The name game

WHAT’S in a name? I pondered this oft-used question after being copied in on a social media tweet from @katjhammo, who randomly asked: ‘How is your name actually spelt and how have people messed it up?’

(Artur Szczybylo/Shutterstock)
(Artur Szczybylo/Shutterstock)

Kat was interested because allegedly she was amazed at how hard it was for people to spell ‘Katrina’. She was a tad annoyed that her mum didn’t even give her the proper Gaelic spelling and it still gets messed up.

I can certainly sympathise with Kat. At birth, my parents named me Srechko Jernej Kontelj. That would have been OK if they had still been living in Slovenia. The problem for me was that I was born and raised in Australia. Even in Slovenia my Christian name isn’t all that common, although there are a number of famous Sreckos getting about. To name a few, Slovenian poet Srecko Kosovel, world-renowned Serbian volleyballer Srecko Lisinac and the Iraqi national football team’s head coach Srecko Katanec, who continues to have my support and that of the Iraq Football Association despite Iraq recently losing the WAFF Championship. We Sreckos stick together… we need to, we need all the support we can get.

So what’s in a name? My name means ‘the lucky one’, deriving from the Slovenian word for lucky. Despite its difficult pronunciation, I can consider myself lucky. My parents emigrated to Australia from post-war Yugoslavia, where opportunities for economic advancement were few. Australia in the 1950s was a young country looking for European immigrants to help populate its massive land mass under the premise of ‘populate or perish’. Post-war Australia felt at risk of being overrun by its Asian neighbours and was very much consumed by the East versus West ‘cold war’ mentality.

My parents’ decision to emigrate to the ‘lucky country’ was a fortunate one for me and my siblings, who have been the beneficiaries of Australia’s liberal and wealthy lifestyle. I often wonder how my life might have worked out if I’d been raised in Slovenia in the shadow of the Nanos mountain range in the agricultural precinct of Slovenia. Who knows, it may have been different but the same as I’m a great believer in making your own luck.

Fast forward some 50 years and I find myself in Guernsey, where names are omnipotent. Guernsey takes for granted its French-influenced street names and European-sounding surnames, yet to the uninitiated it creates a dilemma somewhat akin to my experience of growing up in Australia with a Slovenian-derived Christian name and an at first sight awkwardly spelt surname with its silent ‘j’. Other than small European villages, where houses are known by the surname or occupation of the occupants, I don’t know of any other modern Western civilisation which doesn’t use street names and numbers to identify properties. For a newcomer to the island, it’s a nightmare until you get used to local landmarks to help locate addresses and properties.

And it’s not just me saying this. I recently had cause to deal in a matter with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of a European state that was being held up due to the ministry’s concern that the Guernsey house in which I live doesn’t have a street name and number but rather just a quaint house name. The particular concern was that without a street name and number the house would be difficult to locate and mail addressed to the property may not be secure. To address the ministry’s concerns, I obtained a letter from the States, signed by the chief minister no less, reassuring the particular republic that the absence of a street name and number as part of a postal address is extremely common in Guernsey and that in fact the majority of postal addresses on the island include and use a house name rather than a number.

The chief minister described in great detail that Guernsey has a sophisticated postal system with properties falling into postcode areas and that each land parcel is given a unique property reference number or UPRN. This UPRN is not included within the postal address, but rather is used by the post office to ensure post is delivered to the correct property. Deputy St Pier assured the ministry that the ‘system works extremely well and the incidence of post failing to reach its destination is extremely rare indeed’.

Who knew? Too much information, you might say, but it does make the point that names, their derivation and use are incredibly important.

A name can say a lot about where a person comes from, in what generation they were born, their ethnicity and perhaps even helps to shape a person’s personality. It’s often been said that we become our names and our names become us. That is a powerful notion. Does the name we are given at birth have the potential to determine our destiny and personality?

From my personal experience, my name caused me no end of dread growing up in Anglo-Saxon Australia in the 1960s and 1970s when racism was quite open and rife. I particularly dreaded the school roll call as I knew what was coming. The teacher would pause when they reached my name. Worse was their attempt at trying to pronounce my Christian name, which starts with ‘SR’, unlike any other word in the English language. My surname with the silent ‘J’ was a similar challenge.

Such a burden can’t be good for the self-esteem of a young child.

Today as a society we are far more tolerant of diversity and in fact celebrate differences… as we should. Nevertheless, as @katjhammo lamented, a name can be a burden and cross to bear even in today’s enlightened times.

In my case, my primary school friends found a solution to my hardship – they improvised and simply renamed me. I’ve been Stretch ever since first starting school. This has solved the problem of pronunciation, yet has created another problem. When people first meet me and I tell them my name, I get one of two reactions: ‘Stretch? That can’t be your real name, what’s your real name?’ Or ‘Stretch... I thought you’d be a lot taller with a name like that.’

Sometimes, you just can’t win.

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