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What's In A (Last) Name?



“So...how do you say that?”

“Why-ruh-….?”

“That’s an usual last name!”

“Is it Ear-bear…?”

“What kind of name is that?”

“...I’m not even going to try to pronounce that!”

“No, seriously, how do you say it?”

Every time I got to a new doctor’s office or any sort of appointment where someone sees my last name on a form or my ID… it starts. The questions. My last name is only nine letters long but the particular combination of vowels and consonants confounds everyone. Maybe it’s because it starts with a Y (pretty unusual for a last name, unless your last name is Young) and no one can decide if you pronounce the Y like, well, Young, or as in sky, a long I. (Psst… it’s actually pronounced like a long E! But don’t tell anyone. It’s actually kind of fun confusing everyone. You know, when it isn’t really, really annoying.)

Or maybe it’s the length of the name. I never thought a nine lettered last name would be that intimidating. A nine lettered first name? Um, yeah, I’d be intimidated by that. By how impressive and elegant it sounds. Alexander. Madeleine. Gwendolyn. Sebastian. Angelique. That’s are some pretty freaking awesome nine lettered first names are. So what’s wrong with my last name?

I’ve been asking myself that for years now. Because I’ve always disliked my last name. No one could pronounce it, it wasn’t a cute and easy to pronounce last name like Smith or Adams, and in school, I was always the last one in line because guess what? We had to line up alphabetically. And guess where all of my friends were at? In the front of the line because their last names starts from A-M. Even as a kid I longed for the day I would get married and get to change my last name. Moving up in the alphabet...it was what every little girl dreamed of.

And my mom’s excuse for why the tooth fairy only left me a quarter under my pillow instead of the dollar my friends usually got for their teeth? Because by the time the tooth fairy went alphabetically through all the kids who had lost their teeth that night, by the time got to me, she was starting to run out of money and she only had quarters left. Curse the penultimate starting letter of my last name! I never win!

Most people I know can trace their heritage through their last name. From Irish to German, Spanish to Italian, people can tell exactly where their families came from. And I was so jealous. Not because I didn’t know where my last name was derived from, but because it wasn’t a cool culture. I wanted to be Irish, and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, visit Ireland, and find long lost Irish relatives on the Green Isle. Or be Italian, thinking I was descended from the Romans, their culture and empire stretching the globe, leaving ancient ruins of the past as proof of their existence, and have an excuse to eat pasta and spaghetti with mia famiglia. And I thought my ancestry was anything but cool.

Have you ever heard of the Basque country? Most of you will probably say no. Because it’s not actually a country. It’s a section of land at the border of France (the northern part) and Spain (the southern part). While it’s not it’s own country, it has a long and complicated history, filled with upheaval and conflict, and even has its own language, appropriately called Basque.

My last name is Basque. I’ve known this my whole life. My dad’s side of the family, my last name, is Basque, Spanish Basque. (My dad’s mother was Czech, my mother’s father was Mexican, and my maternal grandmother was German and English. I’m a true American melting pot, people) My dad has always been really into his Basque heritage, and my sisters and I always teased him about it. We thought, what was so impressive about being Basque? Weren’t they just sheep farmers? Some strange folk who didn’t have their own country and yet had their own language filled with letters like x’s, z’s, and y’s, and hard to pronounce? (Hmm...sounds familiar.) Being Basque wasn’t as cool as flashy as being something like being Irish or Italian.

But as the years went on, something in me started to shift. It first started with my oldest sister spending the summer in Spain. And guess where in Spain she visited? Yep, the Spanish part of the Basque country. She told me that when she was paying for something with her credit card, the merchant looked at it, saw our last name and said, “Ah! You are Basque!” And you know what? I bet he knew how to pronounce it too.

There’s also a street in the Basque country with our last name on it. As in “My Last Name” St. And an even cooler fact that I found out from my sister’s trip? She stumbled across a memorial of people who had lost their lives because they had been accused of witches (you know, Spain, Catholicism, the Spanish Inquisition? It was not a good time to be alive in those days), and what do you know: an ancestor of ours was accused of being a witch. How random is that for an ancestor of mine to be a part of history that we learned about in school? (And I sincerely hope their ghost haunted whoever killed them as an act of bad-ass vengeance because that’s what I would have totally done.)

And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually started to embrace my weird last name. Instead of being embarrassed when someone asked me the origin of my last name, I just started embracing educating people on the Basque country. Most people have (obviously) never heard of it. I even had an optometrist ask me to spell it out (meaning Basque, not my last name) so she could look it up online, she was so fascinated by a place she had never heard of before. I even started to research the history of the Basques. Did you know that before they converted to Christianity (or, well probably were forced to convert to Christianity) they had their own gods? There’s a whole Basque mythology out there, filled with fairies and giants and other crazy legends. I mean, for all I know, the Brothers Grimm got some of their ideas from my ancestors. (It’s a stretch, but just give me this, okay?)

