‘Unusual’ Names in Life and Fiction: Part 1

I wrote this post (part 1) in December 2017, and then never got around to writing part 2, leaving this draft to gather dust in the unpublished corner of this blog. However, this is relevant to a discussion that occurred last week, so I finally decided to blow the dust off this draft and post it.


I read the thought provoking essay “Let’s Talk about Characters with Difficult Names”. I want to write my own reflection on characters who have ‘difficult’ names. But first, as a preface, I want to talk about my own life experience.

First of all, my name is Sara. Legally, ‘Sara’ is my middle name, which means that it appears on some of my official documents, and not on others. It is a biblical name, which means it’s a common name in any society where Abrahamic religions are widespread. I do use the spelling which is less common in the United States (the more common spelling is ‘Sarah’). I also do not use the common American pronunciation – I use the ‘a’ as in ‘father’ not the ‘a’ as in ‘care’. It has proven useful in my life that I use a less common pronunciation and spelling because it allows for disambiguation from people who use the more common American spelling/pronunciation.

However…

If you were to ask me what is the ‘correct’ way to pronounce my name, my answer would be ‘modern Hebrew pronunciation’. The modern Hebrew ‘r’ sound is different from the American English ‘r’ sound (the modern Hebrew ‘r’ sounds like the French ‘r’). However, I don’t expect the people around me to pronounce the ‘r’ correctly, and I will straight up tell them that it’s okay for them to use the American English ‘r’. Heck, when I introduce myself, I usually use the American English ‘r’ to simplify my interactions. In other words, even ~I~ usually do not use what I consider to be the ‘correct’ pronunciation of my name.

I do not want to reveal my legal first name here. However, even before I went to Taiwan, I sometimes chose to introduce myself as ‘Sara’ rather than use my legal first name. This sometimes led to situations where people knew me as ‘Sara’, then they found out my legal first name, and they say things like “hey, ‘Sara’ is not your real name!” (Of course ‘Sara’ is my real name. Though I would not say that a name has to be on a birth certificate to be ‘real’ it is also true that ‘Sara’ appears on my birth certificate).

In Taiwan, I at first introduced myself using my legal first name, since I wanted to conform to what is written on my legal documents. However, my employer in Taiwan asked me to use ‘Sara’ instead of my legal first name because it is easier for Taiwanese people to pronounce. Since I was already used to be addressed as ‘Sara’ I did not have a problem with this, so at my workplace in Taiwan everyone addressed me as ‘Sara’.

I never legally adopted a Chinese name in Taiwan. I have known Americans who did need to legally adopt a Chinese name in order to get something, and if I had decided to settle in Taiwan permanently, I would have probably needed to adopt a legal Chinese name as well. I do have an informal Chinese name, and that is the name I would have use if I ever need a legally recognized Chinese name. I personally never had a problem with this system, and I would have been willing to legally adopt a Chinese name if were necessary. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. However, even though it was never a problem for me, it has been a problem for other people (such as the indigenous people of Taiwan).

Outside of the workplace, how did Taiwanese people address me. I let them choose. If they wanted to call me ‘Sara’ I let them do that. If they wanted to call me ‘Shālā’ (that is the Sinicized form of ‘Sara’) I let them do that. If they wanted to call me by my informal Chinese name, I let them do that too.

Now, my family name…

I have a fairly unique family name. It is so unique that, the first time I ever put my name in a search engine (this was probably around the year 2000) one of the top hits was a fantasy story that someone posted online. That story is long gone from the internet, so now one of the top hits is Wookiepedia – because there is an obscure Star Wars character who shares my name. Yep, I have one of those ‘weird’ names that appears in fantasy & science fiction but not so much in real life (unless you are me, or one of my relatives who shares the same name).

Star Wars – the only major media franchise in the world where characters have family names like my family name.

How did I get such an obscure family name? Well, to begin with, it was an uncommon family name. Then my family immigrated to another country, and adapted the name to fit the local language, and then my mom immigrated to the United States, and adapted the name again. Hence the unique spelling and pronunciation. While I suppose there is now a ‘correct’ way to spell my family name since it’s now consistent across all of my documents (that was not always the case – when I was very young, my family name was spelled on way in certain documents, and spelled differently in different documents), there have been so many pronunciation changes within the last three generations that I don’t think there is a ‘correct’ way to pronounce my last name. Therefore, as long as the consonants are correct (since the consonants have somehow managed to stay the same) nobody is ever going to ‘mispronounce’ it.

To better explain what I mean, I am going to use a hypothetical example. Let’s say an English guy with the family name ‘Smith’ immigrated to a Chinese speaking society. He Sinicized his name to Sīmì​ (斯密) so that it could be written in Chinese characters and was easy for Chinese speakers to pronounce. He had children, and they grew up with the name ‘Sī​mì​’ because Chinese was their primary language. Let’s say there was another generation, and a person from this later generation immigrated to North America. Because they grew up with the name ‘Sī​mì​’ they use that name instead of ‘Smith’ in their immigration documents.

