• Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

In a recent viral video, a commencement announcer at Thomas Jefferson University butchered the names of nearly every single graduate that came up to get their diploma. The names were so jumbled it brought to mind the legendary Key & Peele Substitute Teacher skit. It was shocking, hilarious, and sad at the same time. How bad do things have to be going for you to mispronounce the name ‘Thomas’, like the announcer did? 

The university apologized but what caught my eye was the reaction. Like most things nowadays, there was outrage. If you watch the video, you can see the graduates acting in absolute disbelief that an announcer had the audacity to mispronounce their names. For some of them, you could tell it was the first time. My reaction? Welcome to the club. 

I like to imagine the announcer had a name perpetually mispronounced this side of the Atlantic like mine often is and just decided enough was enough. Because I experience what those graduates experience at least a couple times a week here in Dayton. 

As someone who loves to travel, I’ve always been at that intersection where people ask ‘hey, how do I properly pronounce your name’. Dayton is different. This is the only place in the world people refer to me as ‘Ishmael’. I even had one professor say, “Mr… I’m not even going to try to pronounce that.” The dude has a PHD! Thanks to the Thomas Jefferson Uni. Announcer, a whole boatload of people now understand how I’ve felt all these years. 

“A name is not just what you’re called. It can represent a close bond to someone you love, your faith, and your ethnic identity.”

– Ismael David Mujahid

See, pronouncing a name properly is partly about respect. Changing someone’s name or calling them whatever you feel like is a sign of the ultimate disrespect usually reserved for people on the margins of society. It’s why imperialists and colonial governments had a very long history of doing it and why it continues to happen in places where prejudice is practically a pastime. 

Another part of it is ignorance. When people refer to me as ‘Izmayel’, which is wrong because it is a soft ‘s’ and not a hard one, I do appreciate the attempt because at the very least that tells me they can read English. Outside of that and I know their sparks don’t connect upstairs. A week and a half ago I had a guy pronounce my first name as ‘Amahad’. I cringed and just assumed he was dumb. 

But the worst people are the ‘Ishmaelians’ as I like to call them. People that look at my name and think, for some reason, that my mother forgot an ‘h’ and they’re gonna help me out. Having spent a lot of time in the Middle East, I know this for what it is. You see, in environments that have sectarian tensions, people that feel scared or threatened by another group will mispronounce their names as a sign of chauvinism and their own religious intolerance. That’s how a ‘Rahman’ can end up being called ‘Abdurahman’, a ‘Saud’ becomes ‘Said’, and an ‘Abdulhussain’ ends up with an obituary calling him ‘Hussain’. It’s the same reason a lot of people do it here. When you have a name that isn’t biblical and people try make it one, despite their degrees and ability to clearly read the English language, you know you’re likely dealing with a fanatic. 

Some people may say that sounds too harsh but the reality is extremists come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. They smile, get degrees, some teach, and a few even become elected officials. Of course, not all ‘Ishmaelians’ or people that mispronounce names are like that. But many religious fanatics are. 

A name is not just what you’re called. It can represent a close bond to someone you love, your faith, and your ethnic identity. Many names also double as reminders of certain virtues, heroes, and the dreams of the people that named you. That happens to be the case with me and I’m pretty darn proud of that and so should everyone. 

So instead of just thinking wow, that person is ignorant when my name is mispronounced or substituted, I’m just going to take a page of the Thomas Jefferson University announcer’s playbook. I’ll just mispronounce their names right back. Call me Ishmael and you will be called ‘A-Aron’, ‘De-nice’, or however I decide to butcher your name. It won’t make the world a better place, true. But it’ll certainly make it more entertaining. 

(Featured image from Canva)

Written by Ismael David Mujahid, Executive Editor