Saturday Diary / Dealing with a name that people can't pronounce

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And so it begins.

Last month, the youngest of our two boys, Tadhg, went off to Practice Kindergarten, where you experience what school will be like before it actually begins. Part of the practice involved his favorite part of school: riding the bus.

On one of the 12 days he rode to and from school, he got off the bus too fast for the bus driver to be able to tell if he went home with someone or if he just dashed across the street alone.

To make sure, the transportation director tracked down my number and called me while I was at work.

"Mr. Hamill, do you know if your son, Tag ... er, uh, Tad ... [then he started spelling] T-A-D-H-G, is home?"

"Yes he is. It's 'Tadhg'," I said, enunciating as clearly as I could, hitting the "g" hard at the end. (Typically we tell people: "It's like 'Tiger' without the '-er.' ")

"Oh, OK," he said, releasing a chuckle at the name pronunciation.

I thought to myself: Let the mangling begin!

My wife and I knew this was coming when we chose the name almost six years ago, and still we plunged ahead with a name sure to bring confusion to the adults in elementary school when they met -- and tried to pronounce -- their first Tadhg.

Choosing names for any parent can be fraught with peril -- and pressure.

Do you choose a name to honor a family member? A friend? Which one? How will those who weren't chosen react? Do you pick a hero's name? A celebrity who you just thought was cool?

And what if the name is easy to make fun of? I remember a book that came out a decade or so ago where it purported to be a list of names to avoid for boys and girls. From what I remember, it basically came down to: avoid any name that an elementary school boy would be able to rhyme with another word to ridicule your child.

Tadhg wasn't a name chosen lightly. We had our reasons.

Our first son, Declan, now 8, was a relative breeze.

I had ceded naming rights to my wife in an 18-year deal. I had seen, and heard, of other new parents and families fighting over names up to and beyond the day of birth. I wanted to avoid that. Plus, I figured, carrying these boys for nine months earns you at least the honor of naming them.

Most importantly, I had faith in my wife, who had dealt with her own given first name for years. Like her mother, Billie Gail, my wife, Joey Michelle, was given a traditional boy name as a first name followed by a traditional girl name -- it's a southern thing -- though her mother goes by Gail.

Joey tells the stories of teachers growing up who, going over the list of kids in class the first day, would insist that she couldn't be Joey because that was a boy's name. Shortly after we began dating in college, when she was 22, Selective Service began sending her increasingly aggressive letters, insisting that as a man in the United States she must register for the draft or be arrested. Finally she sent multiple photos of herself and a copy of her driver's license with a note that read: "Notice the 'FEMALE' under gender!" They stopped sending letters after that.

For son No. 1, Joey decided we would use my last name and that she'd try to find an Irish or Gaelic name like mine for the first name. An Irish name book that my aunt, Honey Hamill, sent Joey led her quickly to Declan.

"That's great," I said when she first suggested it. "You know whose real first name that is? Elvis Costello."

Elvis is one of our mutual favorite rock-n-roll artists and his given name is Declan MacManus. That clinched it, though Joey mulled it over a while longer.

At one point I suggested using the Gaelic spelling of Declan, which is Deaghlan or Deaglan, but Joey shot it down: "Are you kidding? No one will be able to pronounce it."

I had dealt with that issue. Growing up in Sewickley in the 1970s and 1980s, few of my teachers got Sean on the first try until I was in high school and it had become more common. It didn't help that there were two or three other Shawns in or around my class going through Quaker Valley School District. By the time teachers got to Sean, it came out phonetically as "Seen" or "See-ann" or "Shane." I don't know why, but it never bothered me. I'd raise my hand, correct them, and that was it. It may have even helped teachers remember my name more quickly than the other kids.

Flash forward two and a half years after the naming of Declan and Joey was searching yet again for a Gaelic first name for a boy. She kept coming up with names that when shouted across a house -- as it surely would be -- sounded too much like Declan: names with two syllables that ended with a vowel and either an "m" or an "n" like Liam and Keenan.

It was Aunt Honey who rushed in, suggesting Tadhg, which means "poet" or "philosopher" in Gaelic.

I threw it out there for Joey to consider, fully expecting the "hard to pronounce" shoot-down, but she liked it enough to think about it. And it stuck, surprisingly.

I liked it immediately. It's distinctive, has a cool history and meaning, and it sounded a bit tough for a boy who would be a younger brother like me and have to deal with his big brother.

No one really knows how any individual child will deal with his or her name, what anguish it might cause, what motivation it might provide. The best we can do is provide them with the character and sense of self to deal with it.

By most accounts, Tadhg, if nothing else, has character. And I've seen that sense of self, even at 5. If he sees an adult struggling with his name, he'll volunteer on his own -- since he has heard his parents say it so often -- "It's like 'Tiger' but no '-er.' That's how you say it."

Real Kindergarten officially began this month, and the pace of introductions to adults who don't know him went up exponentially overnight. There are art, gym and computer-lab teachers, librarians, lunch room employees and office secretaries. He's meeting all of them for the first time -- on his own.

I can't really know how Tadhg's tangled name will affect him. But I'm betting on that character.

opinion_commentary

Sean D. Hamill is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (shamill@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2579).


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