The Name Nazi Defied
22 May 2004
Some time ago I become known as the “Name Nazi” at ZUCC, the school in Hangzhou where I used to teach. Allow me to explain.
If you know anything at all about teaching in China, you know that Chinese students usually have English names. You also know that the names they choose are often ridiculous, bizarre, and/or funny. A few real-life examples: Fantasy (boy), No-No (girl), Snoopy (girl), Icy Cat (boy), Shiny (girl).
After grinning and bearing it for two years, I decided not to put up with these names anymore. When students I taught had ridiculous English names, I told them they had to change their name. They would often protest, saying they had used the name for years already. I would tell them, “well, you can keep it, but you can’t use it in my class. Pick a real name.” Then I would hand them a big long list of popular baby names that they could choose from.
I would try to win them over with reason. My reasons are below.
Why Choosing a Silly English Name is not a Good Idea
- If you ever go overseas, you will be laughed at. You’ll think it’s funny at first, but you’ll eventually realize your English name is stupid and change it. Why not sooner than later? Save yourself the grief.
- How people are named in a language is a part of the culture. By ignoring this process, you are completely disregarding a part of the culture. While this may not be outright offensive to native speakers, it certainly isn’t impressive. Why not take the chance to learn about the culture of the language you’re studying?
- Names are chosen in a certain way. We choose names from baby name books, relatives, movie stars. We do not choose names from dictionaries or take the names of cute cartoon characters. Just as Chinese people would never choose a name like 孙悟空 or 烤面包 for their babies, you shouldn’t do it in English either. It’s not impossible to create a good English name, but it’s also not an easy thing to do, and if you’re not a native speaker, you probably cannot judge what sounds good and what doesn’t.
- Names are a kind of vocabulary. When you hear “Mary” you know instantly that it’s a woman’s name because you learned it long ago as a woman’s name. You know it’s not a verb, or an adjective, or any noun other than a person. It’s firmly in your “name vocabulary.” The more English names you hear with frequency, the bigger your “name vocabulary” grows. This is an important part of your English development. Your classmates’ English names should all be contributing positively to your “name vocabulary,” not junking it up with ridiculous non-names.
So those are my reasons. That’s why I’m the Name Nazi. People say I take the issue too seriously, but honestly, you really do get tired of the stupid names after a few years, and my class is not playtime. I’m a serious teacher, so I expect my students to take learning English seriously in my class. And that includes names. We have fun in my classes, but not by calling each other stupid English names.
Flash forward to last week. Gwyneth Paltrow recently had a baby girl and named it Apple. Apple!!! What a dumb name! (Other people agree with me on this one.) “Apple” is one of the non-names I used to forbid during my tenure at ZUCC, and for some reason Chinese girls used to looove to choose that name. And now Gwyneth is directly attacking my efforts! Arrgh!
At my new job I continue the mission of the Name Nazi. Many of these Chinese kids get their English name in kindergarten. I’m making sure none of the teachers are assigning ridiculous names (and oh, you better believe they were). The source I use for “good names” is the Social Security Online Baby Name page. It’s great.
Speaking of names, I recently discovered a new Japanese band with a pretty cool name (keep in mind the guys who named the band are not native speakers of English). Asian Kung-Fu Generation. No, you haven’t had enough of emo, because Japan is not through with it yet! They have pretty cool retro style artwork on their CDs too. Check out this song called 君という花 (A Flower called You).