What’s in a Name I

One of the interesting pastimes during pregnancy is choosing a name for the baby. Since we can’t be sure about the gender of the baby, we have to consider both boy and girl names.

The question then comes down to what sort of names to choose. Most people choose names either from their own culture or the culture they are surrounded by. For immigrants, the question can sometimes be quite important. I have heard arguments on both sides. On the one hand, a name in one’s native language is one of the basic links of one’s child to a culture they won’t exactly be part of. On the other hand, giving a strange (to the community one has settled in) name to one’s child can point the child out as an outsider.

We don’t care much about these issues, but there is a related problem that’s important. It is pronunciation. We want to pick a name that’s simple, beautiful as well as pronouncable by both Pakistanis and Americans.

The emphasis on pronunciation comes from the way my name has been distorted all my life. My name is “Zakaria” (زکریا). It’s a Hebrew name from the Old Testament. It is also found in the Quran as the Prophet Zakaria who was the father of John the Baptist (یحیی) [Yes, I know there are some differences between the Bible and Quran about my namesake]. Because it is a Biblical name, there are lots of different spellings and pronunciations. That, by itself, is not so problematic.

My pronunciation problems started in Pakistan over a confusion about the meaning of my name and some features of Urdu. My name means Yahweh (God) remembers. Now, remembrance of God is popularly known in Urdu and Arabic as zikr/dhikr (ذکر). Notice the difference in the first character in zikr (ذ) and in Zakaria (ز). They are two different letters, both pronounced as “z” in Urdu and Persian, but having somewhat different sounds in Arabic [In fact, there are four letters in Urdu that have the “z” sound]. This caused spelling errors of my name in Urdu, so much so that my Urdu teacher in middle school would try to “correct” my name on any work I turned in. I finally did win that battle with him.

The pronunciation errors were, however, not a result of this issue. They owed their explanation to another peculiarity of Urdu (and Persian and Arabic): lack of vowels. We have long vowels in Urdu but the short vowels are never written down. There are diacritical marks for short vowels, but they are almost never used. Let’s take a look at my name. Letter by letter, it would be transliterated from Urdu to English as “Zkrya.” Add in the people’s assumption that my name is related to “zikr” and you get “Zikree-a.” That used to piss me off.

Our pronunciation problems obviously weren’t over when we came to the US. Here, people do all sorts of stuff to my name. Those who call me “Zachary” or “Zachariah” are ok by me. The most common mistake, that I don’t like, though is to elongate the second “a” to say “zakaaria.”

I have been used to people mispronouncing my first name since birth. So I have gotten over it. However, I never thought someone would drastically mispronounce my last name. It really is pretty simple: “Ajmal.” The worst mistake you can make is elongating one or both of the short a’s. But I have heard worse. People have tried to think of the “J” in my last name as either a Spanish or German one. That sounds so awful, I usually don’t recognize it.

Enough about my problems. There are issues with Pakistani names due to lack of similar sounds in English. For example, Talha (طلحہ) has a soft “t” that doesn’t exist in English. There are other letters and sounds as well. I remember how amused I was to first hear the word khakis from a native English speaker. Its origin is Hindi/Urdu خاکی and we don’t pronounce “kh” as “k” at all.

Names in Pakistan can either be local (i.e., Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto, etc.) or borrowed from Persian, Arabic or Turkish. There is a large number of such borrowed names.

When a name from a different script is transliterated into English, there are always multiple versions. For example, Muhammad/Mohammed, Usama/Osama, etc. Talking to Kianoush, it also seems that my Urdu-speaking instinct for transliteration is different from his Persian-speaking one. For example, where I would think an “i” as the appropriate vowel, he likes to use “e.” The Turks also use much more different spellings for the same words. This not only means different spellings for the same word, but also different pronunciations based on those different transliterations.

Therefore, we are limiting our search to names from either the US or Pakistan which would work in both places. Even if the name is strange to one country’s ears, they shouldn’t have to struggle to pronounce it.

Here are some online resources for names.

  • 1990 US Census name distributions: A list of first and last names in the US arranged by their popularity.
  • Behind the name: Lists of names from different cultures/languages and their meanings.
  • Popular baby names from the Social Security Administration.
  • Name Statistics: Check the popularity of specific first and last names in the US.
  • Baby Names lists more than 6,000 names. I noticed Persian and Arabic names in addition to European ones.
  • Parenthood has Norse, Phoenician, and Aramaic in addition to the regular ones.
  • Babycenter allows you to search names by first letter, last letter and number of syllables.
  • Popular baby names seems to have a good collection of names as well.
  • Or you could invent a name.
  • Muslim names: This requires a long discussion which will have to wait for part II.

Feel free to suggest any names you like in the comments.

Next: What’s a Muslim name?

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37 Comments.

