‘Funny Names’: The Issue that Refuses to Die

Ohio, congressional primaries… I’ll let this story in the Washington Independent speak for itself:

With the Democratic primary just days away, state and local party leaders are ripping into David Krikorian, one of the hopefuls to challenge GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt in November, for disparaging remarks he’s made recently about his chief primary opponent, Surya Yalamanchili.

According to accounts given to local politicians, Krikorian has appeared at campaign events to ridicule Yalamanchili, an American of Indian descent, by dramatically pronouncing his name to emphasize its foreign nature.

“Now do you really think that a guy with a name like that has a chance of ever being elected?” Krikorian allegedly said to members of Veterans of Foreign Wars in Clermont County.

The comments — which Krikorian denies – drew a quick response from local Democratic leaders, who shot off a letter to Krikorian Wednesday calling his behavior “deeply disturbing.”

“Your comments on Surya’s name are are best insensitive and worse appear racist,” wrote Timothy M. Burke and David Lane, the Democratic chairmen in Hamilton and Clermont counties, respectively. “It is deeply disturbing to us that you would use his name, which is obviously derived from his ethnic heritage, against him in a denigrating manner, especially considering how strongly you value and celebrate your own heritage.” (link)

Now, there’s no excusing this comment (hmm, I have $10 burning a hole in my pocket; can I donate it to a Congressional candidate somewhere…? Aha.). But arguably, in Krikorian’s defense, “Yalamanchili” is a bit of a toughie as far as complicated Desi names goes.

Yalamanchili, of course, was already well aware of this, judging by his campaign slogan: “Vote Chili”.

Macaca. Piyush Jindal. D-Punjab. Gogol Ganguli. The mis-naming issue is surprisingly persistent.

57 thoughts on “‘Funny Names’: The Issue that Refuses to Die

  1. I think that “Vote Chili” is good, but what about “Vote Manchili” (pronounced Man Chili). Chili is good, but Man Chili is even better, stronger, muscley, and since he’s a man going up against a man, being seen as a strong powerful figure probably won’t hut.

  2. LOL…..i knew there would be debate on who’s more racist, Republicans or Democrats. I think its a waste of time to label large groups of people as being racist. How do you measure racism anyways? I’m sure all of us have felt something that can be described as racist at some point in our lives. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are huge parties with millions of members. Republicans can be vaguely described as conservative/classical liberal and Democrats can be described as left-wing but in the realm of practical politics those labels don’t really matter. Just pick your favorite animal and get involved. And, ignore the “racists”.

  3. i guess brown people look distinctive, but we also can be confused for greek, black, or latino, and none of those groups have “hard” names. though i guess arabs might.

    Any set of names that is unfamiliar will be hard…maybe you think this Greek brand name is not “hard” (Peloponnese) but for most Americans in my area, they would have a hard time figuring out how to pronounce it. The same with latino names (I wonder how many people in my area can pronounce Jorge properly? I can just imagine… “Umm, George? I mean.. Gor-jay? uhh..”) It’s all about exposure. It’s not really about brownness either… French names can also be very hard for many people to pronounce– one my family stumbles on is Romain, (does not sound like it looks It’s more like RomaiH (nasalized) rather tham ro-maine or roman). Indians had an equally hard time with my student from the Cote D’Ivoire.. his name was Herve. (pronounced “Erh-vay, not Herv or her-vey)

    And while some Arabs might have hard names to pronounce, others may not (Christianity, which afterall, is where many American names come from, originated in the Middle East).

    It’s all about what is known and not… names generally follow the pronunciation rules from which they are from (unless they have been appropriated for a long time) so if you do not know the language from which it comes, it will be hard to pronounce.

  4. this discussion throws up interesting associations. in guntur,where surya yalamanchili’s family probably comes from originally(the chilly varieties grown in guntur are considered among the hottest in india) it’s the dalits who have to face prejudice from the prosperous, ‘upper caste’ kammas.in andhra pradesh ‘yalamanchili’ is both a surname, among kammas mainly, and the name of a village/town (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yelamanchili) in coastal andhra. one politician with same surname (sivaji yalamanchili), i think there might be others, had been elected to both parliament and local state assembly more than once.

  5. the thing that bothers me about the candidate (of course he’s not the only one) is this “child of blue collar immigrants” sell, which, honestly, I bet is fraudulent. there was another Indian candidate who liked to stress/create “humble” roots. From what I understand, the candidate’s father was a military engineer, he grew up in very posh surroundings, none of which says he won’t make a fine congressman, but I can’t stand that cashing in on a stereotypical “immigrant” experience.

  6. the thing that bothers me about the candidate (of course he’s not the only one) is this “child of blue collar immigrants” sell
    but I can’t stand that cashing in on a stereotypical “immigrant” experience.

    I am reminded of a dialogue in the Big Bang Theory TV show where the indian character (Raj) tries to impress his buddies how he overcame a lot of hardship and climbed his way to American academia from humble beginnings in India. One of the white characters reminds him that his father is a physician in Delhi who drives a Bentley. So much for humble beginnings.

  7. As names become commonplace, they become easier to pronounce. Very few Americans mispronounce Patel. Sanjay is pronounced in an “acceptable” manner because it has become common.It does bother me that Sanjay Gupta doesn’t get CNN to pronounce his last name correctly. I doubt Goopta is easier to pronounce than Gupta.

    And no one mispronounces my name, once I tell them what it is. Sometimes I will use the more common alternate spelling of my name in informal blogs and other non legal stuff to make it easier on folks.

    Yalamanchili is a freaking tough name for non-Indians. I don’t blame him for trying to make it easy for the voters. Maybe he can just go by Surya Y instead of having to go by Chili.