Five letters and 38 years of this sh*t.
I can’t anymore. This is the day I break. Here you go world, here’s 38 years of shame, rage, and exhaustion dragon-breathing onto a digital page because of my unfathomably unpronounceable name. I woke up and chose phonetics and heaven help you all. Today I stop feeling bad about myself and start acknowledging that maybe all of you are the idiots instead and it feels good, it feels good to hit bottom. Do you know how to say it? Give it a try, maybe in your head. I bet you’re wrong. I’d bet quite a lot of my money you’re wrong.
I’m fresh out of smiles and reassuring arm pats. I can no longer shrug my way through “that’s okay, everyone mispronounces it!” to absolve someone else of their mistakes. I can’t put myself and my dignity lower on the life ladder than those who can’t listen, read, or repeat. I’ve born this burden since I learned how to say my name as a toddler and if she can do it, by god so can you.
At Starbucks, I’m Rebecca. That’s how tired I am of the cute little game of telephone that happens between me ordering and someone plunking a cup down on a counter with Shannon or Sheena written on the side—and the name they call out will be Christ knows what else. My mother gets very upset when I Rebecca in her presence. In her head, my name is easy, even effortless. If she could have crowdsourced even a little bit of data, she would have had some idea of how hard it was going to be to move through life with a name no one can say even when it’s said directly to their face first. I absolutely insist that my friends conduct the Starbucks Test before naming their children anything other than Steven or Molly. You need to know what you’re signing someone up for a lifetime of before you fill out a birth certificate. Oh, you love your baby? Prove it, bitch—order a latte. This isn’t some cute little “k” taking the place of the “c” in Marc. This is almost four decades of no one knowing who the fuck I am.
High school, college, and law school graduation. All three gave a diploma to Shawnee Keisler and that isn’t even remotely my name. Oh right, I forgot to tell you, I was so tired of people mispronouncing both my first AND last names that I adopted a new surname in rebellion. Silver is my grandmother’s maiden name and I’m quite confident in our society’s ability to pronounce a precious metal. If Natalie Portman can do it so can I goddammit.
First dates are hoot, I can assure you. I’ve learned that to avoid any public awkwardness that the bartender and the couple splitting fried brussels sprouts can overhear, I text the pronunciation of my name to my date in advance. If he gets it wrong later, I know my worth to him, and therefore his to me.
“Oh come on, your name’s not that bad, I’ve heard so much worse!”
Do you think that fucking helps? That more difficult names than mine are harder to say? No shit! My name shouldn’t be hard to say, that’s the fucking point. It’s five goddamned letters grouped in a way you’re all quite familiar with it’s not like I have a few spare “x”s and “z” thrown in like a mythology character. If anything, saying you’ve heard worse is telling on yourselves.
Do you want to know how this usually goes? Here, you deal with it for a change:
Hi, I’m Shani.
Shayna, nice to meet you!
Bear in mind this one happens when everyone can hear well. Take things to a music festival or crowded bar and we really start to have a good time.
What’s your name?!
Say that again?
SHAY-NEE, it’s SHAY-NEE
Jamie! Nice to meet you!
While I wish I’d kept a spreadsheet, Jamie is probably the most common result from me double-introducing myself as my actual name and the hamster wheel in someone’s brain spitting out what they think they heard. But there’s also Shane, Sha-NEE, Shan-EYE if we’re in Philly, Shanna, Laney, Amy, basically any letters you can put together that aren’t my name, someone will call me that. How I’ve not been called Bob at this point is the real miracle.
But more than any of these wrong answers, what’s really more likely to happen is just a slightly confused facial expression, a head tilted to the side like a retriever, and maybe a half-assed “sh” sound coming out like they’re tiptoeing into my name in case it’s made of lava. No one can say it until heavily coached. Do you understand me? No one.
It’s like my name is caught in their mouths, and they just can’t force it out. I sometimes wonder what message this has communicated to my subconscious my whole life, that no one can easily understand the simplest thing about me, my name. There’s also a massive amount of confusion between how simple my name is, and how hard it is, too. It makes me feel really bad, but I can’t get angry and annoyed or else I’m a bitch, so it’s more likely that I’ll just let people call me whatever they want.
I’ll tell you what else, they can’t remember it, either. Even if someone new is told my name, and repeats it back accurately, there is at least an 85% chance they’ll still call me Shawnee in an hour. I’ve had friends who have mispronounced my name after months of friendship. Do you know how much shame comes along with that? For 38 years?
It’s Shani. Shay-nee. Like “rainy” with a “sh.” That’s it. It’s honestly not that goddamned hard. I could keep myself small, sitting here wishing my parents had just opted for more phonetic spelling or, you know…something people could say out of their mouths, but I’ve been doing that my entire life and I’d like to give this responsibility to someone else to hold for awhile.
It’s no longer my job to shoulder the shame of other people saying it wrong. I don’t think I can do that anymore. I don’t think I can make other people feel better about fucking up something that belongs to me for any more of my days. I think I just ran out.
Did you know your own name can exhaust you? Make you dread social situations? Imagine first days of school for me, then little aftershocks any time we had a substitute teacher. Something that looks so simple has been causing me public shame for 38 years. It’s like a mouse scaring an elephant, truly. Bet the elephant would call me Janey.
Name your kid somethin’ nice. Do it for me. Name them something that won’t turn them into an english teacher in public. Give them a name that will help them introduce themselves with confidence, rather than dread. Otherwise you’re giving your kid a lifetime of fear around meeting new people and being the center of attention for any reason. Names are important, they’re the first thing anyone will ever know about us. The world has known a lot of things about me, but how to say my name has never been one of them.
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster. You can read all her Medium essays here.