Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

16 Jan 2010, 13:34 p.m.

Nineteen Letters

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Keep those name misunderstanding stories coming! From the comments: I'm especially amazed that "Sarah" turns into "Sharon" and thoroughly enjoy "Mir. Like the space station." Together with your wife Kat, you're a meerkat!

I seem to have neglected to mention my name hassles. When I was young, sometimes "Harihareswara" didn't fit on standardized test forms, so I imagine there are a bunch of 99-percentile algebra scores filed under Sumana Hariharesw. I also got very used to helping out substitute teachers by listening for a long pause after, say, Erin Griffith's name got called, and saying "That's probably me." I used to pronounce it "Hurry-hurry-sure-ah" to make it easy for USians, but now I pronounce it rather more authentically, basically as "HA-ree-ha-RAY-shwa-ra" but with enough nuance and trilling that I probably need to brush up on my IPA to do it justice. Best joke about my last name (old pronunciation): middle-school colleague and my-bus-stop-sharer Levi Tinney's "Hurry hurry rush me to the hospital." Best joke about the new pronunciation: no real contenders yet! Operators are standing by.

I used to spell out my name in letter groups of four-four-five, but this caused problems as people got confused about where the I and the E went, and whether my name was Hareswara and I'd misspoken. Then my mom or dad suggested I use "H-A-R [pause] I-H-A [pause] R-E-S [pause] W-A-R-A" and that works pretty well. I usually specify "S as in Sugar" to make sure people don't hear it as an F. When I was at Salon, though, Tom Fuhrman sat in a cubicle near me and mocked "S as in Sugar," saying I sounded like a breathy hooker. I switched to saying "S as in Salon" when he was around.

I like it when big names in US politics or media have names that news anchors have to learn to pronounce, like Blagojevich, Shyamalan, Sotomayor, or Stephanopoulos, because there's some part of me that identifies with them. If I have fantasies of fame, I can always put in that cinematic detail where a pretty face is getting its makeup done and chanting my last name thirty seconds before the camera rolls.

I basically don't care how people pronounce my first name -- where they put the stresses, what kinds of vowel sounds they use, whatever. Some people find it helpful to think of the "Suman" part as rhyming with the English word "woman" but native Indians often make more of an "ah" sound in the second syllable instead of an "eh" or "uh" sound. But really, I've gotten jokes about "Summer," "Sumer," "Somalia," "Sumeria," "Soma," and one gym teacher who wanted to call me Sue (better than the other gym teacher that year, who asked in frustration if he could call me "Hiyakawa" - some kind of Native American pastiche I assume?). So any good-faith attempt is fine by me.

But as I said, I'm not fussed about people pronouncing it "SOO-mah-nah" or "suh-MAH-nah" or "SUM-ah-nah" or what have you. It's more irritating when random strangers or customer service folks hear my name and take like two minutes asking about it and iterating pronunciations, even when I tell them it doesn't matter. This is one reason I prefer to use "Vikki" when I can -- when random waiters, or other people who will only ever know me for an hour, insist on taking my time to learn to pronounce my name correctly, I get irritated. It's a novelty to them; to me, it's just another reminder that I'm Different. Why are you placing your comfort over mine? These are often the same people who say "what a beautiful name! where's it from? what does it mean?" When Salon customers did this to me, I usually responded by answering, then exoticizing them right back. Where does your name come from, Jeff or Allison or Keith or Emily? What does your name mean?

Now, I don't want to make my friends worry here. If you actually know me I don't mind helping you learn to say my name. I just don't want to spend time every day teaching strangers about it. I'd rather be teaching them about open source.


Sumana Harihareswara
16 Jan 2010, 14:43 p.m.

I know some strangers ask about pronunciation out of a sense of courtesy, to show respect. But courtesy is about respecting the other person's feelings. If I say "it doesn't matter" or "that's all right" then I'd like the inquiry to stop.

16 Jan 2010, 17:11 p.m.

I just remembered the hi-larious Charlie Winberg incident. When Pam and I moved from Atlanta to San Diego we hired one of those services that put your car on a truck so you don't have to drive it across the country. I made the arrangements online. The truck driver called us on the telephone to arrange to pick up the car. He had a very heavy accent and he mangled my name so badly that both Pam and I thought he was asking for someone named Charlie. Or Chary, or something like that. Eventually we figured it out.

Thomas Thurman
17 Jan 2010, 12:05 p.m.

I used to get the I and the E mixed up, but then I realised it coincidentally matches the old "I before E" jingle.

17 Jan 2010, 23:15 p.m.

Tried to post on the other entry, but when I clicked Submit it said comments not enabled on this entry.... So I'll comment here.

Somehow I thought I had responded to this, but apparently not.

A lot of people hear my name as "Jeff." And a lot of people see my name written down (like in the From field and signature of an email), and nonetheless call me Jeff or Jeb in writing.

And if I hear the names "Jeff" or "Jen" or "Jay" or pretty much any other one-syllable J name called across a crowded room, chances are good I'll think it sounds like "Jed."

When I'm giving my name at a restaurant, I almost always say "Jay" for simplicity. But at some restaurants (usually Indian ones), I sometimes get asked whether that's "J-A-Y" or just the letter J.

17 Jan 2010, 23:24 p.m.

Thanks for the "woman" rhyme -- I hadn't thought of that. Will use it next time I'm trying to explain to someone how to pronounce your name.

Re insisting: I've told you about the guy who insisted that I get his name right, haven't I? Had met him briefly, was never going to see him again, was having a hard time (noisy crowded room, in a hurry) getting some part of his name to sound right, and he just wouldn't let it go, kept telling me I had it wrong and had to keep trying. I finally just gave up and left.

Probably told you this too: I recently had occasion to tell the name "Jedediah" to a large number of organizations in a long series of phone calls. (Was trying to get off mailing lists.) Had much the same trouble you mention with the "Harihare" part -- they thought the second "ed" was me stuttering or repeating myself or something. Eventually I started saying "J E D [pause] and then another E D, and then I A H." That seemed to work reasonably well. But I like the solution of breaking it up differently -- maybe I should've said "J E D E [pause] D I A H." Or something.<br/>

Sumana Harihareswara
18 Jan 2010, 0:15 a.m.

Zack, I told that story to Dara's friends Toby & Beth on Sunday, and they cracked up. I'll be CHARY of mispronouncing your name from now on! groan

Thomas, I've thought of that myself but thought it a bit too dangerous to propagate to others as a mnemonic. Glad it helps you!

Jed, thanks for your tales. Yeah, our discussion of names a few months back is one reason I wrote this entry. I think I didn't realize how I felt until you asked me!

19 Jan 2010, 11:44 a.m.

Ever since the echo-y hallways of Jr. High, I jump a little bit whenever someone yells out, "damn!"

A non-exhaustive list of alternate identities my two-year-old has been given:

Ronin<br/>Ronan<br/>Roman<br/>Royal<br/>Royen<br/>Ryan<br/>Roland<br/>Rowen (in email, so the spelling matters -- by his uncle)<br/>Norman

25 Jan 2010, 13:05 p.m.

I get called Sarah a lot (or Rachel...), and Maggie probably gets called Maddie more than by her name.

The worst for me is that I often think people are calling to me when I hear "Excuse me."