What’s in a name?

There are many and various reasons why Bangladesh seems so comfortable, so ‘normal’ to me. The one that looms largest in my mind at the moment, having returned to the UK and getting used to English life again, is that of the use of names.

It is a terrible thing for a teacher to admit, but I am totally useless at remembering names. I’m not good at remembering most things (which is why mnemonics is one of my pet interests and the single most useful tool I have) but names are the worst. A teacher is supposed to be able to recall all their student’s names and, 20 years later when meeting them by chance in the street, still recall it and everything that student used to do. I can’t. I really can’t.

I remember a lot but I have often found that even with current students, if I meet them outside of the classroom I can’t remember their names. Inside the classroom I’ll recall them perfectly, but outside – haven’t a clue.

To be fair, caught unawares, or under pressure, I do go to pieces easily. For an extrovert who is happy doing stuff in front of others, I am actually very shy in many respects. I still get nervous at every concert, at every talk I give and even every first lesson with a new class.

Under such pressure I have even been known to forget my own name. I do not lie.

Someone was introducing themselves to me then awaited my reciprocal response and, instead, they were bombarded with “ums” and “ahs” until eventually my panicking brain caught up with itself and I blurted out “KEN…Yes. That’s what it is..um…Ken”.

So I am grateful for Bangladeshi culture where, generally speaking, names just are not used. Nicknames are common. It feels like every other child is called “Babu” and many deshis give themselves English names if they work with westerners a lot. But otherwise the name your parents gave you just isn’t used – not even in families.

Instead, your relationship is given as the title of address. “Dada”, “Didi”, “Apa”, “Bhai”, “Mashi”, “Dhula bhai”, “Bon”, “Meye” and so on are the names you will hear for most of the time. Indeed, they are used so often that one short-term worker at LAMB thought the name of a friend of hers really was Didi (which means older sister) and had no idea that it was an honorific title used with many!

So, in some ways, life is easier in Bangladesh. If you have forgotten the name of your acquaintance, boss or even best friend – no need for embarrassment. Just call them “bhai” (brother) or “Apa” (sister) or one or two other options depending on their age and your relationship.

However, there is a flip side (you knew there would be, didn’t you?) and that is that for Asians, relationships matter. This means it is not enough to know that the man is your uncle. You have to know whether he is you uncle from your mother’s side or your father’s and possibly even if he is your older uncle on that side or younger one. What’s more, the Muslims (the majority inBangladesh) have one set of terms for relatives whilst the Hindus (who are prominent in the area which LAMB covers) use a different set. Some words are used in both cultures but with different meanings. So “Dada” can mean either your grandfather or older brother depending on whether you are talking to a Hindu or Muslim. Get it the wrong way round at your peril.

What’s more, many of my friends are Shantals (one of the larger groups of tribal or adibashi peoples in Bangladesh) and they have their own terms again. Although not needed as all speak Bangla, I am trying to learn their words for relatives too, but I have to admit that my grasp on the Bangla ones is still rather shaky. When a friend called me his “dhula bhai” recently, I knew I should know what it meant but really had forgotten that, as he works with my wife I am, therefore, in a sense his sister’s husband.

So why do I like the Bangladeshi way when it is all rather complex?

Well, difficult though these names are, they all, at least, mean something. We have long since lost the sense of relationship with our titles. We don’t even call our bosses “Mr” or “Mrs” any longer. Some friends of mine don’t call their parents “mum and dad” but use their first names. I’m not criticising anyone’s personal life choices but I am bemoaning the loss of a sense of belonging to one another in the West. What does it matter that you are John and he is Fred? It means nothing. In Bangladesh, you matter because you are tied into a relationship with the other person. Even the stranger in the street, if he is your bhai, your brother, matters at least to some small degree.

