Why can’t people just call me by my name?

Always and without question, when I email someone I don’t know and sign my name off as:

“Many thanks and kind regards,

Dòmhnall Iain MacDonald”

They reply with:

“Dear Iain”

In my reply to their reply, I once more use “Dòmhnall Iain,” only to have them reply with “Dear Iain” again!

I find this behaviour bizarre. When I complained about this on facebook, I jokingly asked if people thought Dòmhnall was some kind of title? While Dòmhnall does technically mean “Ruler of the World,” I highly doubt everyone who corresponds with me is an expert in Celtic philology.

There is only one possible explanation, then. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people choose to ignore the first part of my double-barreled name. Do their eyes skirt over the exotically spelled part of my name, drawn to the more familiar, Anglo-Saxon-looking Iain? Do they deliberately choose not to retype a name which is an aberration to the rules of English spelling? Does only the English-like (i.e. Biblical!) part of my name count as proper?

One would have thought that it was common courtesy when corresponding formally with someone to address them by the name they themselves use. Dòmhnall Iain stands there, clear as the light of day, in both my actual email address and the name I sign my emails off with. It is not for lack of information my correspondents do not use it.

My problem is subtly different to the chronic Anglicization of names many Irish Gaels suffer, as described by the blogger An Sionnach Fionn. No one is changing Dòmhnall to Donald. Universally, people seem to be choosing not to use the ‘difficult’ Gaelic part of my name. What drove me to complain on facebook was that I was repeatedly called Iain in emails from someone who worked for a UK Muslim organization, who was presumably used to non-English, oddly-spelled names, yet still for their own inexplicable reasons chose to erase half my name.

People might say my complaining is petty. But, honestly, it’s simple. It’s just polite and decent to use someone’s chosen name. No one would ever dare change a Frenchman’s name to English…

Yet this question of what to call ourselves looms large in the lives of Gaelic speakers. Unlike in Ireland, where using a Gaelic name is commonplace, in Scotland we are still nervous about using our real names.

For reasons unknown to me, my father (an advocate of Gaelic his whole life, who worked to get GME in my school) wrote Donald Iain on my birth certificate, yet – alongside everyone else in the islands – he has called me Dòmhnall Iain since the day I was born. I only became aware of this contradiction when I went to secondary school and teachers called me Donald (sometimes with an Iain added on, sometimes just Donald John). This was because I was on the school role (and on my passport, and on the bank) as Donald Iain. Still in the 21st century, then, Gaels are using English for their proper, official names, and Gaelic for their colloquial, real names!

Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul describes this tension in his novel Fuaran Ceann an t-Saoghail (2012:38) –

“Tha iad air cairt bheag a thoirt dhomh le m’ainm air. Criosaidh, tha e ag ràdh aig a’ mhullach, agus Mrs MacDonald aig a’ bhonn. Sin mise. Criosaidh MacDonald. Neo NicDhòmhnaill, mas fheàrr leibh. Neo, gu dearbha, Dhòmhnallach. […] Criosaidh NicDhòmhnaill, ma-thà. Neo Chrissie mar a bheir cuid. Ged a bha cuid eile bha toirt Criostag agus Ciorstag orm. Criosaidh Sheonaidh Ruairidh Chaluim Sheonaidh Iain Dhòmhnaill Eòsag Iain Bhig. Ged a ghabh mi ainm mo dhuine an latha a phòs mi – Seumas a bh’airesan. Bean Sheumais Uilleim Sheumais ic Oighrig a’ Ghunna.”

[“They have given me a little card with my name on it. Criosaidh, it says at the top, with Mrs MacDonald at the bottom. That’s me. Criosaidh MacDonald. Or NicDhòmhnaill, if you prefer. Or, indeed, Dhòmhnallach. […] Criosaidh NicDhòmhnaill, then. Or Chrissie as some were called. Though there were others who called me Criostag and Ciorstag. Criosaidh Sheonaidh Ruairidh Chaluim Sheonaidh Iain Dhòmhnaill Eòsag Iain Bhig. Though I took the name of my husband the day I married – Seumas was his name. Bean Sheumais Uilleim Sheumais ic Oighrig a’ Ghunna’s.”]

