Posted tagged ‘names’

Naming rights

March 7, 2014

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, I was enthusiastically elected by my fellow students to represent them at staff meetings of my Faculty. Well, I was elected. When I came to the first meeting, I found that all the academic staff present addressed each other by their surnames. In fact, it went further: staff always called students Mr or Miss (Ms hadn’t yet become popular; yes I am that old) Bloggs.

When I started as a lecturer in the same institution I initially continued the tradition (I was even known, at first, to lecture occasionally in a gown). But after a while I got tired of all that and started calling everyone – staff, students, anyone within earshot – by their first names. And that’s how I have kept it as I climbed up the academic ladder and, eventually, became a university president (or principal, here in Scotland). In DCU I used to tell colleagues that the only time I would tolerate being addressed as ‘President’ was if the person so addressing me intended to follow that with something entirely insulting.

But it is useful to remember that not everyone is comfortable with this. In an article on the website Inside Higher Education an Australian lecturer laments the growth of the now standard informality because, in her view, it undermines the lecturer’s authority and the desire to teach students in a professional manner.

So now, I am wondering whether her views are more typical of the profession than mine. It would be interesting to hear feedback from readers of this blog.

A Rose by any other name…

February 28, 2010

It is amazing what burdens parents are willing to impose on their children when they select their names. A friend of mine at school in Germany was christened ‘Manny-Manny’ (which always sounded like ‘money, money’), and I always pitied him for the giggles his name produced when first encountered. Sometimes it’s just unimaginative: another friend had the surname ‘Michaelis’, and his parents must have spent all of 12 seconds thinking about it before they named him ‘Michael’.

But spare a thought for people who (genuinely) are called ‘Justin Case’, and ‘Barb Dwyer’, as reported by a website specialising in advising on children’s names. Or ‘Paige Turner’ and ‘Rose Bush’.

Some parents should never be let near the Registry Office.

Clearly remembering Whatsisname

June 21, 2009

I must confess that I have an absolutely terrible memory for people. I can remember really obscure moments in my life and repeat verbatim what someone said to me in 1978, I can retrace any route I drove by car at any time in the past. and I can recite any number of poems by heart; but I can walk past someone I sat next to at dinner two weeks ago without recognising them. Or maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll recall seeing them before without having the slightest idea who they are. It’s an embarrassing failing, because people must often assume I am arrogant or rude.

Generally speaking I am fine with people in whose company I am on a regular basis. I have never failed to recognise or remember the names of my immediate family, thank God. And on the whole I am good with colleagues. Though there was that one meeting in my last job, when I was Head of my Department, and I had to introduce all staff to an important visitor. I was doing fine going round the room, but saw a group of three senior colleagues at the end of the row out of the corner of my eye as I was still introducing others. These were important colleagues. And as my introductions were moving towards them, I knew that I could not remember their names, and this realisation and the slight panic that came with it made it even more certain that I wouldn’t now remember. So, without missing a beat, I just made up names for them as I got as far as them, and winked at them. They were not cross, and we laughed about it afterwards. And it taught me that as long as I go and eat humble pie later, that is a good way to get over such tricky moments.

I suppose it is really incomprehensible to me that someone with a really good memory for all sorts of things, including trivia, can fail to recall names of people. I believe I am an outgoing person who mixes well and networks well, and so this failing is both curious and sometimes annoying. I have become an expert in introducing people to each other without mentioning either of their names. And as far as I know, nobody has ever taken offence. Except my family, who are by now sick and tired of me asking in the middle of a movie, ‘Who the hell is that actor, I’ve seen him before?’

And yet I imagine I am not quite alone. It’s not, after all, a question of remembering the 30 people I spend most of my time with. It’s remembering the 4,000 or so students I once taught, the colleagues I have worked with, the obscure relations three times removed who occasionally cross my path, the 2,000 people who have sought me out in my office at one time or another (don’t worry, I didn’t go back to my calendar and add them all up, it’s a wild guess). I am sure others have the same problem. So when I meet people whom I know but who are clearly having a problem remembering me, I don’t leave them in their distress but find a quick way of confirming who I am.

In one way all of this is not trivial. People matter, and human interaction matters. It is not just a question of basic courtesy to remember someone’s name and identity, it is a demonstration of concern, friendship and empathy. So over the years I have trained myself to focus on names so that I can be supportive in a credible way. And I believe I have got better at it. But not perfect. So if I seem to be struggling to remember your name, do help me along; or use the opportunity to adopt that other name you have always really preferred to the one your parents gave you; maybe that one will stick with me.

A question of names

March 14, 2009

I have never lived in a place where people knew how to pronounce my name. In fact I have to admit that even I am not absolutely certain how it should be pronounced. The only country where it should be easier would be Poland; but even there most people would find the spelling disconcerting, because at one stage in my family’s history one of my ancestors, in an attempt to make the name look more Germanic, changed the spelling from Pradzynski to Prondzynski. In fact that doesn’t make it much easier for Germans, but it really confuses the Poles. A very distant relative who moved to the United States changed the spelling to Pronshinske, but his great grandson told me that everyone still stumbles over it. I think that we Prondzynskis cannot win here, we have to accept that we are something unpronounceable.

I suppose that to most people the name must suggest something Eastern European. At any rate it did to Captain Armstrong. Captain Armstrong was for a little while my right-hand man in a free legal advice centre in England. I was a postgraduate law student, and every Saturday I gave up my morning to offer free legal advice in the centre. This particular centre had the practice of allocating a volunteer to support the lawyer offering the advice. Their job would be to act as receptionist and take down the client’s details, and then bring them into the consulting room with a few words of introduction. My volunteer was a retired army officer and World War 2 veteran, Captain Armstrong. And back in 1979 one morning, Captain Armstrong brought in my next client with the following words of introduction:

‘This is Mr Bauer, and he has an employment problem. And you [and here he was addressing me] will appreciate that, if I had met Mr Bauer 35 years ago I would almost certainly have shot him.’

This sounds crude and cruel, but if you had known Captain Armstrong you would have known he was really a kind man, and this was his way of breaking the ice, even if it was just a little strange. But there was a bit of irony in all this of which Captain Armstrong was totally unaware. Mr Bauer (as I discovered as soon as I began to talk to him) was, despite his Germanic name, a Pole; whereas Captain Armstrong had somehow never come to realise that I, with my Polish name, was German; or German-turned-Irish, but if the good Captain had been aware of that combination it might well have sent him over the edge.

Names really do tell a story, but not always the one we expect to hear. They contain cultural and historical lessons, and can be bridges between what we are now and what we once were. More than once in my life I wondered whether ‘von Prondzynski’ was just a bit much, wherever I might be living, and whether I should change my name. I never did, and now I never will. It has something to say, and it is right that it should be said. And as Ireland has become much more multi-ethnic, the colourful tapestry of names and the stories they tell will enrich our culture and society.