There is a national crisis upon us, one that everyone has suffered from no matter what: the National Name Disease. There isn’t a woman, man or child alive who hasn’t been touched by the loath malady. There are many amongst us who suffer from it and refuse to be treated. The dread NND pervades all aspects of our society: on the phone, ordering a pizza; at the bank, trying to open an account; at your nikkah, trying to get married in spite of an NND-infected maulvi sahib. If you ever had a teacher with National Name Disease, then every morning at roll call you sat and cringed, tried to correct them and eventually just resigned yourself to your ‘new’ name for the rest of the year. You even learned to respond to the new name when they called on you to answer what the square root of 42 was.

National Name Disease is that annoying, frankly tiresome habit we have of never, ever pronouncing any name right. You’d think if your name were Nebuchednazzar or Balasubrimaniam then well of course you’d run into some trouble. But no. you name could be just plain Alif, just one letter that even a two year old can say, and someone would still say “hain jee? Aleef?” and you would say “no, Alif” and they would squint and say “hain jee? Alaaf?” Your name is standard, straightforward Amina? Get ready to be called Ameena for the rest of your life. Don’t even ask what my life has been like, as a Mina. It is a tiny name, pronounced the same way you pronounce the Hajj Mina (and since we’re all excellent practicing Muslims you’d think everyone, even mediocre Muslims, knew how to pronounce that). But I’m a Meena, a Mainna, a Minnnnahhh, so much and so often that now almost everyone calls me Meena and I just go with it. It’s too tiring to correct someone who isn’t interested in listening and doesn’t care about getting my name right.

What’s in a name, you ask. We have a particularly strange approach to them. Lots of people let their relatives name their babies. Many people have one name for home and one official name, and both names are real names. You can be Omar at home and Abdullah at school, Hina at home and Fatima at work. It’s so confusing. Who are you? Which one are you? Are your names your doppelgangers too? Is Home Omar someone unlike School Abdullah, and if so, that is fascinating. We have different masks for different situations, we are indeed different people in different circumstances. How awfully interesting to actually solidify those personae with names! Unlike a pet name, which is often quite obviously not a ‘real’ name—nobody is named Pinky or Bunty on purpose—a Real Name confers some kind of name-power, a legitimate personhood.

Maybe because we don’t care so much about names, we don’t make an effort to remember anyone’s properly. Maybe it’s just our utter lack of interest in other people, manifested in the most obvious way possible: get their name wrong forever. Nothing is as effective for putting someone in their place as asking them their name and then mispronouncing it until eternity. I had a friend called Rafia who was called Raafia her entire school life by one teacher. And in what is possibly the most amazing leap of intellect ever to occur, someone once turned a Yawar I know into Javed! How, you ask incredulously? We’re still wondering too, and it’s been years. Ironically, we’re also a nation that puts so much store by names and their ‘weight’. People change their names because somehow the name is bringing them bad juju and doesn’t ‘suit’ them. We believe in the power of words—anyone who has had to go to the kitchen in the dark in the middle of the night knows how powerful words are as you run like hell back to your room, whispering the ayatul kursi, lest the Creature in the Shadows gets you. We genuinely believe changing your name from X to Y will improve your health and general luck in life. And yet we have no problem calling an Omair, Omar, or remembering who is a Zehra and who is a Zahra. These aren’t even difficult or unusual names! These names don’t make your tongue jump off a cliff and do three somersaults before diving into a pool! So why aren’t we considerate enough, or interested enough, or just plain polite enough to get a name right?

As someone extremely interested in words I named my girls with great thought, thinking about each name and how their meanings interacted with each other and what kind of hopeful narrative they made around each baby. My son, poor boy, has escaped that careful net and so, like his father, will be dealing with “creative” interpretations of his name forever. The poor man even has a spectacularly wrong version of his name on his credit card, such is the height of our NND. I, of course, use only “Hussain” when I order anything. It’s too much trouble to explain or spell my actual name, so all orders are made for Hussain. Which is frequently Hasnain and Hassan.