My name is Phoenicia Hebebe Dobson-Mouawad. No, I’m not kidding. This is the name my parents chose for me 19 years ago and it is the reason I don’t go to Starbucks. Choosing a name for your baby can seem like a way to determine what type of parents you will become – many aim for trendy rather than traditional.
However, faced with the resentment of your grownup offspring, who have endured a childhood of being embarrassed by their unusual name, you may wish you could turn back time.
My experience of living with an unusual name has been, to put it lightly, difficult. There has not been one occasion when making a new acquaintance has not resulted in a remark about it, or some degree of confusion.
Faced with an uncommon name, people think they have the right to voice an opinion. The worst is when a stranger feels it necessary to comfort me, having assumed (correctly) that my name is an affliction. “Oh, that’s different,” they say, or “How original.” I’ve learned that what people really mean by this is that they have no idea how to spell it.
Since childhood, I’ve been called Hebe – a short version of my middle name – I think this was my mother’s feeble attempt to shield me from the unkindness of the outside world. In fact, the 2006 fantasy film Penelope – about a mother’s desperate efforts to help her daughter function in society without being branded a freak – could be based on my life. Except in the true story I have a peculiar name, not a porcine nose – and I don’t end up with James McAvoy (sigh).
My childhood peers mocked my name, as did several teachers – resorting to calling me Herbie, Heb and Phoebe. My least favourite gag came in my first year of high school, when a teacher jokingly asked me in front of the whole class where “Jeebie” was. To this day, I fail to understand how an adult could find amusement in embarrassing a child in front of her peers.
One annoyance, which will be shared with other children with unusual names, is that every piece of homework created on a computer would automatically have a red squiggly line under my name – even technology knew that Phoenicia Hebebe Dobson-Mouawad shouldn’t be a name. I wish Bill Gates had informed my parents sooner.
Surprisingly, I’ve managed to cope reasonably well with having an odd name – to the surprise of my grandmother, whom I also blame for not stopping my parents from deciding it wasn’t enough to hyphenate a transliterated Arabic surname and adding a couple of names from ancient civilisations.
I would like to say that I have learned to appreciate my full name in all its ridiculousness. However, every time I have to spell it painfully slowly for someone, or give a stranger a brief historical account of what my parents were thinking when naming me, I realise that I will never feel anything but mild annoyance.
Strangely, I think what has allowed me to cope with my name is hearing others struggle with it. Although this is deeply embarrassing, it is nonetheless amusing. I stifle a laugh when someone from customer services pronounces my name “Fo-nik-ia”. Also, I’ll never run out of small talk; imagine that awkward silence with a stranger – you don’t have to resort to the weather when you can chat for 15 minutes about the unusual origins of your own name. But a couple of minor perks don’t outweigh a childhood of mortification. To all future parents thinking of giving their child a “unique” name, please consider the effect you will have on their life. Just so you do, here are my five golden rules:
Have you heard the name before? If not, no one else will have.
Can you pronounce it without having to look it up? Because if you need to look it up, I can tell you firsthand that you will be the only person your child ever meets who has taken the time to do so.
Avoid hyphens unless both names are easily pronounceable. Dobson – that’s fine. Mouawad – more than enough effort on its own. Dobson-Mouawad – no comment.
Can a child of primary school age say it? If they look confused and say, “What?”, take that as a strong no.
Remember that your child’s name is for their happiness alone and not to prove to the world how cool and creative you are. That’s what Instagram is for. Take it from someone who knows or in 19 years’ time your child will be as fed up as I am.
author – Phoenicia Hebebe Dobson-Mouawad