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Mom in Translation: What's In a Name?

A mother navigates personal, cultural and social preferences when naming her first-born

Published on: February 09, 2017

Red name tag

I have an “unusual” name. What this means is that in most spaces I occupy, people struggle to say it, spell it or remember it. My name provided a constant source of embarrassment as a child — I’ve heard every variation mispronounced by fellow students and teachers. As an adult, I still cringe internally when people ask for my name; I brace myself for the well-meaning “that’s so pretty” — a polite way of saying I’m an “other” or “exotic — the awkward “I’ll never remember that” or the downright insulting “Do you have a nickname?”

One profoundly painful moment when my name was butchered occurred when I received an award for work I was very proud of. The person who announced my win introduced me as a “someone I am privileged to call a dear friend” and then pronounced my name as “RuShika.” The moment was so special, yet in memory now, it is diminished somewhat by knowing that even people I admire greatly, who consider me dear friends, would still not take an extra moment to say my name correctly.

Armed with this experience, I felt the weight of responsibility when it came to naming my son, who was born last year. Agreeing on a name for a child is difficult for any couple. Throw in navigating multiple cultures as immigrant parents, and the anxiety multiplies exponentially. 

Agreeing on a name for a child is difficult for any couple. Throw in navigating multiple cultures as immigrant parents, and the anxiety multiplies exponentially. 

As practicing Hindus, my husband and I wanted our son’s name to be derived from Sanskrit, like ours. We also knew our baby would spend his childhood outside of India, where we have our roots, so we wanted the name to be easy to pronounce. Our challenge was to find something at this seemingly-impossible intersection. 

Popular Hindu names for boys delivered by my cursory Google search were particularly difficult to pronounce by non-Hindi speakers. Aarav (pronounced "Aah-ruv" and which means "melodious music") was one favorite, but when I’d ask American friends to say it, they’d pronounce it like “Aaron.” As a journalist, inflections, pronunciations and spellings matter to me. Plus, imagine going through your whole life having your name pronounced incorrectly by practically everybody? There’s also new research to show that when teachers mispronounce ethnic names, it can have a lasting impact on a child. 

We were also set on having a name with a Sanskrit meaning. “Neel” was another name I liked that ticked most boxes, but the word basically means “blue” in Sanskrit. Many Hindus believe a name with a significant meaning imbibes those characteristics in the child. 

To add to our list, we observed that one-syllable foreign names fared well in the U.S. That left out one I liked, Samarth, which means "efficient." We also decided we would not name our baby after someone we already knew. We wanted him to have his own personality and karma. 

But we did make a compromise somewhere. Both sets of our parents picked mine and my husband’s names after our births. This practice is customary among Hindus, where a name is chosen after a priest identifies auspicious letters that correspond with the baby’s birth timing. But we figured, why complicate these already complex matters further? What if we couldn’t think of anything that matched our criteria, starting with those narrow list of letters, in those early sleep-deprived days? 

One concession made, but the list of “must-haves” was still long.

All this culminated in weeks of heated debate and confusion as I entered my third trimester. My husband and I would frequently play verbal volleyball, tossing names back and forth:

“How about Soham ("identifying with the universe")?” I’d say

“I know a Soham. How’s Aman ("trust")?”

“People will call him a-man,” I would retort.

“He will be a man…”

“Yeah, but it’s pronounced ‘ummm-un’. He’ll have people calling him the wrong name forever.”

Then one day, after weeks of impasse, we found the perfect piece of the puzzle.

“I thought of the perfect name in the shower today,” my husband said.

“OK, let’s hear it.”

“Veer. It’s one syllable, it’s practically fool-proof to pronounce. I don’t know any Veers. Do you?”

“I don’t.” I responded. “It’s perfect.”

And that’s how my son Veer, which means "brave, courageous warrior" in Sanskrit, was named.

In the short six months he’s been around, it has proven to be a success so far. I recently took him to a party. As I was leaving, a woman I had just met said: “Nice to meet you, Veer, and you too, Veer’s mom.” 

I can live with that.

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