Tuesday, 28 December 2010

I call myself…

The habit may not be universal, but large numbers of Hong Kong Chinese have adopted Western Christian names. Not a particularly noteworthy phenomenon in itself, but the choice of names does throw up some points of interest. The practice also seems to have become widespread among young Indian professionals, if my experiences with Indian call centres are anything to go by.

First, a surprising number of girls and women have adopted names that in the West are now regarded as irredeemably old-fashioned, such as Agnes, Florence, Gladys and Mabel. Second, males often take on the formal version of a name, for example Kenneth, Richard, Thomas or William, but if you were to call someone with one of these names Kenny, Dick, Tommy or Billy, respectively, they would not respond, because Kenny, Dick, Tommy and Billy are seen as different names.

Then there are the outlandish choices, one of which stands out in my memory as the most bizarre of all: in the early 1980s, Yamaha employed an organ tutor who called himself Moondoggy Lo. I used to wonder what kind of music he might play at home. Judging by the name, I don’t think it would be music I would want to listen to.

All this makes me wonder what name I would have chosen if I too had had a free choice. Actually, there is only one candidate in the frame. I’ve had the same name for more than 64 years, and I’m attached to it. I believe that most Westerners would make the same choice, because a name is more than a label. Your name is your identity, which makes all the more puzzling a story I read on the website of England’s Sun newspaper over the weekend.

Apparently, a fan of Liverpool football club has changed his name by deed poll to Fernando Torres, the team’s centre forward. I cannot imagine that this fool feels any sense of identity with the new name, and I would expect his wife to continue to call him Shaun. And one can only assume that he felt no sense of identity with his original name either.

That this is also the case with Chinese who adopt Western names I deduce from an experience I had when I arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 to work at the Outward Bound School here. On one of my first courses, I discovered that there were two trainees in my watch who called themselves Richard. In order to avoid confusion, I suggested to one of them, I proposed to address him as Ricardo for the four-week duration of the course. At the end of the course, he informed me that he preferred Ricardo and that he would not be calling himself Richard in the future.

In my own case, I’ve been called by a few names over the years, but nowadays nobody calls me anything but Dennis. I was Hoddo during my school days (a corruption of my surname) and Razz (short for Rasputin) at university, and I continued to attract tiresome beard-related nicknames (Jesus, Fidel) for a few years thereafter.

However, it wasn’t until I went to work at the Eskdale Outward Bound School in the Lake District in 1971 that I experienced anything new in the way I was to be addressed. I was ‘Den’, which I didn’t like much, but in a cultural milieu where Adrian was ‘Ade’, Alan was ‘Al’, Colin was ‘Col’ and Stuart was ‘Stu’, I had little choice but to grin and bear it. But I was surprised to find names that I’d never thought of shortening being routinely chopped in half.

I had a similar experience working in a warehouse in Bermondsey, south London, in the late 1970s. Again I was ‘Den’, but I expected it this time, given that to a Cockney Derek is always ‘Del’ (cf. ‘Del-Boy’, Derek Trotter, in the BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses) Gary is always ‘Gal’, and Terry is always ‘Tel’. In earlier times, this practice of transposing l’s and r’s may have been more widespread (cf. Prince Hal, later to become Henry V, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV), but in modern Cockney usage Harry is always ’Arry. I’m tempted to describe this transposition as ‘Chinese’, except that, contrary to popular belief, the Chinese are far more likely to confuse l’s and n’s. It’s the Japanese who confuse l and r.

Of course, there are some names that will almost inevitably be shortened in use: Christopher will be chopped to ‘Chris’, David will be trimmed to ‘Dave’, Michael will become ‘Mike’, and Peter will be clipped to ‘Pete’. However, I’m careful to observe whether a new acquaintance prefers the original or abbreviated version of their name. This is especially important with female acquaintances: addressing someone as ‘Elizabeth’ when all her friends know her as ‘Liz’ is going to sound insufferably formal.

It should be noted that a perceived character change takes place when someone shortens their name. Had we been introduced to Anthony Blair as the new leader of the British Labour Party in 1994, he might have been scrutinized more closely, but ‘Tony’ sounds matey and reassuring, and millions were taken in by his glib platitudes and shallow showmanship. And his lies.

So, are there any circumstances under which I might consider changing my name? Yes there are, but it would have to be something extreme, such as having a contract put out on me by the mafia or other criminal organization, in which case I wouldn’t be writing this blog, and I certainly wouldn’t be telling anyone where I live.


  1. Dennis:

    I have often wondered about names and my name is definitely a Western one. On more than one occasion, I am mistaken for a westerner, going by my name. And another issue is that I have two first names, which is very confusing. When someone wants to address me by my second name, they end up using my second first name. I find that I have to explain my name everytime I introduce myself and that gets a bit irritating.

    The reason for call centre employees referring themselves by Western names,is that they want to give the impression that the people attending calls are from UK or US, and hence those names. The scenario is pretty funny as most customers know that the calls are attended by Indians.

    Another post that is very relevant to the present day scenario.

    Joy always,

  2. Susan, thank you for your comment, which does touch on an interesting issue. The majority of Westerners have at least two Christian names, but they only ever use one, except on their passport. I have a middle name, but I won't be disclosing it, because I think it’s unnecessary.

    I can therefore understand the confusion when you introduce yourself as ‘Susan Deborah’, because this is an uncommon practice in the West.

  3. I will not tolerate any nick name or shortening of my name.
    I like my name very much, only my wife is allowed to call me by the shortened version of my name...but I would never do that to her!

    No, it's not Mike.....ha hahhhh!

  4. I have also noticed the tendency of Chinese to adopt odd or rather old-fashioned English names. Those whom I've taught include Winnie, Quentin, Wilfred and Kaiser (!), but the most ridiculous was a boy with the Chinese surname of Ho. What was he called? Yes, of course, Ivan!

  5. Peter, thanks for reminding me about Ivan Ho. I had intended to mention this, because a minor local celebrity also has the same name. I wonder whether your pupil arrived at his name independently or was merely copying the celebrity.


Please leave a comment if you have time, even if you disagree with the opinions expressed in this post, although you must expect a robust defence of those opinions.