Native English speakers seem to have a unique knack for always getting my name wrong irrespective of how many times they’ve heard it being said or witnessed it in print. I would imagine this be the case for many Eastern Europeans whose names are a jumble of vowels and consonants that require a Scrabble veteran to decipher. This is a story about the evolution of my name.
It’s taken me many years of various iterations to arrive at my current name. It all started with Przemyslaw, the original spelling, but for obvious reasons, this wasn’t going to work for anyone unaccustomed to tongue twisters or whose first language is English – much more so, anyone whose only language is English.
Any attempt at pronouncing the original name would typically result in something resembling py-rez-ee-me-slaw – a word so far removed from the original that it would take years before someone could grab my attention in a noisy room. It even gave rise to a comical alternative invented by my “friends” in high school: coleslaw (as in the salad).
As delicious as coleslaw may be, it was still easier to swallow than being called “The Russian Spy” by my teachers – no love lost there. In their defence, however, the Iron Curtain was still firmly attached to every brick in the Berlin Wall, and having a commie walking around Australian streets could have been seen as a sleeper cell in the making. Name-calling aside, I still had a monstrous dilemma that required an immediate solution.
Much like a Richard would shorten to a Rick (or Dick), so would your typical Eastern European name. Even by Polish standards, Przemyslaw is a rather cumbersome and long-winded name to be thrown around during casual banter — it would typically be shortened to Przemek.
Logic might suggest that reducing the number of letters from ten to seven would increase the chances of having it pronounced correctly. Unfortunately, though, it only gave rise to countless more permutations of verbal diarrhea.
There was py-rez-e-mek, py-z-ea-mek and even pi-z-mk. It was amusing, I must admit, you never knew what exotic variation would be blurted out during a discussion. These were twisted vocal contortions like no other, and I was curious to know which school failed these people so terribly – I was sure as hell hoping that it wasn’t my current one.
My favourite, though, was p-CH-ae-m-e-k, which typically ended up sounding as though there was some important grammatical requirement to sneeze immediately after the leading ‘p’. Even the written version was, and still is, frequently jumbled up as Prezemek.
This was proving to be too much of an ordeal for the humble Anglophones. The sneezing issue was getting completely out of hand and it was time to Anglicise. I turned Przemek into Shemek and breathed a sigh of relief to be standing, at long last, well clear of the influenza epidemic. But I underestimated the ingenuity of a childish mind and my troubles were far from over.
Now that the name was partly Anglicised, it allowed kids to further antagonize my humble origins by way of their many well-honed native talents. Their crafty vocal cords mutated it to Smack, Shim, Shem-Z-whack and countless more. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the knife in the back was thrust by an unfortunately timed television advertisement which coincided with my re-branding.
Introducing: Schmackos – a dog snack. With its memorable jingle and comical catchphrase, it was difficult to have a comeback – I mean, who can compete with the might of corporate advertising and “Dogs go Wacko for Schmackos.”
It didn’t take long for Shemek to evolve into its current form: Shem. Dropping the last two letters converted the name into a single syllable which should have, with all probability, ended any future permutations. And for the most part, it’s held up quite well over the last twenty odd years.
Almost forty years in the making, the iterations which took Przemyslaw to Przemek to Shemek to Shem have been eventful and, in retrospect, quite amusing. I like the evolution as well as the stories that accompany the changes, but most of all, I like the simplicity of the end result.
Given all the struggles, it’s unfortunate that I must now fight a new battle. Until recently, the battle has been isolated to the vocal cords. But having moved back to Dubai recently, it is becoming a battle of perceptions. What’s a Jewish-sounding name doing in the middle of Arab country?
In Biblical terms, Shem was supposedly the eldest son of Noah who, depending on which book you read, lived till the ripe old age of 99, 101 or 600. Biblical references aside, you can probably imagine the conversations that arise immediately after I’m introduced to someone.
It’s gotten to the point where I’ve asked friends to modify the opening sentence when introducing me to people: “This is Shem,” – for a moment, facial expressions freeze and eyes grow larger – ” –he’s originally from Poland,” (as opposed to Israel); it’s only at this point that the conversation regains momentum and a visible sense of relief can be seen on everyone’s face.
I really don’t want to get into Israeli-Arab politics here, but I would like to say that there are texts from Islam which suggest that many nations are derived from [the] Shem (as in the people descended from Shem). For instance: Tabari II:11 “Shem, the son of Noah was the father of the Arabs, the Persians, and the Greeks; –” — suggesting one big happy family. Go figure. I’m over it.
Coincidentally, the only place on the planet where my name has never been mispronounced, even in its original form, has been in some of the most remote places in Africa. It would seem that quite a few dialects have complete mastery over rolling the ‘R’ as well as most of the Slavic digraphs.
But in keeping with a universal balance, some Africans bring with them other issues — like their inability to hear the difference between Shem and Shame. “Oh, Shame, nice to meet you.” The first time I heard it I wondered whether they felt sorry that I was given such a terrible name by my parents but were still pleased to meet me. Interestingly enough, the Swahili word for brother-in-law is Shemegi, which could explain why their first reaction was sorrow.
What can I say? It’s been a journey to say the least. One that I’m sure will continue to evolve as time goes by. Who knows, given another forty years, I may just concede defeat and settle on “S” :)