Ashima’s grandmother has mailed the letter herself, walking with her cane to the post office, her first trip out of the house in a decade. The letter contains one name for a girl, one for a boy. Ashimas’ grandmother has revealed them to no one. – The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

Back in 2006, I was teaching a Year 3 Class of 7 and 8 year olds in Bethnal Green, London. During the last week, I asked the children what they wanted to do in the afternoon. It had to be connected to something they had learnt during the year. Unanimously, they all wanted to reenact their favourite scenes from Rumpelstiltskin which was a set text. I was quite surprised but agreed. It ended up being so much fun. I remember laughing so hard that I cried. They were wonderful actors and it’s a great memory. The scene that most of the groups chose is when the Princess reveals that she knows Rumpelstiltskin’s name. My students enjoyed jumping up and down in mock rage at the discovery.

“Why doesn’t Rumpelstiltskin want anyone to know his name?” I asked them

“Because it’s a secret,” one said

“And now it’s not a secret any more,” another continued

“So, what’s wrong with that?”

“Secrets have power!” This was the wise conclusion.

Our true names hold dynamism, virtue and influence. It was an interesting end to the day. I have always made an effort to know my student’s names. It is the thing I concentrate on most whenever I have a new class. When I was once observed by teachers from Bulgaria, one of them told me that the most striking part of the lesson was that I knew all my student’s names.

“Don’t you know all of yours?” I asked her, stunned.

I work hard to pronounce people’s names correctly, although I have sometimes had trouble with this. But as long as I tell them, it is forgiven. And I expect the same respect in turn. My maiden name McCallin for example has never been pronounced correctly outside the English speaking world. Some of those Year 3 children who were of lower ability couldn’t even spell their names! One didn’t even know what his surname was. I assigned my two Teaching Assistants special targets with these children. I would ask them about their names. Were they named after anybody? What did their name mean? Did they have a nickname?

I was called Elle or Ellie when growing up and many close to me still use it. When I moved to Turkey, people would chuckle when I told them what it was. Elli is Turkish for the number 50. Elli Bin means 50,000 and is used to refer to their money. I would see my name on bank notes, though misspelled, whenever I went shopping.

I used Ellie until I move to Abu Dhabi. I noticed that the female teachers I worked with pronounced it Ali. As a man’s name, it made them uncomfortable. One of them asked me if it was my real name. I told her it was Eleanor. She was instantly appreciative and started using it, saying how beautiful it was.

“Why?”

“Noor, Noor!” she emphasised.

“What does it mean?”

She pointed to the sky. Noor is Arabic for ‘light’. Eleanor means the same thing. Variations, layering, pronunciation but meanings often seem to be fixed across cultures. My mother had liked it as she was interested in Eleanor of Aquitaine. France was the next country we went to after The United Arab Emirates. I continued using Eleanor and loved the way it sounded in French. It was also recognised there for its medieval origins. I had a new found appreciation for my name. I related these events on #TCKChat. One person tweeted back

this is so fascinating to me. Especially in light of how attached people are to names…and how TCKs are more fluid perhaps, understanding the need to adapt names. 

I don’t know if I was ever attached to my name. It is true that it has adapted, especially since I got married. But I never felt my name or names were ever gone. 

But there was a name that had indeed disappeared. One of the things I did when I first moved to The Netherlands was to start looking for a cargo bike to use with my daughter. We don’t have a car here and so I needed a means of transport with space so I could do school runs and grocery shopping. I made a list of different brands and asked my husband to help me compare them. His advice was to get the Gazelle Cabby as it was light and aerodynamic. I agreed and we went to the shop to purchase it. I had not thought much of its name. I had been using it for some time when I noticed, as I was checking the air in the tires, an animal motif. How had I missed that? It was a gazelle of course. I heard something, a whisper. Phalana. 

I contacted my mother.

“Did I have a name from Botswana or Zimbabwe?”

“Yes, Phalana. The language is Setswana, and it means little impala.”

“How did I come by such a name? Did somebody name me?”

“Dad and I named you. We had been on a trip to the north west of Botswana in connection with our work, and the impala were having babies. I discovered later that I had got pregnant during the trip, so we decided to mark it by naming you after one of the loveliest animals in the region.”

An impala is the Zulu word for gazelle or African antelope.

Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going. 

This, Rita Mae Brown claimed. I think the same can be true of names, including third culture ones.

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