I don’t think it any coincidence that it was an English man – Douglas Adams – who came up with the SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem) used in his Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. It is how we think. The person on the street, in the rail carriage, in the car in front, they don’t exist, they are invisible. They are an SEP. What a shame that we think in this isolated way so often instead of taking the opportunity to build a connection, albeit in some small, fleeting way. I think it rather a shame especially as it was something the British did very well 40 years ago or more. How did we lose it?

So, if I meet you in the street, in the pub, in the church or the shop and I don’t use your name, please forgive me. I’m out of practice and it isn’t really my cultural instinct any more. Instead, be assured by the smile, the welcoming handshake or the eye contact that you mean something to me and I remember who you are. You would find it odd if I called you “brother” or “sister” or even “grandfather”. You would think me quite potty if I said “Ah ha! Hello Son of the Husband of my Sister!” So I won’t. I just won’t use titles of any sort at all.

But please, whatever else, don’t think that it is because I have forgotten your name. I haven’t. Honest. Um…

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13 Responses to What’s in a name?

  1. Larissa says:

    Hey Ken, just a thought from an Atheist :-):
    My name does not have any particular meaning related to some higher being or my family, but it is part of who I am. Our names are a vital part of our self image (you would also be miffed if someone consistently called you Ben or Kent) and part of who we are for all our lives. It is intimately tied to who you are as a person. Usually people who change their first names have had traumatic experiences and try to change their lives by changing who they (feel they) used to be.

    The most important difference you are describing in your post is the difference in culture. Where in the “West” (not all “Wests” are the same) people are raised more as individuals, in the “East” they are more part of a group (be it a family, a religion, a political group etc) They are not seen as separate entities but as part of something bigger. Like you I’m not passing judgement but after living in Bangladesh and now in China, I also see the downside of that. I used to think it was wonderful and bemoaned the loss of it in the “West” but it also means that people are tied down more through relationships. Yes you are the husband of the older sister of the younger brother of your uncles wife, but that also means you are partly NOT you. you will always be tied to that.
    Or here in China: you are the nephew of the oldest aunt on your fathers side who is married to this man who has a perceived ‘blemish’ politically. This means he will never get a good job, his children will never rise as far as the neighbours children etc. etc.
    With every good aspect, their usually is a negative side (and vice versa of course) 🙂

    So easy though it must seem for you just to use generic terms for your students, colleagues, acquaintances etc. it also means you do not fully see them as the person they are.
    Just imagine calling your wife, “Wife” always. I’m sure she wouldn’t appreciate that. Or the weird habit of some married man to call their wives “Mother”. I can’t help but muse how their sex life will be, because I can’t think of any culture who would accept that!
    I think that if you will find that you have no problem remembering the names of people who truly mean something to you or who have meant something in your life. It’s only natural to forget names (it happens to me all the time) but once you’ve taken an interest in someone (other then the hundreds of students you teach) you will find their name will stick with you and you will not forget.

    The part I liked most about your blog was the fact that it’s the sincerity with which you approach someone, that means the most. How many times have I heard someone call out “Brother” or “Auntie” but not in any loving way. It’s just another way of addressing someone. Sincerity and care are the key aspects in life. Being warm and empathic can change someone elses life and have so much meaning.

    If you want to read more on the subject of why a name is important to a person, please see the links to some articles below.
    Enjoy and remember it is even in songs: Fame! …. people’ll remember my name!!!!!

    http://artofmanliness.com/2011/06/15/how-to-remember-a-persons-name-and-what-to-do-when-you-cant/ (don’t be thrown off by the title, it has useful tips) 😀

    p.s. When I want to post my comment, one of the fields even says: Name required. Not relationship required or family ties required! What’s in a name eh?


    • Thanks whoever you are…joking! That was a wonderful contribution Larissa – thank you for taking the time to write it. I sympathise with much and agree with a lot though there are some things I must respond to (would you expect any different from me?!)

