Why I Don’t Shorten My Name

My name is Jehanzeb.  It’s not hard to pronounce.  It’s three syllables, pronounced Ja-han-zayb.  “Ja” like in “jump,” “han” like “Han Solo,”  and “zayb,” rhymes with “Gabe.”  See, I even made a funny little mnemonic device to help you remember it easier.  Yes, it is a South Asian Muslim name, and no, I don’t go by “anything shorter.”  Not “J,” not “Z,” and especially not “John.”

Before I continue, I want to stress that I like nicknames.   My close friends have nice nicknames for me (you know who you are!) and it doesn’t bother me when they address me that way. My frustration in no way comes from them, but rather from people who, unlike my friends, consistently cannot pronounce my full name and refuse to make any efforts to listen, learn, or remember after I correct them.  My friends who address me by nicknames know how to pronounce my full name while others just want to alter it for their own convenience and don’t care if they’re offending or disrespecting me.

Interestingly, I notice this happens more often at one particular location than others (and I’ll refrain from sharing too many details, but it’s located in the predominately White Judeo-Christian suburban area I live).  Most of my college professors and classmates get it after a day or two (if I’m lucky, they’ll know how to pronounce it correctly on the first day), and even those who struggle with it longer eventually figure it out.  But, my God, if I were get paid every time someone butchered my name in the past 5 or 6 months, I think I would be free of a few car payments.

Quite often, when people look at my name, they squint their eyes and ask me how to pronounce it.  I don’t mind if they’re genuinely interested in learning its origin or how to pronounce it, but it really ticks me off when people do one of, but not limited to, the following: give me the “Holy s@#!” face, widen their eyes, drop their jaws, laugh for their own amusement (like, “ho ho ho, that’s an unusual name, I don’t know how in the world I’m going to say that”), and then ask, “Do you go by anything shorter?”  It still surprises me that they don’t realize how offensive that question is.  Stop and think about it.  You are asking someone if they go by a nickname just because you have a tough time saying it.  The implication is that your name is incompatible with the Western country you live in and that you – an ethnic and/or religious minority – must “accommodate” the privileged dominant culture by anglicizing your name.

All through grade school, I had an anglicized nickname, which I have, um, outlawed now.  Every year, on the first day of classes, my teachers would butcher my name during role call, “Jahazabah?” “Jihaan-sib?”  Kids would laugh, then the teacher would (haha, get a load of this foreigner’s name!).  I would raise my hand (although I didn’t need to since I was the only brown kid most of the time) and say, “You can just call me [outlawed nickname].”  My teacher would have a “Thank God” look on his/her face and then say, “Oh ok, that’s easy.”  Yayy, the brown kid has an “American name, “we’re all happy now.

Over the years, I learned that anglicizing my name didn’t stop me from being stereotyped or harassed by ignorant White people.  People would still insult me based on my skin color and ethnicity.  Prior to 9/11, kids would call me “Apu” (you know, the fake Indian character from “The Simpsons” who is horribly voiced by a non-Indian?).  Other times, they would call me “black” in a derogatory manner, or “jungle man,” or ask me ignorant questions just to mess with me, “Are you a prince like Aladdin?”  After 9/11, I was called “Osama,” even with my silly nickname.  Changing my name just to “fit in” did not change my skin color, my ethnicity, my religion, or the fact that my parents spoke with an accent.  In the early post 9/11 years, I reflected on my nickname (among other things in my past) and felt that I was trying to hide who I was.

That is when I started to go by my real name.  The name that my parents gave me, the name that links me to my Muslim and Pakistani background and has actual meaning: “Beauty of the world” (Jehan = world, zayb = beauty).  In my freshman year of college, I noticed that no one in the class scoffed or laughed at my name when it was mispronounced by the professor.  This made me more comfortable to teach him how to say it correctly.  More than anything, it surprised me that my real name is not hard to pronounce and White non-Muslims can actually say it!  Throughout grade school, I was conditioned to think my name was impossibly difficult, but now it’s really nice to hear people outside of my ethnic and religious background say it right!

