinguish them. Their first, second and third names all lacked any mnemonic hooks, it seemed, and half of them shared similar or identical surnames, in Korean fashion.

Still, although I had last year a Pittipong too who to me went bewilderingly by his full name (his alliterative surname was about twice the length of his first name, in Thai fashion), the most indelible student name remains an African American girl, perhaps sixteen, from my stint in South-Central: "Cherry Staine." She was a humorless teen who lacked, at least in my presence, any sense of irony or chagrin.

vilges suola said...

Hi, thanks for adding to the list of names! I too had a class of young Korean men (including one called Yung Man) who all went by Martian- sounding monosyllables (Cho, Chan, Uk)and it was the devil to remember who was who.

Am curious as to how to pronounce your nickname?

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