On Names, from someone who has one
My name is Denitza Blagev, and I was born in Bulgaria. I’m not certain whether I have an accent or not, but if someone has heard my name, there’s a 50% chance that they’d exclaim “you don’t have an accent at all!” and a 50% chance that they’d say “I thought I noticed a slight accent.” The odds of them noticing “a slight accent” approach zero if they are unaware of my name. One patient I saw recently sat stunned for a second after I started talking. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I saw your name and I didn’t expect you to be… I thought you were foreign.”
Having a unique name has some benefits. If you Google “Denitza Blagev” every entry that pops up is actually me. You will find this blog, my professional credentials and other information. On the other hand, it has some draw backs. If you Google “Denitza Blagev,” you will also find some joke posts by my college friends that mention me. They were inside jokes at the time, but now 15 years later look like snarky personal attacks on a random website. I suspect Tom Smith would not run into that problem, though he would also be more difficult to find on Facebook.
As it turned out, my husband also had a unique and difficult to place name. “Is Amnon a Bulgarian name?” someone asked me once. “It’s Biblical,” Amnon usually says when asked, which I love because then nobody asks him where he‘s from and instead they grow silent as they contemplate their ignorance of the bible. When we meet people at parties, the introduction usually goes something like this:
“Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Denitza.”
“Nice to meet you.”
I can hear the exhale of relief as they turn to Amnon.
When we learned we were having twins, we decided not to find out their sexes. We debated and discussed names over the next several months and had a list of two girl and two boy names in place. We wanted to make sure every part of our families could pronounce the names – my Bulgarian family and his Persian and German relatives ought to be able to say the names with reasonable accuracy. I remember a tirade by a friend, Seth, who was upset that his Russian in-laws, years later, were still calling him Set. “Just put your tongue on your teeth and blow: THTHTHTH!” he said.
Any names with TH or J (which can be a Y or J sound depending on the Slavic country) were out. Amnon’s father had passed away years before we met, and we wanted to name a boy, if we had one, after him. His name was Yohanan Shmuel, which is John Samuel. John seemed too common, and we really liked Samuel, so we decided to name Twin A, if a boy, Samuel. Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, and a name I have always loved, so we agreed on Sophia if a girl. We thought about Twin B for a long time. My father’s name, Pavel, translates to Paul. In Jewish tradition it is bad luck to name children after living people. Pavel is also my father’s grandfather’s name. My own grandfather’s name was Lilko, which seemed a lot to saddle a boy living in the US with, especially if his brother is named Samuel. For a while we debated between Pavel and Paul for our second son, but in the end, Sam and Paul seemed to fit well together.
I had no shortage of favored girl names. Sophia, Maria, Ana – names that were Bulgarian but also clearly international. Names that I had loved for a long time. Names like Vera, my sister’s name, which fit better in America than mine had. “Norm’s wife,” she said recently, “yes, usually Vera characters in movies are not good.”
For our third, we struggled to find a boy name. We already had Sam and Paul, named after our fathers, and by some fortuitous coincidence, Paul looks almost exactly like my father, while Sam, of the three, resembles my husband’s father the most. What was baby #3 supposed to be? Even during the pregnancy, I struggled to imagine that a third possible look existed. I kept wondering if the baby would look like Sam or like Paul, who look nothing alike. We debated for a long time and finally settled on Matthew. We liked the possibility of having three one syllable biblical names – Sam, Paul and Matt. When Matthew was born, as is sometimes the case, it was Sam and Paul who truly named him. “Baby Matthew” we called him for several years, and even now that, at three, he’s no longer a baby, it is “Matthew,” or “Matthy” (mei-thy) and not Matt that has stuck for now.
And that’s our family: Denitza & Amnon, Sam, Paul and Matthy.