Saturday, June 20, 2015
In his Honour, Justice Emilios Kyrou's recently published autobiography: "Call me Emilios," his Honour describes how ongoing racism at school caused him to try to conceal his ethnic identity by means of adopting a more 'Anglo' sounding name, in his case, 'John.' The moment of supreme emancipation for him, came on the day he was confident enough to rise above the racism of his peers, and not only re-assume his original name, but further, insist that everyone call him by it, regardless of how unfamiliar it was to them. He was right to do so. Emilio is a distinctive cool name. I once had a Spanish hairdresser who was called Emilio. Sadly, he was dour, uncommunicative, constantly unwashed and plied his trade at the back of a Tattersalls outlet, though he is the exception that proves the rule. I also once had a friend whose name was Aristogeiton, a name given to him by his proud parents in order to make him equally proud of being Greek. Unfortunately, he never learnt Greek and being teased by his Aussie classmates for having an unpronounceable name and by his Greek acquaintances for having an unpronounceable name AND being unable to pronounce it, upon attaining the age of majority, he changed it to Trevor.
Generally speaking however, we here in the Antipodes, have been laboring under various soubriquets for years. These soubriquets were originally invented for the purposes described in "Call me Emilios," that is, to permit migrants with names unfamiliar to the host culture, to acquire an 'acceptable' form of address. Some of the names provided were quite arbitrary and the connection between the original name and the adopted name almost non-existent, thus: Jim or James for Dimitrios, even though the equivalent in Greek is Iakovos (and in fact this is a name that has become quite generic. I know of a multitude of Greek Tzimides but have only ever met one 'Aussie' Jim), Bill for Basil, even though Bill is in English, a contraction of William, Penny for Pinelopi or Kalliopi and Nola for Fotini. There is also Newy for Onofrouios, even though the correct English equivalent is Winifred. Perhaps that is for the best.
Over the years fashions change with regard to such soubriquets, with new ones being coined and others discarded. Thus, we have Mark Mitchell's Con the Fruiterer to thank for reducing the market share of the Roulas, Toulas, Voulas and Soulas of our community for a generation. While most of my synonomatoi are known as Con, I and many others like me were provided with the English name of Dean, on the basis that my progenitors felt that the name Con had negative connotations of dishonesty in English and at that time, to expect to be called Konstantinos by the English speaking populace was unthinkable. My Greek-American friends on the other hand, call me Gus because, via similar processes that has been is the American equivalent of Kostas, which makes sense when one tries to pronounce that name with an American accent. These days, here in Australia, a new form of Con is emerging, that of Connor.
In similar fashion, Haralambides who could have been born with the expectation that they would be called Harry and now being called Harrison, the Nolas have been replaced by the Tiffanies, (both for Theofani and Fotini), the Arthurs by the Aathans, the Steves by the Trents and the Tristans (both for Stavros and Stamatis), the Kalliopis by the Kaylas and the Irenes by the Renees, even though this name is derived from the Latin Renatus, which means re-born. I am also in receipt of information that suggests that there exists here in Melbourne a Daenerys, this being adopted from the Game of Thrones franchise and used as a form of Dimitra. There also exists a Tonja, for Antonia, born in the nineties, who is probably as these lines are being read, making her Fresh Prince of Bel Air-watching parents regret their fortuitous decision.
On the one level, this is merely symptomatic of the ever evolving fashion of names. On the other, it raises important questions about the way in which we perceive our identity. One would have thought that since the time of Justice Kyrou until now, both our community and society in general would have felt comfortable enough with our emerging diversity, to accommodate our names in their original form. While this may in part be true of the broader Australia community, which is now able to adapt to names deriving from hundreds of cultures throughout the world with reasonable success, the same cannot be said of the emerging generations. For reasons that deserve to be studied at length, a large number of Greek-Australian parents are continuing to provide to their children, Australianised or stylized versions of their Geek names, even as the actual pressures that occasioned this phenomenon in the first place, have disappeared.
Furthermore, the way in which names are used has also changed. Given that a name defines one's identity, among previous Australian-born generations, there was a diglossia with regard to names. That is, while the Australianised names existed, they generally were for external use, with children calling themselves and their peers by their Greek names. It was the esoteric Greek name, for use in intimate family and social circles that was considered to be the child's 'real' name, this having the effect of embedding within the child's psyche, the understanding that they belonged to a particular cultural group over and above that of broader society. In this manner, it did not matter what you were called in English, for it was your Greek name that determined your identity, and in the case of Georges, their character, that is, if the song «Γιώργοςείναι πονηρός» is to be believed.
Contrariwise, in current times, we are witnessing, save on the day of the child's baptism, a phenomenon where the child's English name is used exclusively by its intimate familial ad social circle, its Greek name being relegated to the margins of linguistic history. The insistence of some parents upon the usage of the English name and pronunciation often reaches the level of hysteria and causes family rifts. For example, a non-English speaking friend recently complained to me that his daughter was constantly berating him for calling his grandson Gavriil. Apparently, the child's name was to be pronounced Gay-bri-oul, as it is in Australian English. The psychology behind such a seemingly farcical request would most likely lead to fascinating insights as to the manner in which the 'naming' generation sees itself within the context of an ever-evolving Greek-Australian identity.
While it would be generous to generalize, given the immense demographic and social complexity of the Greek-Australian communities, once could possibly point out a few reasons as to why this phenomenon exists. Firstly, in a number of cases, people still feel that their original names are an impediment to their successful integration and mobility within English-speaking Australian society and thus provide their children with names which they feel would facilitate this process. Again it would be interesting to learn just how much of this is based on assumptions gleaned from the past and how much is experiential. Secondly, there are those who are enamoured of or aspire to adopt the culture of English-speaking Australia, especially the freedom to provide their offspring with exotic sounding-names that are not those of their in-laws; thus the names they provide their children are symptomatic of this fact and thirdly, by corollary, there are those who are ambivalently attached to the Greek aspect of their identity or wish to divest themselves from it. Fourthly, there are people like me, who make use of English to make a point. I named my daughter Helene, though I call her Eleni, for two reasons: the first aesthetic, because I do not like the way Eleni is pronounced in English with the thick Anglo-Saxon 'L,' but most importantly, because Helene is one 'L' short of Hellene and is pronounced the same way, hopefully providing her with a not so subtle hint as to her identity in the future, in a manner similar to the phenomenon of Cypriot girls being named Ellada during the campaign for Cyprus' union with Greece, or of girls being named Laokratia, during the Greek Civil War.
Ultimately, the old question "what's in a name," can be answered succinctly: a good deal. The way in which our naming customs will continue to develop will say much not only about our place within society, but also how we see ourselves, as this extract from Neil Gaiman's "Coraline," so eloquently proves: " What's your name,' Coraline asked the cat. 'Look, I'm Coraline. Okay?' 'Cats don't have names,' it said. 'No?' said Coraline. 'No,' said the cat. 'Now you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names."
First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 June 2015