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From Ali to Cyrus
What's in a name?



October 2, 2006 

Names were originally invented for one purpose: identification. It started with the use of simple sounds and words, but in time, the subject became so complicated that today, sometimes a manual is needed to explain what – or whom – some names refer to or why they were chosen to begin with.

Iranians, thanks to our poetic background, have proven to be quite creative with names.  Long before psychiatry suggested the influence of given names on people’s personality, we gave our babies names that sounded more like wishful thinking. Our daughters were named after flowers, stars or the best possible characteristics and we gifted them with fairy-like faces, the beauty of the moon and other lovely metaphors. Our sons are no less than kings, heroes, and legendary men, as if to ensure that they’ll skip the wimpy genes we must have passed down to them. Indeed there are Iranian women who enjoy the profound name of Goddess – Elaheh – and let’s not even mention the effect of a name such as Rouhollah on a man. But those of us who are less informal with the Almighty simply go for the word, Amir, thus making sure our beloved son is a king without being picky about what, or whom, he should rule.

Leaving the Devine alone, we go beyond Islam and reach out for the top guns in every religion by naming our baby boys Moses, and Jesus while girls become Sara and Maryam. In our quest for historic grandeur, we don’t hesitate to cross borders and shamelessly import names such as Alexander and Victoria, regardless of the fact that neither did the Persians any favors. 

We even name a place for what we wish it could be and find words that depict a whole different image. I remember spending endless summers in Golsara, a modest summer home in the middle of a wheat farm. Not only was it no “house of flowers”, but we were lucky to see a few bushes of wild hibiscus here and there. And who among us can forget the Tajreesh Bridge? A bridge? Give me a break!

These days, in an effort to combat the oppression imposed on our nation and redeem our glorious history, names such as Darius and Cyrus have replaced Ali and Hassan while Maryams and Zahras, are fast turning back to Mandana, Parmis, and Roxana. Not a bad change, but please choose your side and don’t name them Cyrus-Ali.

Depending on the era, some names become so popular that it can create confusion regardless of the name’s simplicity. It’s as if all of a sudden there are no attractive names left and we all reach for the one name available to us. Over two decades ago, I chose the name, “Lilly”, for my first born and felt exceptionally clever for having found a simple, feminine, and lovely name that the whole world could pronounce. Little did I know that half the nation is just as smart. Today, I know so many Lillies, Leilies and Leilas that sometimes we need numbers to refer to them. “Lilly3 called and asked if Leila2 is invited to Lilly5’s party!” Thank God for last names because we now abandon the use of math and simply refer to our daughter as Lilly G., except we need to annunciate it or people may think that by mistake we’ve named a girl Louigi.

But let’s leave people’s names alone because, in the long run, it really doesn’t seem to matter what name we choose for a baby. Experience proves that as they grow up and move around the world,  their names are also likely to change. Does anyone really know – or care – about the original names of all these Iranians in the U.S. with names like John, Mike, Bob, Sue, or Mary? I bet if my parents had any idea I would end up being Zoe, the shock would have killed them long before their time came.

Considering the limitations imposed on a person’s name selection, one would hope to be more original with business names. After all, we are free to name a business based on what it involves, where it is located, or how we would like it to be perceived. We could even select a lovely name out of a variety of meaningful phrases, objects, and metaphors. But for some reason, this is where the creative Persian seems to take a leave of absence.

I can’t begin to count the number of Persian restaurants around the world that are named either “Khayyam” or “Shahrzad”. It’s as if we don’t have anything better to name our eateries after. Ironically, neither name has an appetizing effect and in fact, both are somehow connected to death! The first is a poet whose words circle around the concept of mortality and worthlessness of life and the second is a princess in danger of execution, who needs to talk incessantly in order to distract the king and save her life. Other nations must think more of such matters because I don’t remember one French restaurant being named after Marie Antoinette, do you?

Even when we fall back on our nostalgia and dig into our poetic roots, we often seem to be stuck with names such as “Darya”, “Sahel”, and “Bandar”. Considering that none of these are seafood restaurants and in fact, they are chelo-kebab places, such nautical names are most unsuitable. This is especially true of a nation that back home had more deserts and prairies than seashores. Makes you wonder why nobody thinks of words that are closer to home, words like Kooh, Byaboon or Pas-koocheh.

When it comes to metaphors, we’re way off because I can’t think of a less applicable name for a TV station aimed at promoting local businesses than Pasargad.  And, what about all the stores that insist on putting the word “Pars” somewhere in their title? Names like Pars Plummers and Persepolis Child Care somehow depict a distorted image of a glorious history, don’t they? Let’s not even mention the businesses that are named after the owner, because, frankly, if the name is unpronounceable, then who cares?

Add to these names the Finglish spelling of words and you won’t need a comedy show to make you laugh. I remember the first time I saw words such as “yellow page” , “mortgage” and “video imaging” in a Persian phone book and how I feared that decades of being away from home had made me forget my language. Seeing the English words in Persian alphabet, I naturally gave them a Persian meaning. For example, I thought mortgage – spelled in Persian to read,  moor-e-geej -- was something about a dizzy ant!

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, now we choose French words, written in Persian for the American consumer. One such example is Zarrin de Paris – followed by Persian spelling of “Permanent Facial Makeup”, without bothering with a translation. This can be a double-edge sword because if an Iranian doesn’t know English, she won’t know what the advertisement is about and the American, unable to read Persian, is sure not to know the nature of the business either.

Sometimes I can’t help but wonder, are we really that ridiculous or am I getting too old? Comment

Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani gave up dentistry to be a full-time writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is "Sharik-e Gham" (see excerpt). Visit her site

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