favorite things 7: my name

my name

When I was a kid, I hated my name for two reasons:

1. Everybody said it wrong, and
2. It embarrassed me.

I’ve already covered the first part, the pronunciation issue, with a video. And thanks to a phone call I had yesterday, I can add a new one to the list of increasingly hilarious ways people mangle my name: a lady called and asked me to take a message for Jeremiah. Based on the information in the call, I knew she was actually calling for me (perhaps somewhere in the world there’s a dude named Jeremiah Earle, but he isn’t in my house), and for a moment at the beginning I tried to correct her and I thought she acknowledged my correction, but then she plowed on with all of her information for Jeremiah, so I eventually ended up agreeing to pass the word on to this fictional guy. Jeremiah. Right on. When I told Caryn about this, she asked how this could possibly be the first time in my life that anyone had ever called me Jeremiah, and I could only answer that I didn’t know. I mean, when you think about it, it is kind of amazing that I’ve lived this long and have only been called Jeremiah the one time. I wonder if it will be the last. Oh life, you are so full of mystery.

Anyway, having lived with my name as long as I have (nearly 30 years now), I’ve become accustomed to the mispronunciations and I don’t really care too much. I just correct people and move on. It’s the easiest way to handle things. But when I was younger, I was so bothered by the fact that people got my name wrong on such a frequent basis. Every time I entered a new class, every time there was a substitute teacher, I knew that without fail, I would have to explain how to pronounce my name. At some point in my life as a student, whenever I would see the person taking attendance frown and stutter “J-J-J” I would just raise my hand and say “Jamelah. Here.” I’m nice enough to put people out of their misery. When I was in fourth grade, we had a substitute teacher for an extended period of time, a couple of weeks I think, and he first screwed up my name, calling me Jamaylah. I corrected him: Jamelah. He repeated after me, obnoxiously drawing out the second syllable of my name, calling me Jameeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelah, and for some reason, this cracked up the other kids in my class. After that he started playing it for laughs, so every time he needed to use my name for anything — taking attendance or calling on me in class — he’d draw it out more and more and sometimes even sing it a little. One morning he was walking around the classroom while we students diligently worked on… I don’t know, whatever the hell it is you do in fourth grade, and he stopped at my desk. I told him to stop saying my name the way he did because I didn’t think it was funny, and I watched his face as he saw his dream of being a headliner on the fourth-grade comedy circuit shatter right before his very eyes and a single tear rolled down his cheek. Okay, really what happened is he apologized and didn’t do it anymore, so the story has a happy ending. It’s a small thing, and it’s probably even strange to remember it with such clarity, but I was a sensitive kid and I got picked on a lot, and having my name turned into a joke made me feel like I was a joke. I hated it. Over the years I’ve grown a thick skin, but it hadn’t developed yet when I was 9.

I hated my name then. Hated it. I just wanted some common, one-syllable name that people already knew how to pronounce and didn’t turn into a conversation piece. Which leads into the second point: I was embarrassed by my name. Usually what happens when I meet someone and go through the requisite pronunciation correction phase of the introductions, that person’s comment is something like “That’s pretty. What’s it mean?” Imagine, if you will, being a pudgy dork with poofy hair and crooked teeth and/or braces having to answer that your name means “beautiful” in Arabic. Because welcome to my late childhood/early adolescence! It was a grand time for oh, so many reasons, but admitting my name’s meaning was a singularly humiliating experience, because it felt both vain and incredibly untrue. Actually, if I’m being honest, whenever I have to tell someone what my name means, I still feel that same stab of embarrassment. I’m a lot more comfortable in my skin these days than I was back then, but there’s still a part of me that feels like admitting my name’s meaning is tantamount to saying “I’m so gorgeous!” complete with an exaggerated hair toss, which is, you know, totally obnoxious. The logical part of my brain knows that this isn’t true, that I’m just admitting a fact — this is what this word means — but logic never wins this battle and I always feel sort of embarrassed. Now you know. It’s an odd thing, having a name that’s a conversation piece, because after I say what my name means, I often end up having to explain how I got it, where my dad is from, Middle Eastern geography (“Yemen? Where’s that?”), blah blah blah, there are times when I wish I could just say “Hi, I’m Jamelah” and be done with it.

