Magazine

The cheese family and more readers' names

  • 22 November 2012
  • From the section Magazine
Formaggia family
Image caption The Formaggia crest - depicting the round cheese - with Ernesto Giuseppe Tomaso (left) and Romolo (right)

Sangita Myska's article on why she desperately wanted a plain name her friends could pronounce triggered a big response from our readers.

Myska said that growing up in the 1980s, it was the endless stream of awkward corrections and garbled pronunciation that made her hanker for a different name - but that as an adult she was glad she had kept her foreign name. She said she knew of plenty of other immigrants who had anglicised, adapted or ditched altogether their distinctly foreign-sounding names.

Image caption Chris Formaggia

Chris Formaggia, Abergavenny, Wales: My great-grandfather came to Britain, from Italy, in about 1900. He had two sons - my paternal grandfather, who stuck with the surname, and my great uncle who changed it to his mother's birth name of Stacey. Both men served in the British army in WWII - literally fighting against their first cousins in the axis forces - when there were strong anti-Italian feelings in Britain - but Ron only changed his name after the war. He felt it was a surname that was too clumsy for business. I am glad to say that my grandfather did not take the same view and stuck with it. Although I consider myself to be thoroughly British, I enjoy having the surname that connects us back to Italy. In business I have found the surname to be a double-edged sword. You have to deal with all the mispronunciation - "Mr Tormagin" is my best to date - but you do have a very distinct name that helps gain recognition in the crowd. But, all-in-all, I find that the pros outweigh the cons. My biggest frustration with the surname is that the modern British pizza-savvy generation insist on correcting our name from Formaggia to Formaggio. One teacher got very cross with our eldest son for constantly spelling his surname "wrongly". Word endings are very important in Italian and being a Formaggia - a small round Lombardian cheese - as opposed to your bog-standard Formaggio - cheese in general - allows me to distinguish between blood relatives and those with the more common surname. We are elitist cheeses.

Lolita Bandoodas, Swansea, Wales: I grew up in Britain in the 70s and 80s when names such as mine were often considered "exotic" and out of the ordinary. I had the double whammy of being not only blessed with a long "foreign sounding" surname but also a first name, which besides being the title of that well known novel, is also a fairly common Spanish name. I was just named after my mother. People still ask me now whether or not my name is actually my real name. My father, who came to Britain in the 60s automatically shortened his name to a much more British-sounding one. Tempting as it has been to change my name, I just can't do it. It's still part of me and represents my individual ancestry.

Image caption Eoin Ó Nialláin

Eoin Ó Nialláin, London: This is not a new phenomenon among British people nor is it reserved to England. During British rule in Ireland, the British authorities insisted on anglicising Irish people and place names to such an extent that they almost disappeared altogether. In fact, under the Penal Laws, it was an active policy to eradicate the local language and customs and to instil "Britishness" in the locals. In the past few years, it seems that this phenomenon has seen somewhat of a resurgence. I must admit that I do use the anglicised version of my surname for business. This is simply because the time spent trying to educate people to correct spelling and pronunciation wastes valuable time and does still bring an air of derision. If Britain wants the benefits of a multicultural society, it must be prepared to accept people's right to maintain certain aspects of their own culture, not least their own name.

Neil Schiller, Liverpool: Despite the prominence of German sports stars such as Schumacher, Schmidt and Schweinsteiger, and a popular brand of soft drink in the 80s, the "c" in Schiller just seems to confound pretty much everyone. There has only been two occasions in my life that I haven't had to spell my name out when asked for it. What's really frustrating is most people don't even listen. If I'm there in person, by the time I've got out the usual "S-C-H" I can see they've already written "Sh". Wherever my surname is written down it's pretty much always accompanied with a little scribbled out bit before it. Phone calls are the worst, when someone is trying to read my name from a computer screen. I've been asked for Mr Skiller, Mr Sk-haliller, Mr Shyler, even Mr Skinner. And forget about automated telephone banking. "Please say your surname" - "Shiller" - "Was that Shearer? Please confirm" - "No" - "Please say your surname" - "Schiller" - "Was that Shore? Please confirm". Which means I always have to call a customer service person, who then wants to take me through a security check to confirm that I am indeed, as my account number suggests, Mr Shyler...

Image caption Yemi Akinyemi

Yemi Akinyemi, London: This is a topic that I feel quite strongly about. I can think of a few British names that are not that easy to say or are not said the way they are written (Cholmondeley, Vaughan, Menzies, Worcester, to mention a few). Being first-generation immigrants of Nigerian origin, my husband and I made a conscious decision to give our children Nigerian names. This is because we know that western culture will be more prominent in their lives regardless of the type of upbringing we give them at home. In our view, their names present a strong link to their culture and background and we feel this is something they should be equally proud of. Having lived and worked in London for over 16 years as a professional, I find that knowledge and self confidence do trump prejudice as one of your contributor says. My then six-year-old daughter would correct you nicely if you said her name wrong. She's now 10. She and her siblings feel very comfortable with their names. But then I don't know if this is only in London.

