Thursday, August 19, 2010

What's In A Name?

A couple of weeks ago, NPR (the most fabulous news source that exists in the United States, hands down) had a story about your coffee name. This is the name that people give to themselves at Starbucks when ordering coffee as to be efficient and not have to spell out their name. With a name like Jill, of course, I don’t have this issue. Jill is perky, short, simple, and easy. That is until you get to Latin America. In Buenos Aires, my name would cause bewilderment equivalent to the name Rumpelstilskin anywhere else. So what did I do? Exactly what the chick in the NPR story did – when going to a restaurant and putting my name in, my restaurant alter ego – Julia – came to life.

In the US, for the most part, your name is your name. As that NPR story signifies, people react with shock and awe if you stray too far from your given name. Sure, we’ve got Joseph’s who become Joes, Jennifer’s who become Jennies. But radical departures are seen as just that – radical and inspiring of NPR stories that people talk about.

In Latin America, it is common for people to have a variety of names and naming customs are very different. In the northern parts of South America and in Central America, people often take their mother’s maiden name too. So you can meet a Maria Jamilla Ruiz Perez that is sometimes know as Maria Jamillia Ruiz P.

Another one you will encounter all over LatAm is people being called names that are not even among the litany of legal names they may have. Some of them sound obvious – Lau for Laura, for example. But other times, people use a name that has nothing to do with their other name – like Nacho in place of Guillermo. In Bogota, I even ran in fear from trying to see an apartment when I asked for Maria, only to be told there was no one by that name there. Turns out, Maria was just the name she used on email. Violeta was the name her neighbors knew her by. Me? At first I thought it was a tourist scam (Craiglist, while wonderful sometimes, can also be sketch city regardless of what city you are hunting in) but I eventually realized the naming customs were not what I was used to.

Today, I am just going by Jill and kinda liking it.