Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What's in a name

I've been giving a lot of thought to my first name recently.  Which may sound strange.  But for some reason it keeps coming up as a topic of conversation, and I must admit I fail to understand why.  Michele does not seem to be that surprising of a name to me.  I mean, sure, in English you could argue that it is missing an "L" but I am certainly not the first, or the last, American with the name "Michele" that I have encountered.  It is not THAT big of an anomaly, though it has plagued me my entire life. 

As a child I always regretted that it was impossible to find personalized pens, bookmarks, glasses, notebooks, you name it, with my name.  It has caused confusion and embarrassing errors.  Many people, including a number of members of my extended family, just seem absolutely unable to spell my name correctly.  I have constantly had to correct the spelling of my name - on administrative documents, school paperwork, letters, certificates, etc, etc, etc.  To me it doesn't seem that complicated, but to others I suppose it is.

Growing up in the US I can't even begin to count the number of times that I was mistaken for a boy before someone met me.  For some reason people thought "Michele" was "Michael" and could never seem to see the similarities with "Michelle."  I remember one particularly humiliating moment in the 2nd grade when I was called to the office over the loud speaker and they asked for "Michael my last name" rather than "Michele."  I was made fun of for weeks.  And another moment in the first week of 7th grade when a particularly unintelligent science teacher actually corrected my spelling of my name on my homework assignment from "Michele" to "Michael" and repeatedly referred to me as "Michael."

But then I started taking French class.  As is, I imagine, the case in most junior high languages classes, we had to choose a typically "French" name to use within the confines of that class.  I was ecstatic!  I was able to choose the "French" version of my name "Michèle" and for once no one would confuse me for a "Michael."  The name "Michele" spelled with only one "L" was normal, expected even, and I reveled in it.  My younger self saw it as almost destiny...my name had been spelt the "French way" and there I was choosing to learn French.  Add to that the fact that I was named for the song "Michelle" (but spelt incorrectly) by the Beatles, which obviously includes lyrics in French, and it just all seemed perfect.

Fast forward to the much more present day.  Coming to study in France and eventually marrying a Frenchman and deciding to live here.  I figured all name confusion would be over.  After all, the way my name is spelt is typically French.  No more being confused for a man again!  But then, reality hit.  Apparently, in French, there are two traditional and typical spellings for the feminine version of my name - "Michèle" and "Michelle" - and I had been wholly unaware of it.  And it would seem that most French people are unaware of it as well.

Living in France I have encountered very similar reactions to my name as those I experienced in the US:  It is spelled correctly, except the accent over the first "E" which some people (my father-in-law included) just add in at random as if it is supposed to be there (does the absence of that accent really make it THAT confusing???).  It is spelled incorrectly and should be "Michelle."  And even being mistaken for a man because the masculine equivalent has only one "L" and the feminine version has two.  Since I have only one "L" mistakes are made.  Except, last time I checked, the masculine version was "Michel," no "E" on the end.  Seems to me like it shouldn't be that confusing.  Nonetheless, the mistake has even been made here in France when I was standing right in front of the person!  I'm sorry...do I look like a man to you???  Perhaps I don't want to know the answer...

Now to the present, the last few weeks really, and what has inspired this post.  As I wrote last week, I recently had my naturalization interview at the préfecture.  I was asked one other question, in addition to everything I talked about in my last post.  Did I want to franciser my first name?  Apparently, if you say yes, then when your request is accepted and you become French they will also issue you a French version of your first name.  To help you fit in or something.  I suppose that at this point I could start into a whole tirade about how strange and unnecessary this process seems, but that is not where I wanted to go with this post.  Well, when she asked this question Lionel and I both must have looked at her like she was crazy before I opened my mouth to speak.  She glanced back down at her paperwork, saw my name, looked up blushing and said that she supposed that wasn't necessary.  I agreed, and then the conversation turned to my name.  "Well, isn't that convenient, you don't need to change your name.  It's already very French!  C'est parfait!  How did you end up with such a French name as an American?  What a coincidence!  Oh, look at your father's first name...Thomas...that is a very French name as well!  How did this come to be?  Both you and your father, Americans, have French names!"  Blah, blah, blah.  I just let her ramble on about how surprising it was for an American to have such a "French" name, chuckling to myself the entire time.  Once the interview was over I didn't really think anymore about it.  It was just one fonctionnaire after all.

Then last week I went to the first Afterwork in English meetup of the "school year."  I was disappointed to find so few people in attendance, none of whom I had met at previous meetups, but I suppose it was still too close to la rentrée.  I was even more disappointed to be the only native English speaker present that night.  But I gave it the old Gallic shrug and prepared myself for an evening of speaking English with a bunch of French people.  It was better than nothing, especially since I desperately need to meet more people in Bordeaux.  I ended up speaking with a small group and when we introduced ourselves everyone was shocked that I had a French name.  Again.  This isn't the typical reaction I get to my name here in France, but in the space of one week I had had multiple people be surprised that an American would have a French name.  Very strange.  Very strange indeed.  And I found myself ruminating on these odd reactions and on my name in general, which, in turn, led to this post. 

I'm just so surprised.  Overall, between studying in Tours, living in Paris and now in Bordeaux, I've spent about 7 years in France and never really had anyone comment on my name being so French.  Let alone met anyone who was surprised that an American could be named "Michele."  Where do these people come from?  With the fonctionnaire I had just passed it off as her being older and very French.  But at the English meetup it seemed odd.  This is a group of people who meet once a month to speak English.  People who are either native speakers, have studied English extensively, are studying it currently and want to practice, or who have lived abroad and don't want to lose their English.  Certainly they have met, or at least heard of, someone from an English-speaking country named "Michele" or "Michelle."  How could it be so surprising?  I mean, have they never heard of Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer, Lea Michele, Michele Bachmann (they love crazy US politics and all know Sarah Palin, so why not?), Michelle Williams, not to mention the song "Michelle" by the Beatles.  As if this was not surprising enough for me, one of the people in the group even pointed out that it must be very confusing for people in France because the feminine name is not spelled with one "L" but rather with two and that it is only spelled with one "L" if it's the masculine name.  Ahem, what about the other French spelling - "Michèle" - that has only one "L" in the feminine?  Forgetting the fact that there is an extra "E" there, buddy?

