Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Just call me Ishmael

I heard this report on NPR about people who use fake names at Starbucks, when they order coffee.  These aliases are now known as "Starbucks names".

Working at a research university, I interact with a lot of Chinese immigrants with "English names".  Somebody named Liu Mao will name himself Louis or something else that starts with an L.  To make it really interesting, some of them re-name themselves with names that don't start with the same letter, so Liu Mao will call himself Bob, or Tony.  It gets really exciting when we need to get our hands on Bob Mao, and can't find him, beecause all of his USC paperwork is under Liu Mao, and we don't know that.  When we look up all the employees named Mao who work in science, we usually find oursleves throwing our hands up, in defeat.


On the one hand, I am one of those Euro-centric types who butchers the pronounciation of Chinese names.  I try not to: and put a good deal of effort into correct pronounciation.  I'll repeat their name out loud a few times, in front of them, until I get it right.

On the other hand, you've got to admit that the gap between Mandarin or Cantonese and Indo-European languages is incredible. 

It isn't only Chinese immigrants who invent English names for themselves.  I have a Hungarian friend named Imre.  I've known him since the 1960s.  His wife is German-descent midwestern Lutheran, so she named him Jim. 



Where the hell did she come up with that one?  Here's the problem:  Imre isn't one of those ethnic names that cannot be translated into English--unlike my middle name, Geza.  There is no English equivelant of Geza.  On the other hand, the country that you live in is named after Imre.  That's right: 15th century Italian mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci--the guy who realized and mapped North and South America as two continents separate from Asia--was named after a Hungarian prince named Imre a.k.a. Emery, whose claim to fame is that he was killed in a hunting accident by a wild boar (This happened to a lot of important Hungarian leaders--it's the Central European equivelant of crashing your Porsche at 100 mph).  Remember Emery Worldwide?  They got gobbled up by Brown.

So, why didn't Imre's wife re-name him Emery?  Well okay, to be fair, as far as I know, she named him Jim, he didn't come up with that, himself.  Either way, the birth of Jim is a mystery.  James in Hungarian is "Jakab"--pronounced 'yuck-uhbb' (the biblical names James and Jacob are essentially the same name, so Jacob in Hungarian is Jakob, pronouced 'yuck-obe').   Imre isn't even hard to pronounce.  Say "email" out loud.  Now, say "repetitious" out loud.  Now, chop the "ail" out of "email" and the "petitious" out of "repetitious", and say "Eem-reh".

Do you need me to drive you to the hospital, to fix your broken tongue?

Okay, so what should my Starbucks name be (don''t ask my wife--she is sure to suggest "Butthead")?  I was thinking "Wasp Killer" or "Hornet Slayer", after I spent Monday on my patio with a fly swatter, killing the yellowjackets that were trying to build a nest under the roof.  When I smacked one of them with the flyswatter, his body went flying across the patio, while his tail stayed behind, impaled on the flyswatter's grid.  That stinger is something to behold.


Anonymous said...

I think your name should be Birdkenstock like a bird-shue.

WHat do ou think?


Thomas Geza Miko said...

The other two suggestions that I liked were "Smew" and one that I shortened to "Nuke".

Smew is a kind of duck that is native to Eurasia, and each time one shows up in California, I get stuck in Claremont, and can't chase it.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Wu Tai. Because if the Chinese can call themselves "Bob" why can't we do the same to them?