Every once in a while, I hear some people (and including some who are fellow people of color) say, “But Jehanzeb, you have to understand that they’re not used to your name,” or “Your name is not a common one, that’s why I’m asking,” or “we have to make things easier for other people.”  Um, believe me, I understand my name is uncommon to a lot of people and I anticipate mispronunciations any time I meet new people, apply for a job, start another semester at school, etc.  It doesn’t bother me when people get it wrong the first time, but what bothers me is when people think it’s okay to assume that I go by another name (other than the one my parents gave me!) just because I’m living in America.

Some people even get offended when I tell them I don’t go by anything shorter than my real name.  Seriously?  Does it kill you that you can’t call me by a nickname?  Do you feel discriminated or oppressed by a brown man just because you can’t make a name up for him like he’s your pet or child?  Do you go home and lose sleep over the fact some brown guy told you to address him by his full name?  If I went by another name, I would have told you already.  It would be on my name tag at work, it would be at the top of my test papers, but it’s not; my real name is, so please address me by that.  If you have a tough time pronouncing it, then just ask.  I won’t bite.

As I said, my name has meaning.  It is important to me and I am proud of it.  I should not be perceived or treated like a “cultural outsider” just because I want to be addressed by it.  I have the right to be called what I want to be called just like everyone else.  If you so badly want to give me a nickname, then get to know me, let’s chat, hang out, and become good friends.  Then you can call me whatever you want ;)


15 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Shorten My Name

  1. I feel exactly the same way… it’s one thing if my friends shorten my name but quite another if a stranger does it because they’re too lazy to learn how to pronounce it properly.. like yours, its not common but not hard to say either :)

  2. Tracey says:

    Another great post [ the one on Jesus(pbuh) and the poem were also excellent]. It reminds me of this incident (I thought these things only happened as satire): http://www.nowpublic.com/world/asian-american-names-are-too-hard-deal-says-rep-brown.


    I never cease to be amazed at the sense of entitlement some people have and the defensiveness they display when called out on it. Not only do they get upset someone refuses to alter their name for them, but they become even more upset if corrected on the pronunciation (goodness forbid it happen more than once), or will even completely disregard the comment and continue to purposely mispronounce/shorten the name.
    I’ve met several people who go by other names or allow mispronunciations to slide for various reasons, but expecting someone to do so for your convenience is beyond ridiculous.
    And I like the mnemonic device. A Vietnamese friend of mine had to do the same thing by finding a word his name rhymed with. It has what in English would be considered a silent g at the end, and a short vowel in the middle. When a lot of people said it they would pronounce the g and elongate the vowel. I unfortunately pronounced it that way for several months before he gave me the rhyme.

  3. genevievedusquesne says:

    Awesome, now I know how to pronounce your name.

    You know, I doubt someone would get inordinately pissed off if a dude named Christopher or Jonathan (or something similarly long, yet anglophone) said that they preferred their full names rather than Chris or Jon. Yet those names have the same number of syllables as “Jehanzeb.” Seems that it’s only the so-called foreigners who are expected to change for everyone else.

  4. I know this is serious but it is also comical that people have such trouble, and says a lot for higher education. One of my older uncles had his name anglicized for him, as did most others, at primary school registration, from Alfeo, to Alfred. We never knew because we just called him the anglicized pronunciation of Alfeo which he went by.

    It was common to anglicize immigrant names which are now fashionable, Italian, Spanish, French, but that attitude should be a thing of the past. It really isn’t that hard, and people have learned to say more complicated first and last names. When nonplussed I usually just ask “how do you pronounce your name?” This happens even for “simple” names like Johnston (t pronounced or not?) Goldstein (stine or steen?)
    I also have a grand-uncle who botches all names, even really simple ones, eg Luke becomes Duke/

    The best is to do what you do, insist on them learning your name. You feel better, they feel better, and the true jerks are easier to identify.

    I was close on your name but had a couple of Gallicized vowels, especially as I have a niece name Jihane (Jehan). Thanks for the tutorial! Maybe you should make business cards and include it. I have a colleague who does that, as he is a “Charles Emerson Winchester III” type with an Eastern European Jewish last name that is routinely mispronounced.

