Angharad Williams has spent her life with a name people struggle to pronounce. Here, she talks about adapting to suit others, giving herself nicknames, and how she’s now decided to reclaim her name for good…
It’s the first question you’re asked when meeting someone new. Just four little words that you hear repeatedly during a lifetime: “What is your name?”[restrict]
It seems a simple enough question, but for some people it brings with it a moment of anxiety. It means taking a deep breath, saying your name slowly and then hoping for the best when it comes the pronunciation.
Most of the people I’ve met in my adult life know me by a nickname, in most cases it’s Ang. But now, in my 40s it hasn’t felt right introducing myself in my (old) usual way; “My name is Angharad, but you can call me Ang”.
My family call me Angharad, so do the friends who have known me the longest. Growing up in a small village in north Wales, my name wasn’t that unique. There were four girls with the name Angharad in my school year, but as I went outside the confines of my community saying my name would result in puzzled looks.
At 18 I left my family home and the rural community where I had spent most of my life to attend university in England. I was excited and terrified about this new chapter in my life story. When I introduced myself I wasn’t always met with ‘nice to meet you’, what I got in response was ‘what is your name?’ ‘Say it again?’ ‘Do you go by anything else?’ It was clear that I was going to have to think of something simpler or face years of people butchering my name.
I was young and unsure of myself in a new city, so what better way to fit into my new life than giving myself a new name. So, I became Harry – fun loving, rugby playing, pint downing Harry. Even some of my lecturers could not get their mouths to pronounce my name. One in particular would take a register of a class that had people from across the globe, but they would go quiet for a moment when he reached me. “Angharad” I would call out and he’d respond “Ah yes, sorry,” with a smile.
As the years have gone by the names have changed, Harad, Ange, Angharina, and most commonly Ang, and so have the pronunciations: Anna-guard, Anngrud, Angurrud and the letters or hotel rooms for Mr Angharad – even when I’ve ticked the Ms or Miss box on an application or booking form.
Recently, I reached the point where I was signing off emails with just an A and I was beginning to feel my name was disappearing entirely. So, at the start of this year I made a decision and a promise to myself; I’m reclaiming my name. Now whenever I meet anyone I say; “My name is Angharad, said Ang-har-add.”
Shakespeare famously asked “What’s in a name?”, and Bhargabi Das, a PhD student of Anthropology at Maynooth University answers that there is a lot more to a name than people think.
“A name is not a word in a vacuum,” she says, “it appears in a particular context, it has a history. It is not just the history of a person it is the history of a particular community, of a particular identity, so it is so critical to politicise your name because it means that you are fighting for that history, you are fighting for that community and you are also saying to the world that I am proud of the stories and the narratives that I carry forward.”
Having moved to Ireland in 2018 from India, Bhargabi expected people to struggle with her name at first, but she says people continually had issues with pronouncing her name.
“I thought I wanted to have a shorter name that was easier to pronounce. I was feeling a lot of embarrassment and a sense of shame, as if the onus was on me to make it easier.
“The worst part is when people wouldn’t try to get it correct and when they were struggling. I would try to make their life easier and I’d tell them to call me by a nickname.”
This is identical to what I have felt about my own name. Meeting people for the first time I would listen to them try and wrap their mouths around something that seemed so alien to them. The worst experiences were when people would joke about my name, I would have a fixed smile on my face, too polite to call anyone out on their insults.
Angharad means ‘much loved’ and is a name rooted in history and mythology. There was even a character called The Splendid Angharad in Mad Max: Fury Road, and I took great delight in hearing my name being uttered on the big screen.
In Bhargabi’s homeland names are celebrated and are a talking point amongst strangers.
“In India there is this really sweet practice where when you introduce yourself to someone for the first time or you hear the name of a person, they would ask the meaning of your name and that’s how you break the ice. As little girls we would learn the meaning of my name because when someone would ask us we could tell them what it meant. If anyone didn’t know the meaning of their name it would be really embarrassing.
“I remember my mother was so proud of me and my sister’s name, and that they are so rooted in India. She took so much pride in them, and I remember asking her the meaning of my name and she would tell me about the origin in scripture and that she was the daughter of a god,” Bhargabi recalls.
My own mother Aileen, who is from Ireland, says that when she read the name in the Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley, she fell in love with it.
“The main female character was called Angharad,” she says, “and I asked how it was pronounced and I thought it was a lovely name. I remember thinking at the time that if I have a girl she will be called Angharad, and that was that.
“I think it’s a name to be proud of. Some people had difficulty with it at first, but they got over quickly enough. Some Irish names are difficult to pronounce, so being part of an Irish family they were prepared to make the effort to say your name.”
As an anthropology student, Bhargabi says the shortening or simplification of ‘unique’ names has its roots in colonialism. “The shortening of names is actually a colonial practice,” she says. “It would be difficult for them to pronounce names to the point that they would be like ‘I want my tongue to be comfortable, so I will make whatever I want of your name.’ There would be anglicisation of names, making them more English sounding, or shortening of the names.
“This is basically following colonial practices, it’s something you inherit. You don’t want to shake that world of yours when something unknown comes, you want to change the other person instead, this is so colonial, they just changed them wherever they used to go.”
“What names become difficult, what names become easy and popular and modern?” she continues. “Some languages or vocabularies have disappeared and that isn’t naturally, it’s because of the colonial masters who would not allow people to talk them.
As Ireland becomes more diverse, embracing names and the correct pronunciation of names is one small but important way that people instantly feel more welcome – and respected.
“When someone asks ‘Did I get your name correct?’ I think that’s a gesture of a good hug to me,” Bhargabi says. “As an immigrant I feel accepted, so I think when you show me that respect; I want to know your culture back, like I want to know the Irish names, and I want to know the stories behind your name. I think that is how we are going to erase those colonial practices.”