My last name isn’t even as uncommon as I thought. I’ve had people friend me on Facebook in other countries with the exact last name, same spelling and everything. There’s people out there just like me! Maybe we’re related, or maybe my last name has spread across the globe and expanded into different countries, cultures, and maybe even they have to explain their last name to other people too. And maybe like me they’re proud of it. I’ve even started to consider what I would do if I were to ever get married. Would I change my last name? Because I’m not so sure anymore. And if I wrote a book? Would I use an easy to pronounce pen name? Maybe if it sounded cool (Emily Ravenwood, has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?), but how could I turn my back on my last name, my family’s history, my history?

Kid Emily was desperate to get to the front of the alphabet, but now, I’m proud of my long nine lettered last name starting with a Y. It’s different and unusual, and so am I. I’ve worked so hard to embrace who I am, and I hadn’t even considered embracing my last name might include that too.

So go ahead, mispronounce my last name. Yeah, I know. It’s long. It’s complicated. It’s a few more syllables than most “normal” last names. It doesn’t sound like it looks. But it’s mine. It’s a part of me and who I am. And I hope that one day, I can go to the Basque country and explore my roots. And have people recognize my last name and actually know how to pronounce it. That’s the literal dream. One day I’ll get there, but for now, I’ll keep on teaching people how to say it and explain its history. Because it’s actually pretty darn cool.

Stay Weird,
Emily
13 comments on "What's In A (Last) Name?"
  1. From what I've read here, I think you have a fascinating history of your surname! I love unusual surnames! My surname isn't that unusual but I did recently do a DNA test and found out I have a lot of Norwegian ancestors!

    Jenny
    http://www.jennyinneverland.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jenny! Aww thanks! Mine is pretty unusual, but now that I'm getting older, the more fascinating I'm finding it! Ooh, I'm jealous you did a DNA test! I've always wanted to do one. Was is fun to find out about your Norwegian ancestors??

      Delete
  2. First, I want to say welcome back :) Second, I can only imagine how annoying it can be for someone to mispronounce your name. But I can understand to an extent because no one spells my name right. The backstory is really interesting and I love the idea of your witch ancestor haunting the crap out of whoever killed them. (It sounds like a cool book idea too.)

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Meagan!! It's good to be back!! :) It is pretty annoying to have people mispronounce my last name, but it's kind of funny to hear people try to get kind of creative with how they literally butcher it, haha. OMG, I'd love to learn more about my ancestor who was accused of being a witch! It does sound like a cool book idea, actually. I hadn't even thought of that! I'd definitely read that book!

      Thank you for commenting!! <3

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  3. It's interesting your take because I was the opposite growing up. I always wanted my name to be more interesting and unique. It's great that you love your name now though. It's a big part of your identity

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    Replies
    1. Hi Nella! Oh, that's so interesting! We're such opposites! I would have been so jealous of you as a kid, haha. Aww, thanks! I do like it a lot more now. I just wish it was more easy to pronounce for everyone else in the world!

      Delete
  4. My last name isn't at all hard to pronounce, but it's not very common and I have no idea where it comes from. I'm a W and found what you said about being at the start of the alphabet really interesting. I've visited the Basque part of Spain a couple of times! And I think that heritage is pretty impressive x

    Sophie
    www.glowsteady.co.uk

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    Replies
    1. Hi Sophie! I have some friends who's last name starts with a W too, but their name is much more easily pronounceable, haha. That'd be so fun to find out where your last name comes from it's not very common! I bet it has some cool history behind it :) Oh, you have?? I'm so jealous! I'd love to go there one day now!

      Thanks so much for commenting!!!

      Delete
  5. I absolutely hate when people don't try to pronounce people's last names because they are "too hard to say"... At least try! Lovely post - welcome back!
    -Jenna ♥
    Stay in touch? The Chic Cupcake

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jenna! I know, it's so annoying! I admire people who give trying to say a shot! Even if they completely butcher it! :P Thank you so much!! It's so good to be back! :)

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  6. I love that you know the history of your last name and I really enjoyed reading the history behind it. I haven't enjoyed reading anything as much as this for a longtime! I'd love to have a name that confused people, just to leave them squirming struggling to pronounce it before finally asking me how to say my name... Except I've never had that and probably never will - Thank you for the fun read :) x

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    Replies
    1. Hi! Thank you so much for reading my post! I'm so honored you liked reading it so much! I know a little history of my last name, but I'd love to more and I'm trying to find out the meaning of it, too. I find name meanings so interesting!

      Thanks again for reading! Your comment made my day! xoxo

      Delete
  7. My last name is a slightly Americanized Polish surname and to this day most people mispronounce it. Imagine having that happen with both your first and last name, though. I think I get more mistakes on my first name...:)

    I think your last name has a pretty darn cool history!

    ReplyDelete

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