On Abandoning ‘Americanized’ Names

Flickr: Scott Catron

Can difficult-to-pronounce Arabic names be as American as apple pie?

The Washington Post series about life for Muslim-Americans started off with the profile of a Palestinian-American who ditched his “Americanized” name for his legal one. His decision made me think about my own struggle in reclaiming my given name.

Fawaz Ismail grew up in Texas where he asked everyone to call him Tony, a name that “put people at ease.” He remained Tony after he moved to Northern Virginia, where he helped expand his family’s flag business. But Ismail dropped his nickname after the backlash against Muslims in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Now, a decade later, his name is a daily message to his fellow Americans: They must deal with him for who he is — a Muslim who loves his country and proudly sells its banner.

“A lot of people use a nickname to make it easier for Americans to pronounce,” he says, “but now, I don’t care. They’re going to have to pronounce my name. It’s not that hard — Fah-wahz.”

Many immigrants and second-generation Americans go by nicknames rather than their legal names for a number of reasons. I’m one such example. I grew up up in a small, rural and mostly-white Maryland town, and my parents decided I should go by the nickname Ele rather than my real, very Persian name: Elahe, the Arabic word for goddess (pronounced Eh-la-heh). They went by “Americanized” names themselves in an effort to make life easier, to assimilate as quickly as possible in a foreign land. And for 21 years, I was Ele (pronounced Elie). It wasn’t until after college  that I decided to make the switch to my real name, both in my personal and professional worlds.

My decision was like Ismail’s; why must I accommodate or change my identity to convenience others or make them feel more comfortable?

Friends and family, for the most part, quickly adapted to the name change. But as a journalist, I’m constantly meeting new people and trying to develop sources. People aren’t as likely to remember difficult-to-pronounce names and they certainly don’t feel as comfortable saying them. I spend a considerable amount of time explaining how to pronounce it and answering inevitable follow-up questions, such as “where are you from?” All of those minutes add up, and it’s tiring having to explain yourself all the time — sometimes you just want to move on with your day.

I don’t have a foreign accent, English is my primary language and I was born in the U.S — it’s home. I can only imagine how much more difficult to would be to go by my real name if I didn’t have those things going for me. Many of us second-generation Americans have the luxury of being able to reclaim our names. But for our parents’ generation, the choice to go by an “Americanized” name isn’t just about making life easier for others. It’s about making life easier for yourself.

It’s been more than five years since I made the decision to drop my “Americanized” name. From time to time, I’ll run into an old friend who calls me Ele and it feels as if they’re talking about someone else. Or perhaps just a former version of myself, someone who didn’t make the effort to embrace the totality of who she was. Now, Elahe feels like me. And it’s just as American as Ele or Tony.

  • http://twitter.com/SeanGNet Sean Gallagher

    Maybe I should drop the Sean and go with my given Shahrooz

  • island girl in a land w/o sea

    thanks for your post.  i am an immigrant woman who has experienced much grief over my  first and family names.  like many in my generation, i was named after jesus’ mom, mary. my first name is maria xxxx but nearly all bureaucracies enter my first name as maria and my middle name as xxxx. when enrolling in graduate school, the registrar told me that i *had to accept* this parsing out of my name, as the name field in their database could only accommodate 13 characters.  this means that my name in the registrar’s database does not match that on my passport or marriage certificate. who knows what problems may arise in the future.

    when i got married, i changed my name to my husband’s more “american” family name — a choice that i still struggle with. at the time, i was tired of people mangling my last name and making assumptions based on it. yet now that my parents are gone, i sometimes wish that i had retained my father’s name, or at the very least, come up with some sort of compound-name compromise.  however, compound family names — especially those in the spanish tradition of “de aaaa bbbb” or “aaaa y bbbb” — also cause headaches on form and with bureaucracies.

    what irritates most is being told that, “that’s not how ‘we’ do things”. obviously, i’m not part of “we”.

  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com AngryBroomstick

    Shahrooz is so much more awesome than Sean.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=15205222 Curtis Alia

    Elahe, my dad had the same issue and changed his name from Adnan (pretty common Arabic name) to Anthony, he even changed his middle name last year after all these years (for some strange reason I still don’t understand).  

    I had a similar issue as island girl describes in the comments: My dad immigrated and they mistakenly made his surname his grandfather’s name instead of his actual family name.  When I was born, I was given that same incorrect last name, and only until 1994 did we finally change our names to the actual family names from back home.  This was all due to people not understanding the structure of other cultures’ naming systems (in this case: given name – father’s name – grandfather’s name – family name).

    I find it interesting that people have trouble pronouncing names, but I think there are some ignorant people out there that purposely mispronounce names to make some kind of misguided point about this being “America.”  So, with that in mind, I understand peoples’ need to fit in and be accepted.  It just really sucks that they feel they have to trade in their history/culture to get that.

  • jaded

    I once worked at a company owned by Iranian immigrants. It was interesting the lengths the owner would go to “american-ize” his name.  It went so far that he actually had email addresses and voicemail boxes for the multiple pseudonyms.  He always thought the best sales people had the most american sounding names, and would either choose employees with this characteristic, or ask them to pick a nickname so they will appear more american.  (This happened for employees of all descents.)  

    I remember at one point a his family friend joined the company with a very Persian name. He created a name that was completely silly, it sounded like a comic book character.  It caused immense laughter in the office when ever he used it during business meeting.  Frankly, we preferred learning to pronounce people’s real names. I always wonder how hard it was for him when he first came to the US after the Iranian Revolution, and how it became so important to have an “american name”

  • jaded

    I think you should!  IT will encourage discussion about your heritage (if you are OK with that).

  • http://thequietones.wordpress.com/ Marybeth


  • http://twitter.com/DYomoah Doreen Yomoah

    Do it! I have an acquaintance (not American, but Canadian) who is of Indian descent, and he refuses to go with his given name because he said he hates it because it sounds “too Indian”. It makes me sad. Sure, he may identify as Canadian, but who says his name is any less Canadian than any other?

  • Chris N.

    My son has a classmate with the unfortunate name of “Osama.” But he took care of that long ago and goes by “Sam.”

  • Anonymous

    Shahrooz – awesome!
    Sean – good but  meh beside Shahrooz!

  • Anonymous

    That’s just the thing though. Sometimes you don’t want to talk about it because all they know is something from Million Dollar Baby, Blood Diamond or The Last King of Scotland and they’re just being polite for a short period of time and don’t want to be educated on some of the finer details.


  • Anonymous

    It wouldn’t be a problem if people didn’t butcher my name so much! And I tried making it easier by spelling it with English Characters too! Imagine if I used hieroglyphics or Amharic?

    I completely agree about using our names just the way they are. We’ve learned to say Nowitzky and Beauchamp. They can learn to say Amunugama Rajapakse Rajakaruna.Qalil.com

  • http://twitter.com/ElaheIzadi Elahe Izadi

    Thanks everyone for your comments and for sharing your stories. Keep your eyes peeled for a follow-up on this.

  • Estevão

    Thanks for the article! As a Japanese descent born in Brazil, it was tough knowing that I had to change my name as a kid when I moved here. From Estevão (“Steven” in Portuguese) to Steven.

  • Anonymous

    Similar to the italians, jews, germans, czechs and russians who entered the US  in the late 19th/early 20th C.  My family name was changed, and my friends entire family (3 brothers  – who all came in to gether) and all 3 of them have different last names.  Ahh america.

  • Mitikumb

    facebook doesnot accept my amahric name why?