      Firstly, this blog takes no religious viewpoint – frequented, as it is, by Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Atheists like yourself. I hope it does not give any other impression – it is open to all to share freely. Although the idea of saying ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ might come across as religious, I think it is much more about family relationships than that. After all, here at LAMB, all of the above religions mingle and call each other by these names. It is our acknowledgement of others as part of our community – regardless of race or creed.

      I used to agree with you that I would be annoyed if I was constantly called Ben of Kent but actually this happens to me so much here that I no longer worry about it because my name has very little meaning and what little it does was given to me by parents who did not know me when they gave it! That is not to be dismissive of my name but to say that ‘bhai’ is something someone calls me because they choose to – and that matters. I’m not sure you are right about the name changing business. If my understanding is correct then the changing of names in the Muslim world is quite normal and does not cause harm. I personally know many friends – mostly Chinese actually – who have changed their name because of moving to the UK and have not suffered at all. I think a ‘westerner’ who changes their name and suffers may actually have had a deeper problem to deal with that they mistakenly thought a name change might solve…

      You are right that not all ‘wests’ are the same just as much as not all ‘easts’ are the same either. I also agree that in being part of a more collectivist society you lose something of ‘you’. Here we part company though because I do not share your optimism about the value of such individualism. I see our preoccupation with it as something of a cancer which is killing our society (societies?). Losing a little of my ‘me’ whilst being here in Bangladesh has been a good thing and one I would like others back in the UK embrace.

      That said, your comments about the abuses of collectivist societies are absolutely just, no society has got it right. Though I fail to see how my own individualistic society has got it any better. People still stop others from getting jobs – it is just done in different ways.

      I have to say, I also wuite like calling my wife ‘wife’ and I always introduce her as such to others before giving her name in much the same way as I might introduce you to someone as ‘my friend, Larissa’. For me, you name is an identifier. The title I gave you indicates you importance and relationship. Otherwise, you could be just some stranger I have barely met myself! The name would be the same but out relationship much the lesser.

      Lastly, I laughed out loud at your last comment! A brilliant observation. WordPress is obviously hosted by Westerners and not Asians! I wish I could change that but no doubt that would cause more trouble than its worth!

      Thanks Larissa – as ever, you make the place sparkle when you are around 🙂


  2. Elizabeth says:

    Names are so important, God changed names in the bible to match the character of the person or to have the name of which God wanted them to become. Every name has a meaning which is oh so very important in the spiritual. When I call my son by his names I am calling him by the meaning of his name also which is son of Jehovah the rejoiced in. When I say my daughter’s name I would also be calling her by the meaning of her name God is gracious you’re a gift from God and my other son would be God has given, he is a friend of God. So to give my children or anyone for that matter a common name use for anyone of the same age, sex would not be right it would be dishonouring them by say anything else other than their given name.


    • Thank you for that comment Elizabeth. I think you are making a similar point to my blog – that of the importance of meaning in a name – albeit from a different perspective but just as valid. I think you are right that when a name has special meaning it should be valued. In Bangladesh the relationship is of the highest value. For your children their name has a special value. Alas, my full name merely means “Beautiful Handsome little river crossing” which really doesn’t describe me well in any way whatsoever! I would not change it because that would dishonour my parents who gave it to me, but to be called a brother by someone who means it lifts me up and gives me purpose.

      thank you for taking the trouble to write your comment – it made me ponder! 🙂


  3. Ruth Subash says:

    Ken it is the same in India once again. On my first visit and I did not know this I did think I was going to someone’s home called Aunty and Uncle. I really thought they had some funny names! I now understand and it is really nice to hear children in the street shouting Aunty at me. I am getting used to the many different Tamil names I am called. Athai by my nephews, Aanai by cousins, Akka by some people slightly younger than me. I then have to remember the right terms for calling relatives and friends and try not to use their names.


    • Yes it is odd isn’t Ruth? We’re so used to calling people by their first names. Still to this day I struggle with not using names (which, in my upbringing is really rather rude not to) and sometimes compromise saying “Mashi Shurola” or “Elbina didi” instead of just using the titles of “Mashi” or “didi”.