  1. Zak,

    We had the same issues when it came to naming our kids. My dh is Pakistani, and I am Arab-American. The in-laws wanted to name our kids, but kept choosing names that would be impossible over here. We finally chose the names Sara and Sophia (Safiyya) for our oldest two. The other beautiful aspect of our girls’ names is that they are found in nearly every language. The in-laws weren’t impressed though – but as someone who grew up hearing every possible version of Aisha, (Alisha, Asia, Ayeeeesha), I hope the girls will thank us someday.

  2. We recommend “Beau Flex” if it’s a boy, and “Tye Bo” if it’s a girl. They will get lots of exercise.

    African soccer players have really excellent names, too: Serge Kwetche, Augustine Simo, Salomon Olembe, Joseph-Desire Job, Quinton Fortune, Doctor Khumalo, Naughty Mokoena, Celestine Babayaro, Jay-Jay Okocha, and Sunday Oliseh are some of my favorites.

  3. My advice – as someone who has never faced this dilemma – is to keep it short, so chances for mispronounciation are limited. Aside from maybe getting the vowel sound somewhat off, it’s hard to mangle an “Omar” or an “Issa.”

    Or you could go for the traditional name with an English short version, kind of like your own “Zach/Zachariah.” That might give the kids choice in how they identify themselves culturally. I know for girls, I’ve stumbled across whole armies of “Ambers” who were really “Ambereen,” or something along those lines. Maryam/Mary might be another combination, or even Samer/Sam.

  4. Without going through search/research, I have the following comments:
    1. What’s in name ? It is made high or good or low or bad by the deeds of the person.
    2. Pronunciation: I had been of the view that the word ‘God’ is pronounced alike by every body on the globe. Once I heard a person say, ‘Oh my Gosh why this with me” and I was drowned. While in Germany, I heard an English lady saying, ‘Geben sie mir bitte …’ The German lady stood stunned. You may imagine, using good English, what she may have made of the German. I was in London at a bookstall asking for a book on sewing. The book-seller failed to understand my English. I wrote it on a paper and he said, ‘Ah ! saaaawing’ In other part of London, I mentioned my failure to pronounce correctly and I was told that I had the right pronunciation and that the bookseller must be from a district north of London. What to talk of country to country, pronunciation changes from district to district within every country. May it be Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Germany, Holand, UK, USA, Pakistan, Iran, India or any other place. It is impossible to find a name that has the same pronunciation every where.

    3. Baby’s name should be simple so that people do not find difficulty in reading or saying it.

  5. A: I am sure your girls will thank you. Those names are quite common everywhere.

    Editors: Off-topic, couldn’t you come up with something a bit more unique for your own name?

    Interesting list of names.

    Brian: You have some good advice, but I have a feeling that my wife is going to veto it because of one small mistake you made in your comment.

    Old-timer:

    1. Name is important in the sense that it’s what everyone will call you for your whole life.
    2. While pronunciation does vary from place to place, some names are more difficult to pronounce than others. For example, I don’t think anyone in North America can pronounce Khusro.
    3. Simplicity is definitely a good idea.
  6. I believe I see the mistake.

    I bet I could take a solid stab at Khusro. Is the “u” long or short? And is there a fatha on the r?

  7. Moiz advises Moiz ;)

  8. Brian: The “u” is short in Khusro and yes, there is a fatha (what we call zabar in Urdu) on the “r”. The biggest problem though is the “kh”. Can you enunciate that sound?

    Moiz: That is not allowed. No suggesting of your own name.

  9. The biggest problem though is the “kh”. Can you enunciate that sound?

    Assuming it’s the same as in Arabic and Farsi, then yes – professors have successfully beaten it into me.

  10. Brian: It’s the same.

    So, do you pronounce Khakis correctly or the American way?

    BTW, here’s Khusro in Urdu with pronunciation marks: خُسْرَوْ

  11. You can use an American name as the first name and an urdu name as the second name; for example Linda Maryam or Jennifer Leila for girls, and John Muhammad, Michael Parviz for boys.
    Also I think there are several common names, specially for girls, such as:
    Sarah, Sara, Susan, Sam and …

  12. I treat “khaki” as an English word borrowed from Urdu and pronounce it as English.

  13. Really, children need to learn from adversity. There is no reason to make it easy on them. Name your sons Inzamam-ul-haq (with hyphens and no last name) or Intikhab or Fakheruddin (then you could call yourself Abu Fakhr). And a name like Mahboob will give the boy a tough, resilient, thick-skinned character.

    For a girl, you could try Fatima (but be sure to call her Fatty at home) or Houma (Homey) or Tabassum (Tubby).

    I also suggest Ikram, a name I’ve grown somewhat fond of over the past year.

  14. Ken: The first and middle name idea is interesting, but it might be difficult to find an English first name and an Urdu middle name to go together well with each other as well as an Urdu last name.

    The common names idea is more feasible.

    Brian: That’s just plain wrong. :-)

    Ikram: I understand your pain. ;-)

  15. my suggestions:
    girl name: Lili لیلی
    boy name: Sam سام
    they may be pronounced differetly, but when written in the other language, they are native names.

