Articles, Tough Questions

What is in a Name?

What is A Name?

You might be able to guess from my name that I don’t have a stereotypical Anglo sounding name: Zoë Zahariadis is nothing like Mary Smith ( 28,692 people share this name as of 2015). Supposedly, there are only 123 people with my last name in the U.S. It’s unique for a variety of reasons: the umlaut over the “e”, the unique last name, and the repetition of the letter “z”. My name means that I’ve always been one of the last, if not the last, person when things are done alphabetically. 

I love my name, but names carry a lot more significance than we sometimes think. Names can be a memory of a favorite person or place, be a reminder of a grandmother or father, or simply be a collection of letters that sound beautiful. But, names also carry a lot of trauma and weight; they can represent someone who they aren’t anymore, forced cultural assimilation or a painful separation. I had often overlooked the significance of names until I began to realize the implications of having a not common, and not Anglo, name. 

What is a name?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “name” in many, many different ways, from noun is “a word or phrase that constitutes the distinctive designation of a person or thing” to the verb usage “to nominate for office” to even the adjective “appearing in the name of a literary or theatrical production”. No matter what the part of speech, it is clear that a name is a designation. You designate that a soft, comfortable, sometimes rectangular object that you put your head on at night is a pillow. The person who shares the same parent’s as you are designated as your sibling. You want to designate Joe Biden as President in 2020. Names are, on the surface, as simple as that. 

Importance of names: 

When we look deeper, names have so much power and influence. We often tend to recognize certain names, such as Kennedy or Vanderbilt. There is a certain degree of power, wealth, and prestige that is associated with certain names. Your name might increase your chances of being admitted into an elite college or getting a job. 

We also have a certain implicit bias with names. This phenomenon, called The Portia Hypothesis, is based on an experiment done in South Carolina among judicial candidates. They explored that candidates with gender-neutral names (Kerry, Pat) had a higher chance of becoming a judge than candidates with stereotypically female names (Ashley, Elizabeth). In this study, changing the name from Sue to Cameron tripled a candidate’s likelihood of becoming a judge. Simply from their name, it became so clear that there was already an implicit bias of who would perform better. 

As I said, I love my name.

I love the double “z” (it makes for awesome initials) as well as the meaning behind it. My first name, Zoë, is a transliterated version of the Greek word Ζωή, meaning life. My last name, Zahariadis (Ζαχαριάδη), has its roots in the Greek word ζάχαρη, meaning sugar. I love how my name not only holds cultural significance and is a reminder of my Greek heritage, but it also means such beautiful things. My middle name, Ann, is my mom’s best friend’s name, so again, not only do I have awesome initials (ZAZ), but I am constantly reminded of their friendship. 

With all this being said, having an uncommon name can actually be quite difficult. I didn’t realize that people’s refusal to pronounce my name correctly was a microaggression until this year because it had just been going on for so long. Ever since I could remember, people would say “I’m not even going to try!” or “So what are you?”. Going back to the problems with implicit bias, these comments really stung. You’re implying that I’m something different, and negative because you don’t recognize the ethnicity of my name? I was born in the U.S. to an American mother and a Greek father, and that doesn’t make me any less American than anyone else, so why is my name a problem? 

This is not a unique problem.

Recently, an email exchange surfaced between a student and a professor at Laney College in Oakland, California, in which the professor asked the student to “Anglicize” her name. The Vietnamese-American student, Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen, was contacted by her professor and asked to “anglicize” her name because it “sounds like an insult in English.” This horrifyingly racist comment is not uncommon. 

In an article by Ruchika Tulshyan for the Harvard Business Review, they detail how their non-Western European name led them to not receiving a call-back for a job interview. They further detail how, according to one study, White sounding names were 28% more likely to receive a callback. This is not simply an American phenomenon, however. In France, North African sounding names are less likely to receive a callback than French-sounding names.  This phenomenon expands across the world: people are resistant to anything that feels different from their “normal”. 

So what can you do?

Do you have a non-Anglo-Saxon name? In Ruchika Tulshyan’s article, they detail important ways for people to approach this topic. If you, like themselves and myself, have a non-Anglo-Saxon name, don’t be afraid to correct people. I know I’m at times uncomfortable doing this, but it is important to be true to yourself. It is your name. Be polite, of course, but correcting a slight pronunciation error is totally acceptable. 

Do you not have an Anglo-Saxon name? Are you afraid to pronounce it? Ask how! You can simply say, “Hey! How do you pronounce your name?” and actively listen to the pronunciation. If you make a mistake, don’t make a big deal out of it. You are trying! Ask them to repeat if you’re really struggling, and keep going. If you know someone’s name beforehand, you can also google the pronunciation. One of the most important things to NOT do, in my opinion, is to ask questions about their background. Do not ask “So what are you? Where is that?”. And the BIGGEST no-no, is asking “can I just give you a nickname? I can’t pronounce it!”. Unless they provide you a nickname, use their real name. 

Even if you think you know how to pronounce someone’s name. You are 99% sure because you have a friend whose name is spelled the same way and is pronounced this way, don’t be embarrassed if you’re corrected because it isn’t the way the person wants their name pronounced. It is their name after all! 


Zoë Zahariadis

(she/her) Charter member of GirlSpring's teen leadership group, the Springboarders, as a teenager. Now, a senior at Vassar College and is majoring in Political Science/French & Francophone studies with a minor in Women's Studies.

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