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.