      With Shantals, there are also special hand signals that you have to give when you visit a village which all depends on the age and sex of the person greeting you. I am still trying to remember which is which so I don’t accidently acknowledge an older man as if he were my younger daughter! I always forget!


  4. Fairooz says:

    Well…I have seen lot of people to forget peoples name and well there were many people who can’t even pronounce my name properly,sometimes they call me in such a improper way that it sound really weird,but ya I didnot see you to forget my name…

    In Bangladesh relationship and calling elder people with respect is a observing thing to all. It doesnot matter wheather the elder person is your maid or someone of your low level,we still call them with respect because that’s what our culture is…


    • Thanks Fairooz, yeah I think I always remembered your name – although there was always some confusion I think because you can be known by another name if I remember correctly. It always brought some fun to the class I think! I don’t forget everyone’s name – just can’t remember them all!

      Yes, the whole respect thing is what I think is really good about Bangladesh. In the UK we have got so used to thinking of everyone as your equal or even beneath you that we have lost so much respect for each other. I hope Bangladesh people never pick this up from the west…


  5. jacqui says:

    I too am terrible at remembering names and in some cases, recognising people.

    I remember going to a wedding reception a few years ago. The bride was a nurse, so consequently there were a few nurses there.

    As I was dancing, a girl came up to me and said “hi jacqui”. I had no idea who she was.

    Normally, not wishing to offend, I would task a few carefully chosen questions to detect who I was talking to and where I knew them from. But, having had a couple of drinks, I confessed immediately and told her I could’t remember who she was, let alone what her name was.
    She went on to tell me that the last time I had seen her she had been wearing white. The penny dropped, or so I thought.
    “yes, I remember”, grateful for the hint. “you worked on my ward as a student nurse”.
    “no,” she replied, “you came to my wedding”.

    Mortified, I realised she had married my nephew just three weeks before!!!!!!!

    I shall never again confess to not remembering anyones name……………….


    • LOL – Brilliant Jacqui!!! That must have been a truly horrifying moment!

      I will confess that as a teacher I have used a range of techniques to make sure that Parent’s Evenings it doesn’t look like I don’t know the student’s name or that I don’t recognise their parents (who I may have met many times before). My favourite that a colleague used but I never did was to have the books stacked on table. When the student arrived with parents my friend would say “oh just get your book out from this stack would you? Then I can show your parents your work!”. He would then make general “could-be-applied-to-anyone” comments until the right book was found and he could see the name of the kid!


  6. Nicky B says:

    I am likewise horrendus with names, i teach 9 seperate classes a week now… Not bad when i havent qualified yet.. And i can only remember


    • Nicky B says:

      Stupid ipod posting when i hadnt finished…. Anyway i only remember perhaps a quarter of the names, and thats on a good day! It would be much easier to just call them one of two names, for male or female…. But i suppose i already do, by referring to them as groups of girls or boys… Or ocasionally guys if mixex, but its all a little impersonal.

      I think youre right a generic name is fine… But having that inherant link to something important like a familial relationship means something more than jst the fact that youve noticed their gender.

      Plus close family tends to get a little narky when you forget their name….


      • Thanks Nicky – you’re right about family. I have even been known to forget my children’s names from time to time and just this morning I realised I briefly forgot one of my nephew’s names!

        I think it is important to get the names of your students right when in the class – which is why many teachers – including me if the class is big enough – use a seating plan which is on the desk in front of them. At least for a few weeks. To use the student’s name in a command is a powerful tool – one of the most powerful you have. At LAMB we have very small class sizes (which is SUCH a luxury having come from teaching up to 32 in a class) so instead I tend to make a big joke out of it and pretend to be worse at remembering names than I am. Before long, after being corrected by the kids who LOVE to correct teacher, the names get fixed in my head….but only for as long as I teach them. After that…who knows?


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