Name business

8 January 2007
8:00 AM

I am running my white flag up the mast. I am placing my hands on my head and stepping away from the car. I am crying uncle. I am cutting and running. Let it be known in no uncertain terms that, when it comes to my name, I am giving up.

Learning another language requires listening intently and probably increases your sensitivity to different sounds. Strangely, being in Chile and speaking Spanish has instead decreased my sensitivity to my name. Before I responded only to Ryan. Now I respond to any collection of sounds that even vaguely resembles my name, everything from Bryan to Fryzhan, which is apparently much easier for some people here to say. I used to pull out tricks to get people to say my name correctly, like referring to the movie Saving Private Ryan or the Spanish verb rayar, which sounds exactly like my name in a certain conjugation, but has the intended consequence of reminding people of a phrase involving that verb that means “he’s crazy.” So I have given up and I even introduce myself as Bryan now, especially with people I won’t see again.

Spanish is such a phonetic language that you can spell just about any word or name in the language just by hearing it. There are some caveats—b and v sound the same, as do y and ll, and s, c, and z, —so the possibility of spelling bees isn’t completely obviated, but by and large in Spanish hearing is spelling. English is nowhere near as kind. This is why only a handful of people have any hope of correctly spelling asphyxiate, sincerely, or caffeine without any doubt entering their mind. When you mix in the U.S.’s immigrant culture with names from all over the world ,the result that you can’t spell anything without asking.

The flipside, though, is that people are used to asking. Whenever you give a name that is tricky, you’ll likely receive the follow-up “How do you spell that?” Here I never get that question, even though people have almost no chance of spelling either Ryan or Greenberg correctly. Many times I begin to offer the spelling and people get so frazzled that they literally hand me their paper and pen and tell me to write it myself. Asking how to spell a name isn’t standard operating procedure. Often people simply write whatever they hear. This can have wacky consequences.

When my mom visited in November we went to a quaint hostel in Valparaiso. Upon arriving, the couple that runs the place sorted out a minor issue: they had no vacancies because they had given our room to someone else, supposedly a group of arriving travelers with a name resembling mine. I began to suspect the resemblance was rather slight when I glanced at my reservation in her book. It read, “One triple, three nights, Mr. Bryan Kimbler.” To be fair, Kimbler does share three letters with my real last name. I left the correct spelling on my check-in form.

The next day I found a note in our room:

Mr. Kimbler,
The airline called to say that your bags haven’t been found. They may come later. The airline will let you know.

The only thing stranger than my name was the fact that we had all our luggage. When I explained this to our host, I watched her face distort in confusion and I had the acute fear that I was responsible for a stress-induced aneurism.

So I’m changing my name, at least when I make reservations. I haven’t decided whether I should go with something simple like Bryan Verde (meaning “Green”) or something more exotic like my favorite Spanish last name, Cienfuegos (“Hundred Fires”). Of course, if I go completely Chilean, I can have both. In fact, I probably should. Here, as in many Latin American countries, people have four names: first, middle, father’s last name, and mother’s last name. This formula leads to a certain stigma for the significant number of children born to unwed mothers who, for want of a second last name, receive the mother’s twice. It seems like more information than a name alone should disclose, but a mere glance at an attendance list tells you that José Antonio Gomez Gomez doesn’t have a father. To avoid those awkward conversations, I will mask myself completely in my secret Spanish identity. From this point forward, I am Bryan Ignacio Cienfuegos Verde. Hear my name, and treble before its spellability.