It’s the first day of school. I’m sitting in a classroom in crisp, new clothes, at a desk as yet uncluttered by snack crumbs and stray papers. Fourth grade is here and I’m ready to kick its ass.
Then our new teacher starts calling roll, going alphabetically by last name. Jessica. Ashley. Jimmy. Daniel. Ryan. Another Jessica. A familiar anxiety builds in me. Tina. Kyle. Jessica again. It’s the ’90s.
Then, right on cue, I hear it: a break in the steady cadence of names. A long, uncomfortable pause. The teacher takes her best shot.
So much for my kickass year. “Umm, no, it’s…”
My name is Schuyler. My parents picked it out of a mid-80s Parade magazine article about actress Sissy Spacek, who had a daughter of the same name. But they declined to check the pronunciation, and decided I was “Shy-ler.” Pretty much everyone else, including Sissy Spacek, the town in New York, and the trio of sisters in the musical Hamilton pronounces it “Sky-ler.” I’ve been informed more than once that this is the “correct” way to say my own name. “Shooler” is the second-most-common guess. “Squayler” is an occasional wild card.
Surely, since writing and speaking became the two tentpoles of language, people have been mispronouncing each other’s names — sometimes as honest mistakes, but plenty often out of inconsiderate laziness. We call the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun “King Tut” because really, who can be bothered? In America, a country built by waves of immigration from all over the world, the difficulty of pronouncing different-sounding names has been an ever-present issue, and for much of our history, it’s the name-ee who has had to accommodate.
In a single morning, I’ve been called “Sky-ler” by my dog’s vet, the cashier handing me my lunch salad, and the office administrator at my son’s daycare.
At Ellis Island in the early 20th century, new arrivals changed their surnames if they didn’t roll uncomplicatedly off the American tongue. Generations later, growing up in a predominantly white, Southern town, I knew plenty of Asian immigrants who, voluntarily or not, changed their names to avoid the hassle. I started ninth grade with a boy newly from Hong Kong named Rui, pronounced with a sound that had no obvious parallel in English. By November, he was going by Ray. It’s a practice that goes beyond U.S. borders — in China, many corporate workers have “English” names to make doing global business easier. Call a customer service line for your cell phone carrier, and you’ll likely be talking to someone in India who, nevertheless, introduces himself as Steve.
Recently, education organizations have taken a harder look at this Anglocentric trend. Studies have shown that frequently-mispronounced names can make ESL and minority students feel isolated, hamper their performance at school, and make them ashamed of their families and heritage. Experts now widely recommend that teachers take the time to get it right. “There are a variety of complicated Anglo names that we as a collective society have figured out how to say properly (like former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and actors Renée Zellweger and Zach Galifianakis),” writes education researcher Punita Chhabra Rice, in Education Week. “There is no excuse not to try.”
As society has become more mindful of diversity, the topic has cropped up in pop culture, as well. When the young actress Quvenzhane (Kwuh-VEN-jah-nay) Wallis emerged on the scene in 2012, some reporters found her first name so daunting that they called her “Miss Q.” More recently, Hasan Minhaj (HA-sun MIN-haj), an established comedian who was a cast member on The Daily Show and hosts his own Netflix series, began insisting — most famously on Ellen — on the more authentic, South Asian pronunciation of his name, rather than the more Americanized one with which he had moved through his early career.
Being called “Sky-ler” over and over again is a small, dumb problem by comparison, unencumbered by cultural baggage. (What’s whiter than having a name picked out of Parade?) But it’s a small, dumb problem that comes up every first day of school, every job interview, every few days in the first year or so of that new job, depending on the size of the office. In a single morning, I’ve been called “Sky-ler” by my dog’s vet, the cashier handing me my lunch salad, and the office administrator at my son’s daycare.
This can’t help but affect how I interact with others. Very often, the first time I speak to someone, I’m correcting them, which means overriding the hardwired programming that compels women to be agreeable. Being corrected by a total stranger is not a nice feeling, I realize as I’m doing it. So I’ll overcompensate with giggling and apologetic rambling.
I could give up, I sometimes think. I could change the spelling of my name to something more phonetic. I could become “Sky-ler” — shout a cheerful “that’s me!” to the next butchered Starbucks order and never look back. My family will understand.
But the thing is, I like my name the way it is. Spelling it “Shyler” feels far too flimsy. The “K” sound in “Sky-ler” sounds too harsh. In some small way, constantly having to reaffirm such a basic part of my being makes it a little easier to hold my ground and stick up for myself on other things. Likewise, some politicians have zeroed in on name snafus as an easy means to show they have a backbone: see early Democratic primary darling Pete Buttigieg (BOOT-edge-edge), who made it the focus of a video announcing his presidential exploratory committee.
An unusual name comes with a few surprising social upsides, too. It’s an easy way see whether people are genuinely interested in me: compulsively networking types, who learn one superficial fact about each person they meet and act like everyone’s best friend, rarely get my name right. (I worked with someone like this who, in five years, never mastered the pronunciation.) On the flip side, I have no hard feelings for casual acquaintances who get it wrong. If I met a guy named named Jacob who pronounced his name “Jah-COOB,” I’d flub it, too. But I notice and appreciate when people get it right.
And if someone steps in and corrects the record for me? That’s a pal.
Back in fourth grade, I start my usual spiel. “It’s…”
“SHY-LER!!” It’s my classmates, many of whom I’ve known since Kindergarten, chiming in behind me. As far as they know, how else would you say it?
Tell us about your name