Yeah, that’s what happened to my family name.

While I do not want to reveal my family name, I will say this. The way it was written and spelled three generations ago could pass for a German name (I’m not sure if my current spelling and pronunciation would pass as German). How do I know? There was a branch of my family who lived in Germany during the Nazi regime, and they survived by hiding their Jewish heritage and passing as ‘Aryan’ Germans. Though they did not change their name, they succeeded, which means it is a name which did not make the Nazis suspicious. However, while that form of the name is more common than my form of the name, it’s still rare, even in Germany and Austria (and in Jewish communities). It’s so rare that we were able to re-establish contact with that branch of the family BECAUSE our names were so similar – the odds are fairly high that anyone with a family name that is even SIMILAR to my family name is some kind of relative.

Then there is my father’s family name.

My father does not like his last name. He does not hate it enough to go through the hassle of a legal name change, but he was determined to never pass on his last name to anyone else. He had an agreement with my mother that, if they had a daughter, she would take her family name, not his. I am their daughter, so that is why I have her family name. However, if they had a son, they agreed that their son would take … his mother’s maiden name. If he were to decide that it was worth changing his legal name after all, I know he would choose to use his mother’s maiden family name.

I don’t know exactly why my father dislikes his name so much. His response is usually ‘I don’t like it because I don’t like it’. But I have a speculation.

His family name is German in origin. It has been partially Anglicised. The partial Anglicization makes it easier for American English speakers to pronounce it, but it is still an obviously non-Anglo name. Weirdly, it now can pass for a Swedish name, which is why some people mistake my father for being Swedish-American (as far as I know, there is no Swedish ancestry in my family).

In the 19th century and early 20th century, German Americans experienced a lot of prejudice. They were more privileged than Italian Americans, but less privileged than French Americans. During World War I there were laws passed against using the German language (for example, some states banned the use of German in school), the Red Cross banned anyone with a German family name from joining, newstands and advertisers boycotted German language newspapers, which caused the collapse of the German language press (before World War I, German was the second most printed language in the United States), things like that. The ‘choice’ offered German-Americans was basically ‘assimilate into Anglo-American culture, and we’ll let you have white privilege, otherwise we’ll punish you.’ That is why, even though more Americans claim German ancestry than ancestry from any other ethnic group (including ‘English’ and ‘Irish’) one hears little about German-Americans these days.

My father’s family had never tried to hide or expressed shame about its German origin (and unlike many German-American families, my father’s family did not adopt an Anglo name), but … I don’t know.

My father’s mother was not German-American, and her maiden name was an Anglicized Scottish name. It is considered to be very ‘normal’ and ‘easy to pronounce’ for Americans. Maybe that’s why my father wishes that he had his mother’s maiden name instead of his father’s.

Anyway, that’s enough about me and my names and my family. In the next part I’ll talk about names in fiction.


And that is the end of what I wrote in December 2017. Part 2 was written in response to a discussion which has been happening online in the English-language wuxia fandom recently, and will be posted here in a few days, and yes, it is about ‘difficult’ names in fiction.

6 thoughts on “‘Unusual’ Names in Life and Fiction: Part 1

    • Heh. IIRC, Siggy had a similar reaction when I met him for the first time face-to-face (though I did not reveal right away that I was the person behind this blog – maybe he assumed that ‘Sara K.’ used the American pronunciation, and because I was using a different pronunciation, he assumed I was a different person).

      • It’s literally like you have a different name than we thought, it’s not “just” pronunciation? except you don’t, not really, so that leaves someone like me feeling just like I’ve been mistaken/wrong for years…

      • To be fair, I had never given any hint on this blog before how I pronounce ‘Sara’. And I’m used to answering to the typical American pronunciation because sometimes people don’t know / forget. Also, for a while I was known as ‘Sorry Sara’ because a) people kept on apologizing for mispronouncing my name and b) the first syllable of ‘Sorry’ sounds like the first syllable of my name (I wasn’t offended by being known as ‘Sorry Sara’, I thought it was funny).

  1. Yeah … while I have no personal encounter with the phenomenon, I know that loads of my fellow German countrypeople have difficulties pronouncing names outside their realm (starting with French and Polish, ending with Turkish, Arabic, Pashto …) and aren’t even interested to get it halfway correct. To the point where a family I know has started to pronounce their surname in the “wrong” way (with “c” as “k” instead of “j”).
    Transliteration also remains a problem, especially from Arabic. Hereabouts, you don’t have to German-ize names, but it’s entirely possible that a guy’s surname is spelled differently than his wife’s and child’s surname, depending on the person who did the legal processing.
    (Aside: There’s a bunch of German words serving in Star Wars, starting with the “Kessel” Run.)

    • Yes, in the United States, a lot of names are spelled based on what an immigration officer (who may have known almost nothing about their ancestral culture) transcribed over a hundred years ago.

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