Anyway, despite all the issues, confusion and inconveniences, I actually do really like my name and I think my parents did an excellent job choosing it.  I don't think there is any other name I would want.  Sure, as a kid I sometimes wished they had just spelled it "correctly" but now I can appreciate the missing "L" as it makes my name a little more unique.  Plus, I must say I enjoying having a name that at the very least is easy for the French to manage, and at best is both very French and very American.  It works well in my current situation.  What about you?  Do you like your name?  Dislike your name?  Run into issues because of your name?  Feel free to share in the comments!

13 comments:

  1. I hate my first name, and I've noticed that 2 situations arise when I'm in France: 1) French people assume my name is the French "Christelle" and call me as such, or 2) They understand that it's not "Christelle" and say how pretty and original it is, but NEVER spell it right. For most of my students (from whom I receive emails, texts etc), I am "Cristal" because they know my name is a noun, but they always spell it the French way!

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    1. I like your first name, but I can definitely understand your frustrations with it here in France! What I don't understand is why people can't make the effort to spell a person's name correctly, even if it is a name they are not familiar with. The first time I can understand, but once you see it spelled correctly it isn't that hard to copy. Though, seeing as I still have family members who struggle with spelling my name correctly, perhaps I am wrong.

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  2. Michele is a great name! My parents' names are "French" (Paul and Colette) and people always remark on that when it comes up. I do have problems with my own name in France (people tend to think the last half of my last name is my first name, never mind that it's a man's name!), and I think what I've learned is that people are really stupid about names. So, it's not you, it's them! Also, that's really terrible about the teacher. Teachers should be better at names than other people because they see so many!

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    1. Just based on your first name it doesn't really surprise me that you would have issues with your name in France. But I have to agree, people are really stupid about names. I can understand making a mistake the first time you are confronted with a "different" name, but you shouldn't continue making the mistake over and over with the same name! But names just seem to be a complicated thing!

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  3. French people never seem to understand my name until I say the French version (ends in -ède instead of -eda, like how no one understands you if you say "Frodo" instead of "Frodon" lol) and a lot of them put an accent on the e, since it's pronounced é.

    Growing up with such an unusual name is not easy and made me really want to give bébé a more common name. Most people say it's pretty or unique, and while I don't mind so much in the states, here it's like, gah, yet another thing that makes me stick out! I feel terrible for the kids in France named Titeuf, but at least mine's from mythology and not a cartoon.

    Working in Luxembourg (and in HR) I see all sorts of names, so nothing really fazes me and I have to remind myself when I get a comment about mine that not everyone sees so many names everyday. And I've definitely seen Michèle, but I feel like it's an "older" name here, so maybe people are just surprised to see it on someone so young?

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    1. I can imagine that it must have been difficult growing up with such an unusual name, but at the same time at least there is very little possibility that you will ever be confused with another person! Though living abroad, I agree, we already stick out enough and having a name that sticks out as well just makes it even worse. You can't even pass yourself off as a local on paper.

      Perhaps you are right and Michèle is an older name here...I know I read once that in the US Michele/Michelle were names that were more popular in the 60s and 70s and since I was born in '83 I came in at the very tail end of the name's popularity as it was already declining. So young people with my name are pretty rare in the US as well.

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  4. Since my first time in France, people have been telling me I spell my name wrong. With only one S, they want to say "Aliza" or add an extra S. Or else they say, "Oh, like Alyssa Milano." Yeah, no. I tell them it's my name, it's American, and they can pronounce it the way I tell them to. My mother-in-law, who I have known for 16 years now, still calls me "Alicia" because "it's easier." What?!

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    1. That is pretty ridiculous. I can see the mistake being made the first time, but once you've told them how to pronounce it it should no longer be an issue. I don't understand how people could find it strange when there are different spellings or pronunciations for names that come from other countries and cultures. And your mother-in-law should really make the effort at this point! But I have the same problems with my own American family...aunts and uncles who insist on spelling my name "Michelle" even after all this time. You would think that after 31 years they could perhaps remember that I only have one "L."

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  5. People must be more naive than we think if they get surprised by a name like Michele! I've gotten used to hearing my first and last name pronounced the French way, but I get an extra dash of pleasure when someone pronounces it the way it's supposed to be.

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    1. Yes, that is what I'm starting to think! People really are naive or culturally ignorant! But like I said, this has only been a very recent occurrence and I just found it so odd that all these issues and questions are coming up about my name now, after all this time. Nonetheless I am so thankful I don't have to deal with all the name issues that most expats encounter!

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  6. I love our name! My grandmother is French and I was named after my father Michael. My grandmother instructed my parents on the spelling so I always knew it to be the CORRECT and FRENCH way to spell Michele. Over the years Americans have questioned me on the spelling but during my time in France I was never questioned. I have spent my whole life proud that my name was spelled correctly and remain happy to this day that it does not have a superfluous L.

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  7. Glad to see I am not alone. I was called Michael all during my school years. My mom was Irish , Dad French. Just need to add the accent over the e!
    Michèle

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  8. Have any of you Michelle/Michele's ever had the nickname Michou? Also, my name is Penny, and I really hate what it turns into with the French pronunciation!

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