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  • Writer's pictureAriel Tovlev

What's In a Name?

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

A lot of people didn't know me before my transition, so not everyone knows that the name Ariel was given to me by my parents at birth. Before birth, even: my parents chose the name Ariel before knowing if I was going to "be" a girl or a boy - either way they were going to give me the name Ariel. What bizarre happenstance! I sometimes think God gave the name to them. When starting my transition I wanted to change my name. I felt like it was just something one does when going through a gender transition. But I thought and I thought, and I realized there was no name I liked better for myself than Ariel. It was kismet.

But it wasn't easy growing up with a Hebrew name in an English-speaking country, especially since I was born just one year before The Little Mermaid came out. I got so used to people mispronouncing my name, that I ended up settling: a less incorrect version of my name was preferable to a more incorrect version.

I noticed if I said it correctly, arr-ee-EL, people would only hear the EL, and mispronounce the first syllable. Air-ee-EL, they would repeat, trying hard to match the emphasis, only to have me correct them. And sometimes we would go back and forth, me saying it one way, them saying it another way, unable to hear the difference. It wouldn't be until I said ARR-ee-el that they would understand why I was correcting them. Then that would be how they pronounced it. After enough of this, I unconsciously decided to skip that often futile step. I began to say my own name wrong.

I remember I was in middle school. I had had friends over, and they had all just left, when my mother approached me. "Why do you let them say your name wrong?" she asked me. "What are you talking about? None of them say air-ee-el!" I snapped back defensively. "No, but they all say ARR-ee-el. Or worse, ARR-ee-UL. Why don't you tell them how to say it properly? Your name is so beautiful, it should be said properly." I remember I clicked my tongue. "You can't expect so much from people, they can't hear the difference. As long as I'm not the Little Mermaid I'm happy."

Please don't misunderstand, I don't blame anyone in my life for saying my name as such. I introduced myself that way. I decided it wasn't worth it to go over and over exactly how to say my name. I probably made this decision by 9 or 10 years old. I spent most of my life introducing myself with an anglicized version of my name. I made that decision myself, and it made introductions easier for me.

I remember in high school I knew someone with the name José. He introduced himself with the Spanish pronunciation, but most people said it with an anglicized pronunciation, saying the "s" with a "z" sound. I said his name the way he said it. One day we were joking around, when he paused and smiled at me. "I like the way you say my name," he said. At first I didn't understand. "Do I say it funny?" I asked. "No, you say it like a Mexican," he said. "It's nice. It reminds me of home."

After that, sometimes when I got close to someone, I would tell them the more correct pronunciation of my name. Most people picked it up, not understanding what was so difficult about it, or why I didn't introduce myself like that to everyone. Other times, people would insist that was how they already said it.

Of course, there have always been people who use the most correct version of my name. Family, family friends, people who have known me all my life, people who are familiar with Hebrew pronunciations. But outside of them, I got used to most people not saying my name the way my parents would. I got used to having to repeat it, spell it, explain how what I was saying was different from what they were saying.

I feel like it is really silly, but I think my favorite part of living in Israel is the way people say my name. They know the name. They know MY name. They know how to say it. They know how to spell it. They don't ask me to repeat myself. I actually had to get used to letting myself say it correctly again. I had gotten so used to amending how I said it when introducing myself. They say it so effortlessly.

I used to feel like it was a burden to ask people to say my name the way it was given to me. I used to feel like I was asking too much of people. I used to feel like I would be "being difficult" to ask English speakers to attempt a Hebrew pronunciation. My mom tried to encourage me to not be ashamed of having a name some might consider difficult, and I didn't get it.

Hearing the way people say my name here, how everyone says my name here, I sometimes have the urge to thank them for the way they say my name. It's nice. It reminds me of home.

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