How to pronounce my name

PSA

TL;DR. Call me V! It’s easier and I like it.

How I got my name

My mother wanted two kids: a boy and a girl, in that order, with the first initials V and N respectively. She got what she wanted.

The name chosen for me was विवेक (spelled “Vivek” or “Viveik” in English). It means intelligence or wisdom (a prescient choice if I say so myself) and the most famous person with this name is the Swami Vivekananda. He introduced Hinduism to Europe and the United States. Other noteworthy folks with this name:

It’s a common enough name, but I wouldn’t say it’s popular. It’s no Amit or Sameer. Not as exalted as Ram, Krishna, or Shiva. According to forebears.io, विवेक has a naming frequency of 1 in 2,831 births. It’s basically the equivalent of a name like “Vernon.”


The unfamiliar echo

My mother asked me if I wanted to use a different name before my first day at school. Something more Anglicized than the name she chose for me.

A few years earlier, my cousin Rajat started school as “Robin.” My own mother is Sandhya, but goes by “Sandy” at the office. It’s common for immigrants to replace their own names with occidental alternates. And for mysterious reasons South and East Asian families have a knack for making use of dust-covered names (like Robin, Jasper, Bernice, or Vernon) that haven’t been in use since 1965.

On that fall morning in 1985, my mom suggested “Victor.” I didn’t like it. It was an old man’s name, and the only one she offered, so I marched into Kindergarten with my He-Man lunchbox and the name I was given at birth: विवेक.

I always introduced myself as विवेक, but learned to expect an unfamiliar echo every time I did.

Let me help you with that

By the first week of university, I’m no longer introducing myself as विवेक. There are too many new faces, usually drunk, and it isn’t worth the hassle. I go by the unfamiliar echo. On my student exchange in Rotterdam, I hear my name in no fewer than 50 variations. In Spanish I’m bi•BAKE. In French I’m vi-VEQUE. Ooh, la-la.

I craft a mnemonic to make it easier for my future coworkers. The English word “mistake” has similar vowel sounds (though not exactly the same) to the ones in my name. At my first job, I introduce myself as “विवेक like mistake.” Like an advertising slogan.

Despite my efforts, विवेक morphs into VEE•VAKE. A lot of my first job is on the phone, so I’m introducing myself with “This is विवेक calling.” Because of a phenomenon called rebracketing, the other end of the phone hears “This is Vivé calling.” vi•VAY is not my favorite.

A name is a brand

You learn a lot when you repeat something thousands of times. While “विवेक like mistake” is phonetically useful, it has what I’d call a somewhat unflattering brand association. I know that it gets a laugh because of the unexpectedness of “mistake,” but the touch of self-deprecation is unintended. Every now and then this introduction is received with a piteous “aww.”

After a few years of this, I decide I don’t want to lead with “mistake.” So I rebrand. I replace it with a well-focus-grouped “VIV•ick like civic.” This sparks recognition every time. The Honda Civic is one of North America’s best-selling automobiles. Even if it sounds nothing like my name, the brand association is top-drawer. Seeing “Vivic” on the occasional Starbucks cup is a small price to pay for ease-of-use.

As you can tell, I’ve thought a lot about my name, the perceptions and attitudes it generates in other people, and what it takes to get folks to say it a certain way.

The challenges of a “non-standard” name

When you have a name that’s hard to pronounce, introducing yourself isn’t just an exchange of information. It’s a sales pitch and negotiation. In a matter of moments you must pluck people out of their confusion, make a joke if you can, reassure them that ‘everything is fine,’ ‘yes, you can say it’ if you try, and ‘don’t worry I’m not offended’ if you get it wrong. If you don’t do this, your name (and by extension, you) becomes a thing that makes people feel uncomfortable.

If your name is the front door to your psyche, mine feels like a Norman Door that stops folks in their tracks. It’s a stumble that subconsciously sets the tone for every single interaction I’ve had with any stranger for the past four decades. I’ve never had a teacher, employer, or romantic partner ever say my name correctly.

