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October 10, 2002 - Lida Baker: Names in America - 2002-10-09

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": October 10, 2002
Rebroadcast on VOA News Now: October 13, 2002

AA: I'm Avi Arditti, Rosanne Skirble is on assignment. This week on Wordmaster -- names in America. And now here's a name that should be familiar by now to our listeners: Lida Baker teaches in the American Language Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. I asked her for some advice for students who come here and wonder what to call themselves.

BAKER: "One way to select a name that they're going to use in this country would be just to translate their name from their native language. Now a lot of other students, what they do, is that they choose an American name that sounds similar to their name in their native language. So, for example, right now I have a student from Korea, a man whose name is Jong-il, and he calls himself John.

"Another thing that students often do is that they'll just simply use their native name. Or they might shorten it in some way. A lot of Japanese students, for example -- Japanese names are not very difficult for Americans to pronounce. If you take a name like Masahiro, we can say that. And so students will tell you to use their actual name or just maybe shorten it to something like Masa or something like Hiro. That's not a problem for Americans."

AA: "You don't have to go through the courts to do this, do you?"

BAKER: "Oh, no, no, no. No, you just use it as a nickname. On legal documents, I would tell students that they have to use the name that's in their passport. But in any situation where people are asking them, 'Well, what would you like us to call you?' they can choose any name that they like."

AA: But Lida Baker says it's a good idea to ask a native English speaker whether a name may have an unintended meaning. She gives an example of students she's had from Thailand. Thai names can have many syllables.

BAKER: "What Thai students very often do is that they ask us to pull out one of those syllables and they use that as a nickname in class. I would want to counsel that student not to pull out the syllable P-O-R-N and use that as a name in the United States."

AA: "Because it would refer to sexual ... "

BAKER: "Pornography."

AA: "Right."

BAKER: "I try to counsel students not to choose names that have any kind of sexual connotation."

AA: And there are other connotations to consider to avoid possible embarrassment.

BAKER: "One example would be the Chinese family name Fat, very common in Chinese, but of course in English the word 'fat' has not the nicest meaning."

AA: "It means overweight. "

BAKER: "Right, it means overweight, and Americans would find it very strange if a person asked to be called Fat."

AA: There are even some names that are perfectly fine, yet people might want to avoid.

BAKER: "A couple of examples would be -- and these were students who were in my classes -- I had a woman whose name that she wanted us to use was Fifi and another student, a man, who asked us to call him Lucky. What these students didn't know is that those names are often used for dogs in the United States. And I had a student who wanted us to call her Meow -- M-E-O-W -- which is the sound that a cat makes. And it turned out that she really liked cats, and so that's why she chose that name. But again I had to tell her that Americans might find that amusing."

AA: "And now speaking about cultural norms, let's talk a little bit about the order of names in typical American names."

BAKER" "OK, well, my name is Lida Rosemary Baker. Lida is my first name, Rosemary is my middle name and Baker is my last name. So the normal word order for names in the United States is first name, middle name, last name. However, there is an exception to that. Anytime that you're filling out a form or an application, such as an application for a driver's license or something like that, they always ask you to list your last name first. So the order in that case would be last name, comma, first name, middle name. So I would be Baker, comma, Lida Rosemary.

AA: "And so now in a situation where you know someone's name, maybe you work with that person, when should you call that person just by his or her last name? Is that ever appropriate?"

BAKER: "I hear it in sports, when there's a bunch of guys out playing basketball together."

AA: "Well, you know what's funny is just yesterday my daughter was playing in a lacrosse game, and one of the things she really liked was that the coach had called her by her last name. She got a kick out of that and enjoyed it."

BAKER: "It's done in sports, but it's not done in business and it's not done among friends very much."

AA: Lida Baker teaches in the American Language Center at the UCLA Extension program in Los Angeles. Her textbooks for English learners are available through the McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. And that's Wordmaster for this week. We're on the Web at, and our e-mail address is I'm Avi Arditti.