  5. I like your post so so much,Jehanzeb :)
    I told my father about the post and that inspire him in some way about the name of publishing company that he attend to open it.

    at the first time I saw your name,I really did’t know what is mean.I remember I tried to send to ask you,but may be I failed ..

    so Thanks a lot.
    I love the meaning,the name and your decision to use your name and make others understand it and pronounce it correctly.

    Sarah Abdulnaser. :)

  6. aynur says:

    Well I’m glad now that I know how to pronounce your name, I was thinking it was pronounced something like jehan-zeb for some reason.
    I have heard of people with really simple sounding Turkish names being given American “nicknames” … and these are names with one or two syllables at the most. My husband said that they have asked him several times at work if they can call him something else, and he’s like NO. His name is short too. Geez.

  7. JenniferRuth says:

    I can see how incredibly frustrating it would be to have nicknames “forced” upon you because people are too lazy to put a little bit of extra work into pronouncing your name!

    My last name isn’t that common in the UK – teachers and other people used to mispronounce it a lot and I would correct them. I have had anyone never questioned my correction or suggest that I should make it easier. I bet this is because I am caucasian and this is an example of my white privilege :(

  8. Jay kactuz says:

    It is your name. Do with it what you want. I don’t have any problem with names.

    However, while you are complaining of “stereotyping” and “harassment” and “ignorant White people” I would like to consider what you and Muslims do. In case you don’t know, or more likely, you don’t care, Muslims persecute and discriminate everywhere they dominate. Where they don’t dominate, the whine and try to end the freedoms of non-Muslims.

    And yes, you (not you name) are incompatible with Western ideals. You are Muslim so you must submit the the values of the Quran and the man you call “prophet”. These are not the values of the West. I have nothing but contempt for Muslims that will not acknowledge the hate and violence found in the Quran, and the evil deeds of the man after whose name you say “Praise be upon him”.

    Oh yes, before you start the usual “ignorant infidel” crap, be aware that I probably have forgotten more about islam then you ever knew (except the Arabic – I’m too old).

    Well, I’m glad we cleared that up. So, have a nice day.


    • Jay,

      Wow. I’m going to leave your comment up here just to show my readers the kind of Islamophobic and ignorant people that exist out there.

      Your comment just came out of no where. You clearly just want to attack Islam and accuse Muslims of not being compatible here. What “usual ignorant infidel crap” are you talking about? Find me one sentence or comment that I made (or any of my Muslim friends made on this site) where that was said. Seriously, do you just make stuff up? lol.

      Please read the inter-faith message I’ve posted here. And, before you comment again, please read my comment policy. If you can’t be respectful and don’t care about coexistence, then you are free to express your hate about Islam and Muslims on Islamophobic/hate websites. It’s really disturbing the kind of hate you harbor for Muslims and Islam.

      Salaam (it means peace).

  9. MissKImberly says:

    Thank you for this post. It really struck a chord with me for two reasons. The first reason is my dear friend and old college roommate’s name is Suha (Su as in supper and ha as in hum), which is Muslim and means “Name of a Star”. All of the college professors pronounced it incorrectly. Most of them pronounced it Sue-ha and a couple actually asked her if she went by “Sue”. It made her completely crazy.
    The second reason is I have a popular name that is commonly shortened. My name is Kimberly and I don’t like being called “Kim”. I have struggled with it my whole life. I introduce myself to people as Kimberly and nine times out of ten people respond with “Nice to meet you Kim”. I always say “Actually I go by Kimberly”. Most people will remember during our first meeting and without fail the next time they see me they say “Hi Kim”. It is always entertaining to see the varied reactions when I correct them again. Some people are shocked and say “Oh I’m sorry”. Believe it or not some are actually offended and very sarcastically say “Oh sorry KimBERLY!” Seriously, I just don’t get it. Is it really that difficult to say the two extra syllables? Usually the people that apologize follow up with a comment like “Oh my sister, cousin, friend, aunt, is Kimberly and goes by Kim.” To which I say “Oh that’s nice for her.”
    Lately I’ve been getting so tired and frustrated with people shortening my name and then having to correct them. Some days I don’t bother anymore. Now that I’ve read your post I have new found inspiration to keep trying to be “Kimberly” exclusively. Oh, and by the way my friend Suha always calls me Kimberly =)

  10. Dreamchain says:

    It’s a beautiful name, if I can say that with you being a guy.