Research suggests having your name repeatedly mispronounced can cause challenges for students. “Ethnic-sounding” names can also affect your ability to find a job or advance in your career.

It can mess with your lunch too. I was waiting for my order at a busy sandwich shop in Oakland, California, and saw an employee silently inspect my order slip, look around sheepishly, and move on to the next one. I immediately knew what happened. They were too nervous to shout my name out, so skipped my order. I walked to the counter to get the sandwich, and I could feel their embarrassment as they handed it to me. I was embarrassed too. Anyone with a challenging name has experienced some version of this encounter.

My name as conversation starter

Not everybody is intimidated by a hard-to-pronounce name. Some are elated by them. Every 17 introductions or so, a stranger will tell me how much they love my name:

I get what these folks are trying to do. They want to connect with another human by talking about this thing they haven’t seen before. They’re using my name as a friendly conversation starter, but for me it’s a conversation killer.

I’ve clunked my name around for decades like a suitcase with broken wheels. I’ve used it 60,000 times. It’s not new, fun, or interesting to me, even if it were easy to say. It’s hard to accept the compliment, especially since it can devolve into full-on Othering:

Vivek? That’s a lovely name. I love that. Where is that from? Oh, nice. I love Indian weddings, they’re so colorful. I want to go back to India. Do you get to go back a lot?

In those moments, I wonder what would happen if I tried complimenting a Western name the same way:

“Whoa, Beth… that’s so cool. Beeeeth. That’s really interesting. Where is that from?”

Is it wrong to accept a compliment about something you didn’t choose and that has nothing to do with who you are? Of course not.

I know the complimenters mean well. I always say “thank you.” But I can’t help that at this point in my life what enters my ears as “That’s a cool name” reaches my mind as “You’re different.”

What does your family call you?

Like most Indian parents, my parents use house names with their kids. Indian house names don’t make sense. Salman on the streets becomes “Chhotu” with family. Anushakshi goes by “Kushi” at home. Piyush becomes “Bobby.” My sister calls me “Brobot” and she’s the only one that gets to do that.

You can call me V

For nearly 40 years, I’ve worked to find ways to make my name palatable for Western tongues. What I’ve got in return is a long list of phonemes that don’t sound right. A few years ago, I decided that I want to like what I hear when people talk to me.

In 2019, I started a new job and introduced myself in the Honda Civic way, but I had also written down “V” on some form, somewhere. During my first week, a coworker noticed the discrepancy and asked me earnestly: “What do you want to be called?” And she waited for my answer. I have never forgotten that. So many folks just want to begin the beguine. She wanted to know who I was. I told her, “You can call me V.”

The next day I ordered a coffee on campus and introduced myself as such. When the barista handed me my cup, she had drawn a small cartoon hand holding up peace fingers, surrounded by a heart. I’ve gone by V ever since.

Do I have to?

Desis are exempt from this, of course. I may introduce myself as V, but at any company I’ve worked at, Indian people tend to code switch when pronouncing each other’s names.

Everyone else: You can call me V! It’s easier and I like it.

If your online form has a minimum character count for first name greater than 1 (and shame on you for this) use “Vee.”

I’ve also seen coworkers use “Vi” and this intrigues me! (Topic for another essay.) If V seems odd, pretend it’s 1965 when two letter names were all the rage: PJ, CJ, AJ, AC, etc. My name is simply one letter shorter than that.

(If you still don’t want to, I’d sincerely love to know why.)

Not everyone is convinced. At a food truck in Portland, Oregon, a server is downright incredulous about my introduction. She repeats it skeptically: “V? Like just V?” I hold up two fingers to confirm and smile hard through my mask. A swipe of my credit card betrays the other English letters of my legal name. The server responds with relief: “Oh, VIV•eck! Now that’s not so hard!”

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