What’s In A Name? Here’s Why Correct Pronunciations Really Matter

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet ruminates about the meaninglessness of Romeo’s name in Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy. Most of us had to read and memorize those lines from Romeo and Juliet, and we can ALMOST believe the part about names not meaning anything in the larger context of love. In real life, though, names are a bit more complicated.  

When a name is mispronounced, misspelled, and/or misunderstood, it may seem like a relatively minor issue — but is it? After all, our names are our identifiers. They play a huge role in our very identity. And, while it happens every day, sometimes it takes a public statement from a celeb like Alicia Silverstone to bring the problem to the surface. She says we’ve been mispronouncing her name for years, and it really bugs her mom.


Alicia is not the only one who says we’ve been mispronouncing her name. Award-winning actress Anne Hathaway cringes every time a fan says her name, because she prefers to be called “Annie.” Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce says his last name is pronounced like “Kels,” and that we’ve all been saying it WRONG.

My brother and his wife are expecting a baby in November, so they’ve already discussed names and pronunciations. The lists of names, with meanings and history, are amazing, but you’ve also got to be aware of those top names that WILL be mispronounced. Names like Rheagan, Kian, Geoffrey, Lachlan, Louis, Khaleesi, Imogen, Cassius, Graham, Leah, and Sinead are commonly mispronounced.  

So what? A name is mispronounced or misspoken. It probably wasn’t mean-spirited, right? And most days those famous celebrities don’t even let it affect them (at least not much). It probably becomes an expected part of dealing with the public, because fans just can’t always be expected to get it right!

But, what about me?  

I’m intrigued by these stories because LOTS of people mispronounce my name. I was named after my great-aunt, and Esther is even the infamous queen in the Bible. So, I’d have assumed that most people could pronounce it correctly or at least have some inkling of the spelling. (I’ve even been told that my name is spelled wrong, and I was told by a family member that I should just use my middle name.)  

Mispronunciation takes on a different, more offensive and even tragic, dimension when we look at the full scope of naming and how names are butchered. While laws about name changes vary by state, many Americans change their name for simplicity (repeating the spelling of one’s name and constantly correcting how others say your name can be exhausting) or simply because they want to fit in.

Mispronunciation is more than just an honest mistake or pure laziness. It’s a sign of racist communication. On the KUOW Radioactive podcast (NPR), Zuheera Ali says, “My name is my identity, and allowing someone else to say it wrong is stripping me of that.”  

Keya Roy responds, “My name is a way to push me aside, and most of the time, the people who are doing this don’t realize the damage they could be doing to my self-worth and sense of confidence.” It’s embarrassing when our names are mispronounced but it’s also disrespectful to colleagues and professionals.  

Ijeoma Oluo, an author and prominent voice on race, says, “People will try to — as a blatant sign of disrespect — mispronounce my name or mock my name.” She continues: “It’s racist at its core to think that other cultures’ names are invalid. It’s othering and purposefully disrespectful, and it’s often used as a weapon against me.”

I know, I know…it’s not always intentional. Now that we all know that it’s offensive to mispronounce a name, it’s even more important than ever that we take the time to get it right. It’s often a matter of listening and learning, but there are also a few cheat tools that should lead to more effective communication — without the offense!


Audio Pronunciation Link: Those of us whose names are frequently mispronounced can add an audio link to emails, LinkedIn, work websites, and other platforms where a jump-off conversation might occur.

NameShouts: This site features more than 360k names, spoken by native speakers. It’s a great reference for those situations where you want to make it easier for others to pronounce your name correctly. It’s also a great reference for you to avoid mispronouncing the names of your contacts.

Phonetically Spell Your Name: You can write your name out in a phonetic script to help your contacts sound it out. For a graduation ceremony or other public events, you may be asked to give them a phonetic spelling of your name.

Name Association: You can associate a visual cue or share something that differentiates you to others, associated with your name. To avoid mispronouncing a person’s name, you might try thinking of a word or name that sounds like the one you’re trying to remember.

Yes, it would be nice if we all had a universal translator that would allow us to avoid mispronouncing names. Technology has come a long way, but we must still all take personal responsibility for being thoughtful and considerate in how we say another person’s name. And, yes, I do correct those who say my name wrong.


Do you have a hard time remembering how to say names? Or maybe, your friends and colleagues say your name wrong all the time.  Please share your experiences in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

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