What’s in a name?

Misspelled names are one of the most common corrections I have to make at the OBSERVER. Sometimes they result from typographical errors, hearing a name incorrectly or not realizing there is an alternate spelling; many times names are submitted incorrectly. Some regular contributors misspell the same names again and again. Because the name is recognizable to staff, the same correction is made over and over. In that case, it luckily gets into the paper spelled correctly.

If a name does not look correct or is unusual I will try looking it up or give a call if I have a phone number. I check the spelling in an effort to avert disaster.

I try really hard to correctly spell names but sometimes I fail.

One of the most uncomfortable exchanges I’ve ever had as a reporter took place with a man who said he didn’t trust anything the OBSERVER printed because its staff “couldn’t even spell names right.”

Indeed I had misspelled his name. Checking back, I discovered my mistake stemmed from a misreading of “cursive writing.” What should have been an “lt” looked like a “tt” because both letters were crossed.

When I was growing up, my last name (Rzepkowski) was often misspelled and mispronounced. It was a fact of my life. When learning to print my name, I told my mom I?wished that I had any easier name. But I learned it didn’t do any good to get angry.

One good thing was I was not the only one with a difficult name. Most kids in my Dunkirk neighborhood, public school classroom and church had Polish names like Budniewski, Deszcz, Jakubiec, Jakubowski, Kuczenski, Lazarczyk, Pietrkiewicz, Szczerbacki, Szumigala, Szymczak and Wojnarowski. Some like Miga and Million were Polish but easier for the general population to pronounce. The kids with “normal” names like Skinner, Adams and Palmer were definitely the minority at School 6.

I learned to be grateful if anyone got my last name correct. I felt apologetic that my name was too hard for most people, but it gave me practice at speaking up.

My mother’s way of explaining our name was to say that the beginning “R” is silent. When people would ask why that was so and why Polish was so difficult, she would answer with a question of her own.

“Why is the k in knife silent?” she would ask.

If someone called us “dumb Pollacks” she would say, “No, we are Americans.”

I followed Mom’s example for years. Later, I learned “rz” represents a specific sound in Polish. I also discovered that although the combinations like cz sz and the dreaded szcz look daunting, they can be mastered, and unlike English, always represent the same sound.

I adapted to my name. When teachers called roll, which was arranged alphabetically, I knew when they reached the end of the R names and looked puzzled, it was time to stick up my hand and say “Here.”

During my time at SUNY Fredonia, students were referred to by Miss or Mr. and the last name. Most professors just gave up and called me “Diane.” I think this may have resulted in a better GPA for me, since I was on a more informal footing with those giving out grades.

It was the early 1970s when I got married. At that time, with a few exceptions, women took the husband’s last name. Hyphenated names were not common. I didn’t think too much about it. Chodan was further up in the alphabet and it certainly was a simpler name.

NOT. Over time I learned the last vowel can easily be mistaken. My name has been spelled Chodin (in fact the phone directory at the OBSERVER has it spelled that way), Choden, Chodon and Chodun. It sometimes is spelled Chodar. That can be traced back to a signature that became messier when I had to sign lots of paperwork at my job with the state.

Other spellings over the years have been oriental looking, like Cho-Lin and Cho-Lan. Schodan, Shodan, Chohan, Choban, Chordan and Chandon are the way it’s been misspelled since I started working at the OBSERVER.

Years ago, I read Kris Rzepkowski’s blog piece “Child Branding.” Kris is my cousin Dick Rzepkowski’s son. Dick and his wife Marlene (Burgstrom) grew up in Dunkirk. Dick lived right up the street from me. Curiously enough, like Dick I gave my daughter a name based upon my time studying in a foreign country.

Kris agreed I could reprint his piece in the OBSERVER. I like his writing and his humor and hope others will enjoy it too. To me, humor is preferable to anger.

I laughed with recognition at some of the incidents Kris related. Like his mom, I identify letters in the name when I make calls on behalf of my mother – “R as in rabbit, z as in zebra.” I do the same with Chodan, – “C-H-O- D as in dinosaur, A as in Ann, N as in Nancy.”

Thanks to Kris, I now keep copies of the envelopes and emails on which my name is misspelled.

I use R as a middle initial in my writing. It is a reminder to myself of who I am.

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