As I got older, I stopped using my name very much outside of formal situations where it was necessary, and instead preferred nicknames. I have roughly a billion nicknames — it’s a side-effect of being named Jamelah. They range from the simple and utilitarian — J, for instance — to the annoyingly cutesy — Jammy (hate it!) — to the charmingly creative — Jamboreelah (okay only one person has ever called me that, and it would seem wrong if anyone else did, but man, was it entertaining at the time) — and I answer to all of them. By this point in my life, I think perhaps I have been called every possible abbreviation of my name, so if you ever think you’ve come up with something new, chances are, you probably haven’t. When I was a freshman in high school, a friend of mine one day called me germ. “Hey Germ,” she said. It immediately stuck and everybody called me Germ. Everybody. It was pretty much my new name, and people even came up with nicknames of my nickname — Germelah, Germy, Germ Germy Germ — and that’s who I was for the next several years of my life. It eventually died out while I was in college, and though I can think of a few people who still call me that once in awhile, it was during that part of my life when I reverted back to using my given name. (Also, let’s not have a Germ revival. It had its moment in the sun, but it’s over.)

It’s a strange and sort of nerdy thing that made me finally like my name. I was a second-year college student and in one of my English classes, we were talking about metrical poetry and scansion. For a class exercise, each of us had to scan our own names and write out the meter on the board, and then we’d talk about whether we were right or not. I tried to make my name logically fit some kind of meter, but it of course doesn’t. I think I tried to make it be an iamb and an anapest, but when I had to read it aloud, the professor said “Well, that’s not right,” and I said “I know.” So it turns out that the real scansion of my name, first middle and last, is anacrusis, trochee, spondee. (If you don’t know what any of that means, fie for shame.) In that one-week unit in that class where we mostly read important things by Shakespeare and Milton and the like, I learned so much about how to listen to the rhythm of language, which is kind of cool. Maybe. My definition of cool is, I think, perhaps a bit skewed.

Anyway, after class, I had a conversation with this girl I had lots of conversations with over the course of my time at grand old Albion College, and we talked about the name scansion thing (English nerds, represent!) and she made an offhand comment that my name was so cool and that I was lucky to have a name that actually meant something. When it comes to realizing things, or at least thinking about things in a new way, I find that the little comments other people make often play some sort of role. I can’t say that I had some sort of grand epiphany or anything, but I began to accept my name, and over time, I got to where I liked it.

These days, even though I still answer to any of my myriad nicknames, and even the mispronunciations, since there are some people in the world who are never ever going to get it right and I’ve accepted it, I like my name and prefer it over any of its variations. That wouldn’t have been true a decade ago, but there’s a thing about accepting and growing into yourself, about owning your identity, all of it, the good things, the difficulties, the flaws, and maybe that’s a process that continues until the moment we breathe our last, but for me, it didn’t start until I made peace with that one seven-letter, three-syllable word.


10 thoughts on “favorite things 7: my name

  1. scansion is extremely cool. haters better recognize.

    i’m pretty jealous of your anacrusis. i’ve got a boring ol’ trochee that no one can spell or remember.


  2. I love your name, too. It is very pretty. Also, why did I never think of Jamelia Bedilia? That just came to me right now. I am a genius.


  3. Also, my home room teach in high school was named Mrs. Ling. A girl in my home room was named Miosha (not that hard, right?) and for four years, poor Miosha had to endure being called Mioshi (like the super mario brother’s character) every single day by Mrs. Ling.

    I wonder if Miosha is on facebook. I should try to find her and laugh about that now.


  4. My full name is Melody Dawn, and I joke that my dad had to stop her from naming me “Morning Song.” Hippies.
    I like my name for the most part, but what I find odd is that my name IS a word in the English language, yet people still have issues with it.
    I’ve seen people spell and/or call me:
    Melanie (there is no “D” here at all!)

    As an adult, I’ve garnered the nickname “Mel” which is cool, I don’t mind it. I ended up with that one syllable word. Easy peasy for everyone.

    The only think I was sad about was that for some reason those (t)chotskies that always have names engraved on it rarely ever had my name. Sure, lots of “Melanie”s, but hardly a Melody.

    I remember sadly walking away from so many key chains, piggy banks, or other random cheap memorabilia, empty handed.

    I’m sure I wouldn’t even have all that stuff now, though, if I had bought it. So no big loss, I suppose.


  5. I had a teacher who argued with me over the pronunciation of my name . She mispronounced my name during roll. I corrected. She looked at it again and said “No, it’s said this way.” I politely corrected her again. She looked at it again got a stern look on her face and, in turn, corrected me again. I was 9 and always taught not to argue with the ‘grown folks’ so I sat nodded, and dropped it. She mispronounced my name for 2 solid months.


  6. Ooh, it burns my ass when adults try to argue with kids over something like that.

    Jamelah, I’m glad you’ve come to like your name. It totally fits you, to the point where I can’t imagine you being called anything else.


  7. My younger sisters name is also Jamelah and when we were kids she hated the name so much she would ask our mom like every day to change her name to Christal. Now that she’s older she loves the name and with her 1st baby on the way I hope she gives her baby a name with meaning just like hers.


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