What’s in a name?

Everyone calls me Bim. Everyone. For most of my life that’s what I’ve gone by. Bim. B-I-M. Three letters, one syllable. Bim. When I was concerned by these things, I would lament its cuteness – “that’s not a sexy name,” I would think. I would put on Billy Crystal’s voice and paraphrase his line from When Harry met Sally: “Do it to me Bim, you’re an animal, Bim… Doesn’t work.” Bim is cute. Bim is fun. When considered in a certain light, it sounds almost French – gamine, fluffy. But not, I was convinced, sexy.

Like I said, I was younger and more foolish then. I had a lot of time to be sitting and considering the tone of voice my name should be delivered in.

Bim is not my full first name. That is Adebimpe. Four syllables. Ah-day-bim-pay. Is it unusual? In the UK, sure. Is it difficult? Nah, it’s not. Not really. Like a lot of West African names, it’s pretty much a ‘say what you see’ system. But no-one calls me Adebimpe anyway.

My name is Yoruba, it is Nigerian. It means something, something that roughly comes to ‘born complete’ in English. My unusual name may be mocked (it has been), but it is generally given a ‘pass’ because it is African, because it ‘means something‘.

The names that aren’t given passes, the ones that we are allowed to openly disparage, they look a certain way. They may have African languages at their root. They may, like certain movies, be “inspired by the true story of…” Africa, or some other continent. They may be laced with an extra accent, or a hard ‘s’ where a soft ‘ch’ is more usual. They are names that have the sounds ‘qua’ and ‘nae’. They almost always belong to little black girls and little black boys.


I am thinking of my name because of one specific little brown girl in America, who also has an unusual name. I am thinking about Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest person to be nominated for an Academy Award. I am thinking about the people who ‘cannot’ pronounce the four simple syllables in her name. I am thinking about the YouTube videos that tell you how to pronounce her name. I am thinking about the people who eventually ‘learn’ to say ‘Siobhan’ and ‘Caoimhe’ and ‘Aoife’ but become tongue-tied and struggle with ‘Tyeisha’ and ‘Myosha’ and ‘Nyachomba’. I am thinking of the woman who met me and asked if she could abbreviate my already shortened name and call me ‘B’. I am thinking about my name, and I am thinking about Quvenzhané’s.

I am thinking of the words of Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire:

“Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

QWallisIncidentally, fuck you, The Onion.


8 responses

  1. I’ve often thought about this: my name is and old-fashioned French one in a country where French isn’t spoken widely. Because I look mediterrranean, people often ask me where I’m from.

    Depending on my mood, I smile and tell the truth (I was born here, ta very much), tell the truth (name after my maternal grandmother, looks from my father) or tell the truth (it’s an accent grave . But I insist people take the trouble of addressing me properly.

    Also: fuck you, Onion. And Seth Farlane.

  2. My name has caused countless people to stare dumbly and go ‘huh’ at me, despite the fact that it’s one syllable and rhymes with one of the most common English names there is – Dave. I’ve often found that people seem somehow comforted when I say that it’s Irish and isn’t so common over here. I guess that foreign-but-still-white is simple enough for people to cope with.

  3. Hi there.

    Quvenzhané Wallis. I have no idea how to say this name. I also didn’t realize there were youtube videos that taught you how to say her name. Once I’m done typing this I will skip over to one of those. I’ve never even heard the name said. Only in print as I rarely watch TV. I read it as Q-von-sa-nay or q-ven-sha-nay and sometimes kwu-ven-cha-nay. I’m pretty sure all those are wrong.

    Being Nigerian, no name is difficult to me really. Just different. My real name is Adetomi. Shortened to Tomi. When I moved to Canada people would see “Tomi” on a form, take one look at me and then proceed to call me “Tommy” “To-meh” “Too- mia” “Too-my”. Like the fact that I am black/african means my name cannot be as simple as To-mi.

    That being said when I joined the work force and became manager of a jewelry retail store, resumes with names like Quvenzhané would honestly rarely ever get a call back from me. Not because I have anything against the name, but because if I’m calling 15 people on my lunch break to set up interviews, I don’t want to waste five minutes first deciding how the name should be pronounced and then being corrected over the phone by the person whose name I have hopelessly mangled.

    Is this fair? No, definitely not. No one should be denied a job opportunity because I want to save five minutes on my lunch break. But then I am human and selfish and do not like stress and to me those extra five minutes caused but that name are indeed, stress.

    And that’s really how it works for most people. It’s not so much as the stereotype associated with the name as it is the stress involved in simply saying the name.


    Oh and by the way? Fuck you, The onion. Fuck you repeatedly

  4. Ha ha yes I have a double barrelled first name and surname and laugh that people manage to call someone named Anne-Marie or such without any problems but literally stumble over my name and ask for an abbreviated version. What is more comical is that non-English speakers have no problem saying it.

  5. I am a young, white, American woman with a name that is very uncommon. It’s three syllables and pronounced just the way it’s spelled, but pretty much everyone I’ve met has had trouble with it, just because it’s “different.” I had a friend in college who was so intimidated by my name that, to this day, she calls me Al. I’ve been called Alicia, Felicia, Alyssa, Elijah and countless other names, some just as unusual in infrequently heard as my own.

    It’s amazing the assumptions people make about you based on your name. I’ve been told that, based only on the fact that my first name is unusual, people assumed I was black before meeting me. I receive junk male and spam addressed to Mr. (even when it’s for women’s rights groups I’ve signed petitions for). I’ve had people ask what country my family is from, even though we’ve been in the US for five generations.

    When I was a child, I was determined that I would change my name the first chance I got. It was so frustrating that people never said my name right. All the Jennifers and Megans teased me. I wanted a personalized keychain or sticker but they just weren’t made for my name. But I’ve come to embrace my name. My family has something of a tradition of giving girls unusual names, and if I ever have a daughter I don’t want her lost among the thousands of Madisons and Olivias. My 7-year old stepson also has an uncommon name, and last week he was complaining that people say his name wrong. I told him what I’ve come to realize; that an unusual name sets you apart from everyone else and is part of what makes you special.

  6. That’s my nom du travail, so to speak but it’s simpler than my given name, which is simpler and rather boring compared to the musical Quvenzhané but I also correct people when they get it wrong because every syllable matters.

    Fuck The Onion and everyone who retweeted that comment…and Seth too….

  7. Are you telling me that if I got you a “friends” intro music and had a voice over by James Earl JOnes saying introducing Bim you wouldn’t be squealing that’s my name. It can’t sound sexy to you because you grew up with it but I tell you some Italian hottie saying your name with low baritones will make you re-evaluate.

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