When I went to university, I started using Dòmhnall Iain MacDonald. On my university cards, memberships and such like. One day I would like to publish scientific papers under this name.

In Ireland, people often use the Gaelic surname. I’m still a bit reluctant to do this. First, because these Gaelic surnames always seem ugly and unnatural – I would much rather write my sloinneadh. But also because I’ve only just become an adult and I’m still a bit nervous about navigating the world of finance, bills and passports, let alone changing my identity on them.

The reasons I was always given in school for not using Dòmhnall Iain for official purposes was that it would only cause confusion – a classic case would be in job applications, people would just throw away a difficult-to-pronounce name. Now, I don’t know if there’s any truth to this, but if there is, then it’s the kind of situation we need to stand up to. Using Gaelic names needs to be normalized in our society, like it has to some extent in Ireland. Otherwise we will all carry on feeling embarrassed, keeping our real names for the house and family.

This is the Gaelic cringe. I hate introducing myself to people. When I say my name is Dòmhnall Iain, many even refuse to attempt to pronounce it. When I explain it is a Gaelic name, they ask for a translation. I hate translating it because then people laugh at Donald MacDonald – as if this dull Anglicization and it associations with fast food and Disney ducks didn’t disguise the riches of my genealogy, culture and language. My grandfather, after whom I was named, was a Donald MacDonald from birth certificate to headstone, but was also a Dòmhnull Eachainn, a Dòmhnull Eirisgeach, a Dòmhnull Dòmhnullach…

English names are boring. They are a hangover from the days of Empire. They are officialdom’s way of hiding Gaeldom.  Besides the few gracious enough to try to pronounce Dòmhnall Iain, I now just ask everyone else in Oxford to call me D.I. I would prefer to use initials that stand for my full Gaelic name, rather than use any invented English name others choose to give me.

I often feel apologetic when I introduce my name – a common name in the islands, foreign in the rest of the country. That is not right. It is those who misname me who should be ashamed.

14 thoughts on “Why can’t people just call me by my name?

  1. I pity those who refuse even to try pronouncing your name. If I were to meet a person who has a Gaelic name, I’d enthusiastically ask him how to pronounce his name properly and call him by that. I think it’s fun to learn about Gaelic culture, and other culture for that matter. It keeps a person from being narrow-minded and from knowing so little about the world. 🙂

  2. Fìor mhath a charaid. Tha mi gu math eòlach air seo cuideachd oir ‘s e Alasdair MacCaluim a th’ orm san dà chànan agus ‘s e Ciorstaidh a tha’ air mo nighean as síne san dà chànan!

  3. Tha mi dol leat a Dhòmhnaill Iain. An-seo ann an Astràilia, tha duine ag ràdh an-còmhnaidh, ‘Ron’ no ‘Ronny’. ‘S beag orm. Thuirt mo pharantan an-còmhnaidh ‘Ronald’ agus ‘s e an t-ainm-sa a th’orm. Chan eil e ro dhoirbh idir idir…

  4. ‘S fheàrr leamsa “Dòmhnaill Iain” gu “Donald”. Ach tha mi a’ smaoineachadh gun bheil tuilleadh ainmean Ceilteach a dhìth air an t-saoghal! 😉

    I guess I must have the French cringe then. Similar, but not exactly the same, Living in the US, no one ever tries to pronounce my surname correctly, and my Franco-American father even raised me to just give in and let people call me “DeBoyce” and not “DeBois” because people just can’t give a f*** and make an effort if it’s not Teh Eengleash. I also changed my first name to keep people from changing it to something they preferred or thought was cuter for a woman–‘s fhìor bheag orm sin!–and now I have to battle people trying to call me “Katy” and not Cade. I went to Canada for a couple of weeks and no one–N O O N E–fussed about my name, cute-tified it or Anglicized it. It was like I was on a totally different planet.