    I don’t really have anything else to contribute here. XD

  11. To be quite frank, when I first heard your name, I was amazed. No, not the “Holy s@#!” amazed but the being awed amazed XD. South Asians form around 50% of population of the UAE where I come from (to be quite frank, I feel it is MUCH more than that, but that’s what the statistics say lol), but I’ve so far never heard a name like yours. The “jehan” part was familiar to me but I just never heard about “Jehanzeb” and I thought it was pronounced the way it was spelled until you explained the “zayb” part here! Mashallah it has a beautiful meaning and I was intending to ask you about it.

    Your post kind’ve reminds me of my cousin’s experience in South Carolina (or was it North Carolina? I don’t remember) where she spent two years of her middle school. She and her parents have experienced a lot of racism from the people there. Her name is Alaa which means the bounties of God (the word repeatedly used in Surat Al Rahman) and a lot of people there would pronounce it as Allah lol. I guess to an untrained ear and to a culture that cannot pronounce guttural sounds and that tend to elongate vowels, I can imagine it must’ve hard for them. But I am rather surprised as to how people have difficulty pronouncing yours! The “Jahazabah” one really made me laugh out loud XD I instantly had an image of a stereotypical Southern young white man saying it! And I’m scratching my head as to how in the world does “Jehanzeb” turn into a “John”?? That’s just too random for me.

    In my case, I have a speech impediment in which I can’t pronounce the letter “R” (ironically the first letter of both my name and my brother’s AND Arabic does stress on “R’s” sometimes loool!!). Although it became more subtle as I matured (and luckily in Boston, they do not even pronounce “R’s” anyways) and most people do not notice it until I either say very particular words (which I avoid) or I tell them about it, there were still times when some people hear me pronounce my name as either Leema, Weema, or Veema or they’d say: “I can’t roll the “R” the way you do!” XD

    However, my speech impediment has resulted in me having a very “unique” accent; in fact, I don’t even have a solid accent XD when people hear me speak English, they can hear Gulf Arabic, South Asian, British, and American accents lol but there are people here in Boston who actually like it and may even assume that this is how people from the Emirates actually sound like!!

  12. anthrogeek10 says:

    I am a substitute teacher and at times, there are names I have challenges with and when a young person says, “Oh, just call me…blah, blah..”, I say, “Umm…no. Just tell me how to pronounce your given name and things will be fine.”

    While it is in a different context, it happened to me in Pakistan and they told me my name is too difficult (you know my given name is not difficult) so I was given the name Maryum. I was not offended. I really think they just wanted me to have a Muslim name and used the pronounciation problem as an excuse.

    Linguistically, everyone is used to speaking certain sounds common in the used language so I understand the difficulty saying certain things initially. I myself have a really difficult time saying certain Arabic sounds. My tongue muscles are not used to those sounds. Yes, it really is that simple. With experience, I am sure I can adapt.

    Back to you…..people can practice your name and I am sure they will adapt. It is your name. You should not expect any less of people than to call you by your name.


  13. I’ve had a similar sort of experience in life as well, I have a long name: it’s “Noorulann” , so growing up, most non-Muslim people have pronounced it like that. Of course, in Arabic, it’s meant to be pronounced “Noor-ul-ain.” My parents put dashes in my name, so people assumed that my first name was Noor, but I was like no, it’s Noorulann, so that made life so difficult.

    The funny thing is, throughout life, it’s been the MUSLIMS (I went to an Islamic high school) that have attempted to shorten my name to Noor or Noori, and the Non-Muslims have always, even now, at uni, called me by my full name. Like you, I’m proud that my name means something (light of the eyes), and although it takes a while for people to say, they know that I won’t let them shorten it.

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