  16. I like Kianoush’s suggestions. Sam could be Sami also. I also like Sarah.

    Will find you more names that are short and easy to pronounce for almost all people.

    Some I can recall right now are:
    Imad
    Hannan
    Basil
    Susan
    Asmaa
    Nadia
    Afaaf
    Raja
    Huda
    Maha
    Sana
    Hana
    Basma
    Hiba

  17. Kianoush, Munira: Good suggestions there.

  18. I just happened to come across your journal. I too am pregnant, due right after you guys. I also had PCOS and after trying for years we didn’t think we could have any. This baby, like yours, was a complete surprise. My husband got hired at a job several hours away, so he got an apartment there and I saw him on weekends. Little did we know it would take living apart to make this whole baby thing happen.

    Congratulations! It’s fun to follow someone else’s life for a change. Ours seems pretty chaotic right now!

  19. ginny_fur: Congratulations.

    Little did we know it would take living apart to make this whole baby thing happen.

    That definitely works, though in our case it took a few years of living apart. :-)

    Ours seems pretty chaotic right now!

    Tell me about it!

  20. I think you really shouldnt get angry over something so trivial as mispronounciation of your name by something so barely significant as an elongation of a vowel. I have a male friend who’s name is French and pronounced “Alahn” …he has been called “Alaine” (because of the spelling) since as long as I can remember. And having a lot of foreign friends, none of those ever get so worked up if there name is changed to be more easily pronounced, its a side effect of living within a community with particular linguistic tendancies.
    When I go to Japan and they call me “Ku-riss” , its not annoying, its my name in their context and there’s no reason to get annoyed over it. “Thea” becomes “Shia” and “Clancy” becomes “Ku-ranshii”
    but they’re fine with that…and if they were to try and get the public to pronounce their name correctly it would take them a full course in linguistics and a lot of frustration for both sides.
    So in short — its not something you should speel over for so long, particularly being someone with a knowledge of a language which doesnt specify vowels, I half expected such a person to be more tolerant of such mispronunciations…

  21. you really shouldnt get angry over something so trivial as mispronounciation

    I am not angry. I said “I don’t like the mispronunciation” which is something very different from being angry. I made my peace with it a long time ago, seeing how my name isn’t pronounced correctly by most people of my own culture/langauge.

    This long rant about mispronunciation was actually to emphasize why we want to name our baby something simple or common.

  22. My wife and I named our daughter after a character I created in a novel I was writing – Alahn (pronounced Ah-Lahn). We have already had some trouble with people misspelling her name and mispronouncing it, but it hasn’t bothered us. We actually find it funny that people can’t look at her name and ‘see’ how to say it. At any rate, my wife said it perfectly to me the other day as we watched her sleeping: “can you imagine her name being anything but Alahn?”

    I can’t imagine it, either.

    May God bless.

    -brandon

  23. Brandon: Very interesting.

  24. What’s in a Name III

    This is the last post in my series of thinking aloud about our baby’s name. We were thinking about our daughter’s last name when I found an article about the issue of women taking their husbands’ last names. A debate…

  25. What’s in a Name II

    In my previous post thinking about a name for our baby, I mentioned a website for Muslim names. Now, what exactly is a Muslim name? Let’s take a look at a few websites listing Muslim names. Most of the names…

  26. Growing up with a strange name is painful in elementary school. But as you get older to high school and college, you become a star. Your distinct name is the only cool name around. So while i agree that a short name is easy for the natives (Americans), I still recommend something thats recognizably from your heritage. Teach the natives your language and culture as well, because you will be learning their’s by default. Help them appreciate your name.

  27. Zawar: There are pros and cons either way. There is also the issue of characters like ‘kh’ which can’t be pronounced by English speakers. Anyway, we made our decision some time ago.

  28. What’s in a Name III

    This is the last post in my series of thinking aloud about our baby’s name. We were thinking about our daughter’s last name when I found an article about the issue of women taking their husbands’ last names. A debate…

  29. please let me know the pakastan meaning of the name aamer ,
    thankyou

  30. aamer: I think Aamer is an Arabic name. I don’t know its meaning.

  31. i dont even know no1 with my name s flicked down to this syte and saw a boy caled zawar, zawar add me on :
    zawarakhtar_365@hotmail.com
    plz

  32. how do we right name eshal in urdu ??? plz help me thanks

  33. Check out this baby nmes site – you can get meanings of over 20,000 names world wide
    Baby names meaning

  34. i m farooq from pakistan

  35. Assalamu alay kum, my name is ahmed, bi fazlillah i’m blessed with a daugher,
    the first name of her is maryam
    my question
    1. correct spelling of maryam
    2. (VIP) combination name with maryam like maryam batool …etc
    3. i want to keep the last name as AHMED . how far is it supported
    kindly help me resolving this mystry… thanks