Call me by my name, or don't

Tuesday, January 16, 2018 - 4:52pm

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Illustration by Hannah Myers

 

My grandfather on my mom’s side of the family has a lexicon of cliches — a signature catchphrase, if you will, for almost any situation. “Put an egg in your shoe and beat it” happens to be my favorite, but there’s also one that I’ve only recently gained an appreciation for:

“Call me anything you want. Just don’t call me late for dinner.”

Over the past three and a half years, I’ve become immune to the improper pronunciation of my name. You heard that right.

Last year, a friend of mine sat waiting for me to finish an editing shift at The Daily. As a (former) editor, it was not uncommon to hear my name from across the newsroom multiple times per hour during production. As we were leaving The Daily that night, my friend said she heard multiple pronunciations of my name in just a few hours, and I responded to all of them.

*****

“It’s LAA-ruh, like with the ‘A’ in ‘cat’ or ‘happy’ or the first one in ‘salad.’”

“Am I saying it right?” they respond, releasing a sound that matches the “A” in “Claire,” or “hair,” rather than the hard, pungent vowel of my name.

“No, but it’s okay.”

Then I brace myself for one of three inevitable looks: embarrassment, frustration or confusion. I tell them it’s okay, that I don’t care what they call me, and that as long as it sounds somewhat close to “Lara” and isn’t “Laura” we can still be friends. This — usually — is to no avail.

I’m then thrown into uncomfortable rounds of mispronunciation: slower, louder, higher, then back to slower again. They wait for a nod of approval that probably won’t come. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve listened to: “Lair-uh? Laiir-uh? Laaaiir-uh?” as I contemplate becoming one of those people who just goes by their middle name. Kate Moehlman has a nice ring to it, anyway.

But I would never do that. It’s Jewish tradition to name a child after a deceased family member, and mine comes from combining the first two letters of the names of my great uncle Larry and great-grandmother Rachel — people who mean a lot to my parents and who, by extension, mean a lot to me.  

For some context, I’m from a northern New Jersey suburb of New York. The classic “New Jersey Accent” isn’t that strong in my hometown (people say “wah-ter,” not “woo-der”), but I also grew up around many Brooklyn accents. My mother says “Flah-rida” instead of Florida, my grandfather regularly drops his “Rs,” and when my grandmother was alive, she would say President Obama’s last name as if the last four letters were pronounced the same as those in Alabama. Aunts, uncles, cousins and close friends in New York and New Jersey all said my name the way I do. That’s not to say teachers or new friends didn’t mess up on the first try. They did, but I usually remember it sticking with time.  

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college, the first significant amount of time I’d spent away from the East Coast bubble of north Jersey, that I felt as though I was defending my own pronunciation on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Freshman year I was constantly meeting new people and introducing myself, my intended major, my dorm and where I came from. And with that came a lot of phonetic explanation.

There were those awkward moments that still happen today — in which I go in for the handshake or the wave or whatever is appropriate at the time but, simultaneously, try to quell a small tug-of-war that wages in my mind. One side tells me to say my name the right way, even though it will cause confusion and an unwanted explanation. The other tells me to fake a Midwestern accent for the sake of convenience. Just say Lair-uh.

But it feels too strange. Sometimes I’ll introduce myself as “Lair-uh,” but the sound coming out of my mouth sounds 10 times weirder than, say, speaking in the third person. In fact, it feels like speaking in the third person, incorrectly. My self-consciousness gets to me.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t know this would be an issue before coming to Michigan. My dad is from metropolitan Detroit and his parents are native Detroiters. I remember from a young age thinking my dad’s family said my name with a strange pronunciation. They say, “pop” instead of “soda” (my dad has since self-corrected), and they say “in line” instead of “on line” when they’re waiting to check out at the grocery store. (I’m embarrassed to say I’m not sure what my dad says off the top of my head.)

But my dad’s slightly modified pronunciation of my name is a touchy subject.

“If your dad helped name you, doesn’t that mean the Midwestern pronunciation is also right?” is a common question I field.

And to that I respond: My dad’s Midwestern accent is strange. He says my name the way you would imagine a Midwesterner living in north Jersey for the past 30 years might say it — entirely unique. I know it sounds different than the way my mom or my brother or my grandfather say it, but it will never be “wrong” to me, no matter how much I tease him for it. And while it’s obviously not “incorrect,” it’s also not the pronunciation that I use, so I won’t.  

I realize I’m not the only person with a name that is difficult to pronounce. I’m not the only person who corrects the professor’s brutal pronunciation on the first day (re: Laura), even if it’s hopeless. But while it feels important to correct someone at first, I don’t make it a habit. I won’t make people feel bad after the first slip-up unless they ask me to.  

Different people have different, subtle variations, and I’m fine with that. If anything, it’s a subtle yet special reminder of where I am. When I’m home from school in New Jersey, the pronunciation I use and the one I grew up with sounds sweet and comforting coming from family members and high school friends. When I’m away, the Midwestern accent and its many different forms remind me that I’m in a different space with people from unique backgrounds.

To be quite honest, I love my name, it’s subtle uniqueness and the occasional “Doctor Zhivago reference it brings my way.

And when people call attention to it, in those uncomfortable moments — when they expect me to become frustrated, or instead become frustrated with themselves for not landing my strong East Coast accent, I like to keep my grandfather’s iconic catchphrase in the back of my mind:

“Call me anything you want. Just don’t call me late for dinner.”

Or Laura.