To All the People Who Have Spelled My Name Wrong
11.29.17

My name is hard to spell, or so I assume, given how frequently people spell it wrong. If you can think of a misspelling, I’ve probably heard it. Orthaga. Ategha. Ohtaga. Most frequently the ‘h’ tends to migrate due the proximity of the Nigerian ‘Otegha’ to the Spanish ‘Ortega,’ meaning I’m often subject to an errant ‘r’ creeping in as well.

Over the years, I’ve figured out ways to minimize the room for error. When giving my name over the phone or at cash registers, my name is a practiced, “Otegha Uwagba, that’s O-T-E-G-H-A, last name U-W-A…,” delivered quickly in one breath to save everyone involved time, and mistakes.

Still, the process isn’t always smooth. Once, unexpectedly tasked with phonetically spelling out my middle name (Kikelomo) while on the phone to my student loan provider, my mind went blank as I tried to come up with a word beginning with K. Racking my brains, I eventually blurted out, “K for ‘cat,’ but y’know…with a K,” only to be met with a long silence. I’m surprised my student loan wasn’t denied right then and there.

Or there was the time when I hangrily snapped, “but that’s not my name!,” while placing a phone order with my local Korean takeaway. After asking how to spell Otegha, they lost interest midway and announced, “I’ll just put ‘Ote.’” I felt sheepish after arriving to pick up my dinner and remembering that written English didn’t come easily to the person who’d taken my order, although in truth I also felt a little betrayed. Weren’t we all in it together, us foreigners in the UK with our “weird” sounding names so frequently butchered by European tongues?

As name misdemeanors go, though, my ultimate bête noire is when someone spells my name incorrectly in an email, especially if it’s a cold email and they presumably managed to spell my email address correctly. Searching my inbox for the three most common misspellings of my name (Othega, Otegah and Otega if you’re curious), I found 49 instances from the past 18 months alone, each of which provoked a visceral flicker of irritation at the time of receipt.

Sitting down to write this has forced me to examine what, exactly, I find so frustrating about what may seem like a pretty minor offense, and here’s the rub: Misspellings of my name exist on the lighter end of the spectrum of the numerous name-based transgressions people with discernibly ethnic names like mine frequently have to deal with. It’s a spectrum that ranges from new colleagues ‘helpfully’ assigning you anglicized nicknames, to outright name bias: a statistically proven phenomenon where people with “unusual” (read: ethnic) names are more likely to be discriminated against.

In a ground-breaking 2004 study in which identical CVs were submitted under “black-sounding” and “white-sounding” names, the latter were 50% more likely to be called for interview, a finding that has been corroborated by numerous studies since. Every time I send a cold email or fill out an application, I think about that statistic. A name like Otegha is an instant giveaway about my ethnicity, a subconscious repellent even for left-leaning liberals who likely imagine themselves open of mind and heart, and yet made up the core participants of a more recent 2015 study that came to a similar conclusion.

When I was younger I tried on a variety of nicknames for size, exploring the route many second-generation immigrant children opt for of lopping off confusingly placed silent h’s or n’s in favor of a Westernized version of their name. Omolaras become Mollys, Rashids become Richards. Nothing ever really stuck though — a name like Otegha isn’t sufficiently adjacent to a Western name to allow an inconspicuous rebranding, something I’m intensely glad of now. What a shame it would have been, to let youthful hubris rid me of a name that acts as an instant signifier of a nationality I’m proud to claim.

Fellow sufferers of Frequently Misspelled Name Syndrome will know that the obvious solution to a misspelled name – a simple “actually it’s…” often feels surprisingly pedantic (I know! But there you are) in situations where the spelling of your name isn’t at the crux of an interaction, though you know by right – and by dint of how much it bothers you – that it’s a perfectly reasonable correction to make. I have been known, many moons ago, to respond to an email blunder with a deliberate misspelling of the offender’s name, a passive-aggressive but surprisingly effective strategy that, alas, doesn’t quite align with the persona of professionalism I endeavor to convey these days.

Recently, after receiving yet another email opening with an inventive iteration of my name, I decided to just… not reply, vowing never again to respond to an email in which my name had been incorrectly spelled. That has also proven to be an imperfect solution, and one I’ve been forced to disregard several times in the few weeks since instating it. Some emails are just too important to ignore.

So here I am, 27 years into a predicament I’ll presumably be dealing with my whole life, and still debating the best way of handling it. If you often find yourself dealing with a similar quandary, consider this a plea: What’s your perfect go-to response?

Send your answers on a postcard. Just make sure you spell my name right.

Collages by Edith Young.

Get more Brain Massage ?