Why Having an Unusual Name Can Be Traumatic
“When I put my hand in the air the professor stared at it, expecting a different color. ‘You’re Jessinta?’ she asked, incredulous.”
By Jessinta Smith, Suffolk Community College
In case you didn’t see it at the top of the page, my name is Jessinta.
You pronounce it Jess-sin-tah, but I normally just tell people to call me Jess. I do this because most people butcher my name, but also because having a “different” name causes people to gawk. Despite it being one of the few things in your life that you don’t choose for yourself, an untraditional name will shape the first 15 minutes of every interaction you’ll ever have.
Without fail, atypical names lead to time-consuming nonsense that you’ll have to deal with for the rest of your existence, the trauma of which may lead to your reincarnation as ghost that haunts your gravestone, yelling “It’s NOT JusSANTA! I didn’t wear a big red suit! It’s JesSINta!” Or at least that will probably happen to me.
The worst situation you will face is the beginning of a new semester. You will know when the professor gets to your name because there will be an extended pause, and then they will swallow and begin to attempt pronouncing it. Depending on how inept this highly educated human is at articulation, it may take you a few moment to realize that it’s your name they’re choking on.
Once you grasp that it is your title, you will quickly pipe up to help.
“It’s Jessinta, just call me Jess.”
They won’t listen and will insist that they get it right.
This will continue until the last day of the semester when suddenly, your instructor has learned the art of pronunciation and says your name correctly. Everyone will applaud at this point. You will sit there forcing a smile.
Another rite of passage for the untraditionally named is the special brand of racism that you will encounter. I have been asked if my name is the Spanish version of Jessica, which it is not. My name is Greek, which I am not. It sounds “not white,” which I am.
I am mostly Italian and Russian, with a hint of Native American. I have relatively fair skin with naturally brown hair and brown eyes. I’m white, and were it not for my name, there would be no question of my whiteness.
Once you hear Jessinta though, you probably think that I’m not white. Three times in my life, in fact, someone has told me that my name is “not a white person’s name.” Two have been in professional settings, and one was at a friend’s house when I was ten years old. Each time, the person notifying me of the invalidity of my name was white.
The first time was when I told a friend my first name, which she thought was “so cool.” She called her mother into the room, exclaiming the newly learned secret. Her mom then made a face. “Well, that sounds like such a…black name.” My parents didn’t allow me back.
The second time was when my boss was quitting his job. “So where does your name come from?” he asked. I was only sixteen, so I didn’t have a snarky answer queued up yet. “To be honest,” he admitted, “when I first read your application, I thought you would be African American or Latina.” I gritted my teeth. “Yeah, I get that a lot.”
The final time was in college. A southern-sounding professor flew over my name without a pause, because she thought Jessinta was Latina. “Essinta? Yessinta? Is there a Yessinta?”
When I put my hand in the air the professor stared at it, expecting a different color. “You’re Jessinta?” she asked, incredulous.
“It’s Jessinta, just call me Jess,” I responded. Later, she asked that I stay after class because she wanted to talk to me. “So where does your name come from?”
If you have a rare name, this is a question you are going to be asked a lot. Most of the time, you’re going to lie and say you don’t know where it came from because the answer isn’t the romantic one everyone is looking for. But you will lose your temper one day. Today is that day.
“Drugs. My name comes from my mom doing a shit ton of drugs.” This is the answer that stops people from keeping you after class and wasting your time. It shuts everyone up and forces them to leave you alone.
If you’re lucky, telling inquirers about your mom will cut that mundane 15 minutes down to 10. It’s too personal and makes people feel uncomfortable, which means an abrupt end to the normal line of questioning.
As a result you will learn to appreciate the small things, by which I mean the amazing savants who correctly pronounce your name on the first try.
So far, that list consists of only Greek and Spanish professors.
I adore anyone who can gracefully pronounce my name without linguistic missteps, because they are the people who remind me that it’s beautiful. When people are constantly slaughtering your name, it easy to forget how stunning it is, so the few people who say it correctly are precious to you. You will remember them your entire life.
As the owner of a peculiar name, the worst experience you can undergo is the result of having a nickname. As I said earlier, people call me Jess. Generally I don’t tell people my real first name because of the hassle, which can lead to them assuming that my full name is actually Jessica.
Anyone who was a shy child with an odd name will tell you that correcting an adult’s mispronunciation is a daunting task. You have to look at a grown person and say, “My name is Jessinta. Not Jessica. I said to call me Jess.”
Then you go into the giant carousel of questioning and oftentimes you go along with Jessica just to avoid the trouble. Then your mom will pick you up and ask why everyone is calling you Jessica. She will get angry and call everyone an idiot for assuming things, and you will leave embarrassed but relieved. Love you, ma.
Your name will be a huge pain in the ass, but it is yours. When people mispronounce your name you will find your name ugly, but when it is said correctly everyone will agree that it’s beautiful.
You will learn to appreciate different types of people based on whether or not they understand your plight. You will love the simple pleasure of your name being pronounced correctly on the first try, and you will always stand out in a room. Plus your name grabs everyone’s attention, whether written down or spoken.