    Why is it so hard for people to just call you by the name you give them? I don’t know. I wish I did. But everytime someone does, it’s proof IMO they’re not listening to you really, not respecting you really, and not treating you as an equal really.

    1. I don’t recall seeing the name “Cade” before, would have no idea what language it comes from and hence no way of knowing how to pronounce it, assuming I knew that language in the first place. Surely your ‘official name’ is just a handy label for the bureaucrats, no more than the various numbers we’re all given these days. The name you’re called by in any given group/society/culture you’re part of will reflect your rôle amongst those people, and it seems only natural to me that it might be different, especially where language differences are involved. Carson a tha sin a’ cur dragh oiribh?

  5. Tha mi ag aontachadh leis a h-uile facail a sgrìobh thu a Dhòmhnaill. Tha an aona rud a’ tachairt dhomhsa. Cùm ort a’ sgrìobhadh d’ ainm mar a thoililcheas tu fhèin. Dùrachdan, Aonghas MacCoinnich.

  6. So maybe people call you, “World-Ruler Iain…”

    I have to admit, I change my name depending on what language I’m using, which can lead to some confusion if I introduce myself in one language and then carry out my entire relationship with that person in another language. It doesn’t bother me much if people translate my name, or even just pronounce it differently. (Calling me by my mother’s or cousin’s names, Ruth and Rebecca, does annoy me, though, but I suppose that’s a risk of all three of us having similar names). But it might be different if my name weren’t in the dominant language of the area I live in…

    But one would think, even if they can’t pronounce “Dòmhnall”, they’d still be able to type it on the e-mail? Rather than ignoring it completely?

  7. Now help me get this clear, are you saying that Dòmhnall-Iain is some sort of double-barreled first name rather than two names? That’s uncommon in English and I don’t recall seeing it anns a’ Ghàidhlig either. Maybe a hyphen as above would clarify matters. As to people writing back to ‘Dear Iain …’ I can only guess that they are unfamiliar with the Gaelic spelling of Donald and mistake it for some kind of title. After all people can’t be expected to know all the honorifics in all languages. Would you recognise say the Hungarian or Polish equivalent of Mr., Dr. etc.

    To add to the confusion there is no clear one-to-one correspondence between English and Gaelic names. I recently saw mention of a certain “Donncha Mac Fhionnlaidh” and assumed this gentleman would be know in English as “Duncan MacInlay” (with various spellings of the surname). Turns out he’s the Irish Gaeltacht minster know as “Dinny McGinley”. Eadhon ma tha Gàidhlig agad, chan eil cùisean uile gu leòr simplidh. ‘S beag an t-iongnadh gu bheil luchd na Beurla co-measgte.

  8. Although I am a ‘Colin MacDonald’ whose family is now disconnected from Gaidhlig (I’ve lost out on my birth-right), I find this article infuriating. It is seriously depressing that we are so ignorant of our own native culture in this country that Gaels are made to feel inadequate and ‘cringy’ towards their own names while anglicised names are seen as the ‘native’.

    Why should anyone be made to feel embarrassed for the spelling MacDhòmhnaill or being called Donald MacDonald? Why should you need to change your name because someone cannot pronounce it?

    Although in saying this, in our ridiculously bureaucratic society its hardly surprising that you feel its all just a bit of a pain.

    I’ve seen this hassle first hand, as my wife is Chinese-Peranakan and uses a different naming system. The tradition system is [Surname] [Generational Name] [Personal name] but because we live in the era of ‘computer says no’, where culturally ignorant philistines are in charge, it causes all kinds of administrative problems when the names are reversed on different documents.

  9. You remind me of a former colleague when I was in Grampian Police. He called himself ‘D.I.’ as well, until it was pointed out to him that it wouldn’t cut the mustard as a ‘DI’ is a Detective Inspector and he was a lowly Constable!

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