Image caption George Apaya

George Apaya, London: When I first came to the UK from Canada in the 1980s, I noticed a sizable proportion of people could not spell or pronounce my surname , Apaya, which comes from the South Sudan. I would often hear or see variations like "Appaiah", Appeya", or Apieya". This really wasn't the case in Canada or the US or even in France where I lived for a time. I can only attribute this to the fact that in those countries they were far more used to "foreign" surnames than was the case in the UK. I also when through a phase of wishing that I had an English-sounding surname purely because I wanted to fit in, more particularly at school. However, as I grew up I noticed that people tended to remember my name as it was unusual and stood out. More importantly, though, I realised that my surname was part of who I was and where I came from and I eventually shrugged off any negativity I felt about the name. I notice these days that more people that I interact with in the UK, whether its face-to-face, or over the telephone, can spell my name correctly so things have changed.

Lucy Rodriguez, Pembrokeshire, Wales: My grandfather and his brother were evacuated to Britain during the Spanish civil war. My great-uncle's name at the time was Jesus (pronounced hey-suz in Spanish). Shortly after arriving and receiving much negative comments about name, he changed it to Ronny which he has kept ever since, even after he moved back to Spain. My father was born in Wales and is named Manuel, but from growing up in the time of Fawlty Towers, he now goes by the name Miguel (to avoid constant requests for impersonations). It's a shame that people feel the need to change their name to fit in. I am very proud of my family's history and enjoy telling people our story when asked about my unusual surname, so much so that even though I am married I haven't yet changed my name.

Image caption Veronica with her father, whose own father emigrated to Australia

Veronica Formosa-Hamilton, Perth, Scotland: Many times over the past five years, I have struggled with an unusual and foreign-sounding name. Several times in Scotland, I have found myself adjusting my name and dropping the Formosa to suit the circumstances, although rather grudgingly. I am always conscious not to do so in earshot of my husband, who finally wore me down pre-marriage and persuaded me as a compromise to tack the Hamilton on the end. It has, however, been rather convenient at times to have the option of a Scottish-sounding name when booking the hairdressers, or a table at a restaurant. Part of me does think in the back of my mind, perhaps if they see the Hamilton on the end they will make the marriage connection and won't hassle me for my story. The inevitable line of questioning when I use Formosa after a while just becomes tedious. An accent is one thing but an unusual and unfamiliar-sounding name just adds to the confusion. The name Formosa is the old Portuguese name for Taiwan, which the Portuguese also took to Malta, which is where my father's heritage stems from. His father emigrated to Australia in the 1950s.

Image caption Denise Bliss's father changed his name to one less Jewish-sounding

Denise Bliss (formerly Myerovitch, then Myers): I was very interested to hear David Jacobs explaining why Jews changed their names in the early 20th Century and describing how their efforts to "assimilate" into British culture was the main impetus for this change. My own father having served in Egypt in the RAF during the war, returned to the East End of London (with my Egyptian-Jewish mother) where his parents were settled as immigrants from Poland. He was an accomplished draughtsman in the RAF having been trained with GEC before the war. His name was Myerovitch - the name that is still on my birth certificate. As such he was unable to get work, as the name was so obviously Jewish. People can't believe there was rampant anti-Semitism in Britain at that time, despite the increasing knowledge that was emerging about the horrors of the Holocaust. In fact, when being interviewed for a job with a well-known retailer, he was told emphatically: "We do not employ Jews". After several abortive attempts at trying to find work, he decided to work for himself and became a street-trader in Petticoat Lane where he was the "umbrella man" for some 40 years. My point is that it was not just the desire to assimilate that prompted people to change their names but more out of necessity to survive and avoid racism and prejudice. My father did subsequently change his, and our, name to Myers - still a Jewish name but less recognisable to the majority of people.

Image caption Jaymie Wolfe reinstated the Slavic names

Nadja Wolfe, Virginia, US: This sort of thing was also pretty common in the US, as immigrants who weren't from northern Europe started to come in droves. My grandmother's grandparents came over in the early 20th Century from the former Yugoslavia (then Austria-Hungary) - my great, great, grandmothers had different names (one more German, one Slavic) but both ended up Jenny, even though they settled in an area with plenty of other Slavs. My great grandmother was given her mother's original name but was never called that in her life, instead having a traditional English name. My mother Jaymie brought the Slavic names back to our family after four generations in the US. She said that it was the task of the third generation to bring back the culture. She says there a number of "consequences" associated with having a "foreign name" - such as is it male or female. My brother is Kyril - no-one knows how to pronounce it, and no-one knows what culture it's from. She says a lot of people think Nadja is Indian. I try to encourage the "Nad-ee-ah" pronunciation, since "Nad-ya" is too hard for most English speakers and "Nad-juh" is, in my opinion, ugly. My sister is called Marjeta - a lot of people think it's Latino.

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