What’s in a (sur)name?
To many people their family name is a direct line of sight to their history and heritage. To others it’s an outward identifier of the family they belong to. For some there is no particular emotional connection to our surnames, but we need one to stop us sounding like a stripper or a musical act, like Prince.
Whatever your views of your surname – like it, hate it, don’t think about it that much – I can guarantee you that it irritates you when someone gets it wrong.
For some inexplicable reason, people seem to have real difficulty with my name. TREHARNE. I know, you’re trying to pronounce it right now aren’t you? “Tree-harne”, verging on “truh – harne” or “trey-harne” are all acceptable. I’ll take any of those, particularly if I factor in regional dialects and accents, level of inebriation, or if you’ve never heard it before.
What I struggle with, however, is the incessant use of TREHERNE. What happens to the “A”? Is it hiding? Is the letter “E” taking over the world by insidiously inserting itself into words unnecessarily? What frustrates me even more is the misspelling – even in emails in which I’m copied into. It tells me that you have made the conscious decision to not bother checking, or just noticing, my name and making a whole new one which you prefer instead. It happens everywhere – on the phone, at the salon, even with people I’ve worked alongside for some time on a project.
At first, I let these things pass as I’m trying to maintain a zen-like restraint in the face of obnoxiousness, rudeness or stupidity. I’ve told myself that it doesn’t matter, but it does. This was confirmed in a recent workshop with a communications expert which I attended. Amongst all the theory about how the brain works, how to remember names, mirroring language and so on (all of which I nodded furiously at), there was the simple point that saying a name in conversation is important. It shows that you are listening, that you are engaged with people. It makes them feel like they matter.
So what does it mean when people persistently get your name wrong? I’m not afraid to ask how I should pronounce a name – I’d rather get it right than offend someone, or embarrass myself by calling someone the wrong name indefinitely. Admittedly this is more common with first names, rather than family names – particularly if they are of are based in another language. I’ve worked very hard to try and get the spellings and pronunciation right of my Irish family connections, plus friends and acquaintances from overseas. I’m not immune I know. I have a friend whose first name could be pronounced three (very common but slightly different ways); I still worry about getting it wrong, years after knowing her. But the issue there is where and on which syllables I put the emphasis in her name – not the letters involved.
So why does it never happen to me? I suspect that it is laziness – people may know Trehernes and rather than stop and think, their brain sees what it wants to and they decide to call me that too. Perhaps they think I’ve misspelled or mispronounced my own name and rather than correct me, they go ahead using the name they think I should have.
I might start correcting people now – or even declare “Treherne, who is that? I’m not sure I know her?” – which jars with me. I don’t like appearing rude and I hate the thought of deliberately making someone feel small over something as minor as a name…but then again, doesn’t accepting a different name to my own, diminish me instead?