I love my name – so it hurts every time someone purposefully mispronounces it

We live in a deeply diverse community, yet there is still a lack of respect when it comes to unique names (Picture: Zesha Saleem)

I had a teacher who could never get my name right. 

For the record, it’s pronounced ‘Zeesha’, but sometimes this teacher would call me ‘Zetia’, ‘Aleeza’ and ‘Zeisha’ or instead just avoid saying it altogether – merely gesturing towards me in a vague manner.

I was even advised to wear a lanyard around my neck to help her get my moniker right. 

This experience didn’t upset me but frustrated me. Why couldn’t she make the effort to pronounce it correctly?

We live in a deeply diverse community, yet there is still a lack of respect when it comes to unique names.

One parents’ evening, this teacher called me something completely different in front of my mother while looking me straight in the eye. My mum was speechless but quietly seething and I had to calm her down so she wouldn’t say anything at the time.

When we got home, she was disgusted that someone who taught me for so long couldn’t get a five-letter word right.

This was my first time realising that I’d have to face challenges over something so simple for the rest of my life.

I can concede that my name is incredibly unique. It stems from the Urdu word for ‘grand’ or ‘great’ and while the male version – Zeshan – is extremely popular in South Asia, for some reason my version isn’t. I’ve yet to find a fellow Pakistani with it.

I also keep the original pronunciation just like how you would if you were reading it. When it comes to pronouncing it in an English accent though, it can cause problems because it’s not phonetically pronounced how you spell it.

There are some extraordinary benefits to this though. Making a username on social media is never a struggle and it can sometimes serve as an ice-breaker in awkward scenarios.

However, having something so ‘exotic’ can come with a lot of unwanted and frustrating baggage, too.

It’s my identity and who I am so show a little respect

Whenever I arrive somewhere new, I have a feeling of dread that never leaves until the inevitable hurdle is crossed – and it’s more than frustrating. Making new friends during sixth form made me a little nervous as I couldn’t relax into a conversation until I knew that people could pronounce it properly.

To some extent, I can understand when someone gets it wrong on the first go – it’s super uncommon and I’ve made mistakes with other people a fair few times too.

But even when it’s displayed clear as day – like in my email signature for example – I question why people keep spelling it incorrectly? 

I don’t mind if you genuinely struggle with it either or ask me questions about it. However, what’s unacceptable is consistently mispronouncing it – especially if I’ve corrected it before – and not caring enough to correct themselves.

With the way our world is shifting, having an unusual name in Britain shouldn’t make you feel like you’re sticking out like a sore thumb. 

Due to this never-ending butchering, I’ve learned that by kindly correcting people the first time – once they’ve finished speaking – is the best way forward.

Sometimes they’ll apologise and try to get it right, other times my efforts will simply be ignored. In the past, I’ve actually had someone explain why the way I spell and pronounce it is wrong, and how it should be instead.

But it’s my identity and who I am. I want to say, ‘show a little respect’.

As much as some don’t want to admit, Britain still has to work on becoming a more inclusive country that ensures that everyone’s culture is respected equally. 

In my personal experience, I’ve rarely had a problem with the pronunciation from those of minority backgrounds themselves. Even if they don’t share the same ethnicity as me, they always ask and make sure it’s correct as opposed to some of their white counterparts. It’s no surprise that they make an effort – they can relate to a life where their names are constantly distorted, too.  

It’s simple: If you’re unsure how to spell or pronounce it, just ask. 

American writer Dale Carnegie famously said that ‘a person’s name is to them the sweetest and most important sound in any language’ and I couldn’t agree more.

They’re a marker that helps to set us all apart from each other. As our country becomes increasingly diverse, more and more people will have words that you don’t come across every day – so it’s time to make an effort. 

It’s a small thing to some but for me, putting in the effort to get my name right can go a long, long way.

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