What's in a name? It's complicated

Having had my name mispronounced often since I was young, I understand the rage over the naming of Eunoia JC, Singapore's newest junior college

Last week, I wrote a blog post for this newspaper all the way from Tokyo, where I was on holiday.

It was a strongly worded piece protesting against the name that had been chosen for a new junior college that would take in students from three secondary schools, including my alma mater, Catholic High School.

I was opposed to the name Eunoia JC on two counts: first, that it was difficult to pronounce and easily made fun of, and second, because the rarely used word of ancient Greek origin had little or no cultural context in modern Singapore.

But I was also angry. As a result, my objection was uncommonly strongly worded, even for me, and in my quieter moments, I wondered why that was the case.


The answer came in an e-mail that one reader with the easy name Carol sent me. She wrote: "Come on, Ignatius, it is a good name. Why don't you change your name - it's so d**n difficult to pronounce too."

Suddenly, I realised where all this rage was coming from. For most of my life, I myself had struggled with an unpronounceable name with little or no cultural context.

The name Ignatius was given to me by my parents at birth and I am grateful to them for wanting their firstborn to aspire to greatness.

It was the early 1970s and both my parents were recent converts to Catholicism, so they cracked open the big book of Catholic baby names and chose this one.

Ignatius is an extremely meaningful name. It is Greek or Roman in origin and linked to the Latin word "ignis", which means fiery.

There were two great Ignatiuses in history and both were religious people. Ignatius of Antioch was a prominent bishop of the Christian church who became a martyr when the Romans fed him to lions one day at the Colosseum in AD108.

Ignatius of Loyola was a Spanish knight who had a spiritual awakening after being wounded in battle. He founded the Society of Jesus, whose members are called Jesuits, and was one of the key figures to lead the Counter Reformation movement against Protestantism in the 1500s.

The Catholic Church made Ignatius of Loyola a saint after he died. Today, you can still go to the Church of Saint Ignatius near Farrer Road, where I attended Sunday school as I was growing up.

If my parents had any hopes of me being this great religious man,

I would say they very nearly succeeded. When I was in secondary school, I harboured thoughts of joining the clergy, attracted to the strange glamour of priestly robes and weekly public speaking engagements.

Today, there is indeed a Father Ignatius Low in Singapore who is a Jesuit priest - but alas, he is not me. It is as if my alter-ego looked ahead in my youth to the years of materialism and debauchery that were to come and decided better to splinter off now before it was too late.

Anyway, I digress. The name Ignatius is a most meaningful one, but choosing it for your child is unquestionably a gamble.

As one mother who also named her newborn Ignatius put it in a blog post on CatholicMom.com in 2013: "In the days following his birth, I tried not to worry about how other people perceived his name. Everyone had been very polite and remarked on what a beautiful or interesting name it was. No one actually said what they might have been thinking: Are you serious?

"Filling out the birth certificate paperwork, I tried to banish thoughts of how our little guy might grow up to hate us. With God's grace, we pray that both of our little boys might learn to love their strong, courageous patrons, that they take comfort in knowing that they have their own superheroes praying for and watching out for them in a special way and that someday - hopefully sooner rather than later - they might aim to imitate them."

The earliest sign of trouble was when some of my uncles and aunts could not pronounce the name of their newest nephew, no matter how often my parents corrected them to say "ig-nay-shuss".

My Cantonese-speaking aunt kept saying "initial", so often, in fact, that I suspect her refusal to say it right (even today) is some sort of silent, wilful statement.

Later, however, when I enrolled in Catholic High School and was faced with Nantah-era teachers who taught maths and science classes in Mandarin, I understood her difficulty. All of them also pronounced the name that way, although some could not master the "L" at the end - coming up with "ini-sher".

The other common way my name is pronounced is the way the DHL customer service officer did yesterday morning when she called me.

"Hello, can I speak to Mister eeeg...nah...tee...ooos...?" she said, carefully saying each syllable the way she saw it, as best she could, without offending me. Strangely, she would have been correct had I been Latino or born in some parts of Europe, for that is the pronunciation there.

Anyway, because of everyday difficulties like this, my colleagues and friends have largely avoided the name in favour of the English shortform "Iggy" and other nicknames. When faced with the acid test of having to give your name to the coffee barista to write on a cup, I myself always say "David".

It was when I went to university in Britain that I realised that pronunciation was not the only difficulty people had with my name.

Many of my classmates and tutors could not hide their smirks when this reedy young Chinese man from Singapore told them his name.

Finally, my philosophy tutor could not take it anymore and asked me point blank one day: "Now, how exactly does a guy like you, from the place you come, have a name like that?"

When I finished telling him the story of my parents, the saint, the aspirations to priesthood, the fact that my Straits-born ancestors left China generations ago and how Singapore itself is a good cultural melting pot of East and West, a good 10 minutes of our hour-long tutorial session had gone by.

He finally nodded his head in sage comprehension, but he also could not hide his bewilderment.

My cultural identity crisis only worsened when I started to travel to Asia and made friends in Taiwan and Japan. No one there can pronounce my name and the nickname "Iggy" is equally unfamiliar.

One Taiwanese friend sounded quite sincere when he asked me "Are you actually Chinese?", but the question played on my mind for ages and left a lasting imprint.

Don't get me wrong. I am not deeply unhappy with my name and have no intention of changing it. In many ways, its uniqueness has become part of my personal identity.

It is important to name your child with pride and I am happy that my parents took the time and effort to think harder about my name when I was born.

But while there are many meaningful words in the world's many languages and an equally abundant supply of historical heroes to admire, not all of them make good names for a Singapore child.

Earlier this week, news broke that a British man named his daughter Lanesra, which is the name of his favourite football team, Arsenal, spelt backwards.

All I am saying to would-be parents in Singapore is, think carefully before you get carried away like this man obviously was.

You may name your baby in a fleeting moment of eunoia, but it could become someone else's permanent regret.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'More than just a name'. Print Edition | Subscribe