An unusual name

[Inspired by The Names They Gave Me.]

[Photo: ashengrove.]

[Photo: ashengrove.]

Once the announcer pauses, I know it’s me they’re after. “Paging passenger… [click] …Senid Bowles?”. The intonation is hesitant and mildly pejorative. And once a year or so I’ll meet a man (always a man) who’ll argue with me about how my name is pronounced. Someone who’s learned a bit of Welsh, usually. I suppose I’m glad they’re interested in the language, but it’s strange to defend my own name.

Cennydd was a minor Welsh saint of hazy legend: a deformed child of incest cast out to sea and subsequently rescued by seagulls. The place of his rescue is now known, via the glorious mutations of the Welsh language, as Llangennith.

If I like you and we have time, I’ll explain the pronunciation. It’s Kenn-ith, with a hard th. Say “Ken with”, then remove the w. If I don’t like you, or I’m tired, or it doesn’t really matter right now, I’ll just say it’s basically Kenneth. We are satisficing animals. Sometimes I see the relief as someone attaches me to an existing mental model. It’s fine. Life’s too short for everyone to give a shit.

A truism: my name is part of me. But it’s also one of the few links I have to my culture. Yes, it’s Welsh. No, I don’t sound Welsh. I moved to England when I was very young, you see. But the accent lies somewhere deep in me, frozen, only creeping out when I call my family, or in a Cardiff City away end. No, I don’t know any Welsh, except for a couple of swear words and the anthem.

(We Welshies really lucked out with our anthem. Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau is a hell of a tune, far superior to the torpid servility of GSTQ. I’m not a rugby man, but gwlad gwlad at Millennium Stadium is one of those lump-in-the-throat-die-pointlessly-for-my-country experiences.)

A girl I spoke to on the phone for the first time got it exactly right. Head over heels.

Most often, it’s Senid, which has a certain phonetic honesty. Kenid. Sen-yid. Kyn-ed, like a colloquial skinhead without the s. One particularly inventive time, Sinead. A letter from my doctor to Miss Cennidel Bowles. (Sadly not for a smear test.) Gender is frequently an issue in correspondence: Dear Mr/Mrs Bowles. But the phone is usually worse. “Surname is Bowles-b-o-w-l-e-s. First name? I’ll-have-to-spell-that-too-c-e…” I sing hallelujahs for databases that only demand an initial.

I shortened it to Cen for a while: puberty is embarrassing enough. It was convenient but always inauthentic. Ken’s a name for Tories and soap opera codgers; it’s not me. On leaving university I reverted, but friends from that era still use it. Too ingrained to change now.

Different countries present a fresh challenge. I usually shorten there to save mutual embarrassment. Even then, my barista scrawls read “Cam”. It’s only coffee.

My experiences mean I try hard to be accurate with other people’s names. I’m successful when it comes to print: if you need to find an accented character on a keyboard, I’m your man. Ramón. Sélène. Mr. Tantek Çelik. In person, I’m afraid I’m as bad as they get. Forgive me.

An unusual name becomes something you learn to live with, like asthma. You find what works and what doesn’t. You are it, it is you. And I love my name. Love it. My parents gave me an escape plan via middle name—Lloyd—a safe word if the discomfort got too strong. A thoughtful choice, but I’ve never been tempted.

I don’t know if my name has been helpful or harmful, since of course I have no other reference. But I suspect people remember or forget me just the same. Perhaps some indistinct recollection of consonants lingers.

The only area that I know it’s affected is my online findability. You can guess my username on most services; I have the domains, I dominate the search results. Given my career, that’s a clear benefit. For others, it may not be. When your name is so hidden in the shadows, light shone in the right place is so much brighter.