return icon

What’s in a name?

Recent news of a maths professor at a US community college asking one of his students to “Anglicise” her name made headlines around the world, while the offending email was widely shared on social media.

 He has been placed on leave pending an investigation.

Illustrative image. – Photo:

Initially it seemed to be the usual obstacle many immigrants to the US or elsewhere face: your name may mean something quite beautiful in your mother tongue but absolutely not in English.

Millions of people coming from Asia to Europe or the US change the way their names are pronounced. Whereas people may leave their family names unchanged, their given name can be altered to accommodate new surroundings and culture and make it easier to fit in. Some people pick another name altogether, that’s easier for others to pronounce.

In Vietnamese, the woman’s name Bich Van means “Blue Cloud” but sounds like “Big Van” in English, so many with the name Van decide to go with Vanessa.

Dung means “Grace” and is a woman’s name, while Dung means "Bravery" and is a man’s name. But many people choose to add a Z just after the D (Dzung), as Dung in English is really not that pleasant.

And Thu Nga may translate as “Autumn Moon” but can sound like “Tuna” in English. If you don’t want to change the beautiful name your parents gave you, be prepared to be called "Tuna" in your new home.

In Vietnam there is a saying, “Nhập gia tùy tục”, meaning when you are in a new family, adapt to their customs, or similar to English proverb "When in Rome, do as the Romans do". Millions of people have done so to make it easier to assimilate.

As did Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen, who used to go by the name May but one day decided to use her legal name, which bears both of her parents’ family names and a two-word given name. Her given name means “Happy Blessing”, which reflects her parents’ joy over her coming into their lives as well as their wish that she experiences a life full of blessings.

Though people who were born speaking English tend to have the world accommodate their preferences, the college student mentioned above asked that she keep her original name, which put the professor out of his comfort zone. His request that she “Anglicise” her name literally meant finding another way to pronounce it or choosing a whole other name. But his insistence that she do so triggered not only the student but also others.

Problems with names are quite common. Staff in the tourism industry often have to ask visitors to repeat their names, and if it has another meaning in the local tongue then they may politely suggest the person temporarily changes it.

Many choose a new name that at least approximates their given name: Van becomes Vanessa in France and English-speaking countries, Ha becomes Hanya in Russia or Haly in Germany, and Giang becomes Gianna or Gianne in Italian.

In my graduate class many years ago was a girl from Russia whose name was Irina Slutsky. Needless to say, she was advised to change her family name on a regular basis.

At hotels, resorts, and foreign-owned companies in Vietnam, Singapore, China and beyond, employees may be asked to pick an English name, to make it easier for visitors or international managers to address them. And at international schools, children also take on an English name, to make it easier for the teachers.

It goes both ways, too. Many Americans, Canadians, Brazilians and others who have made a home in Vietnam have chosen a Vietnamese name. A famous Canadian called Joe went for Dâu (but Vietnamese call him something like Zoe instead), and authored a best-selling book entitled My Name is ‘Dâu’. Footballer Kesley Alves from Brazil picked the Vietnamese name Huynh (pronounced in the south, at least, as “Win”).

Another American-Vietnamese man wrote a book entitled John đi tìm Hùng, or “John in search of Hùng”, which shared his tales of returning to his roots and seeking his Vietnamese identity.

Unlike in the West, where parents may name their children after their own parents or someone else in the family tree, in Vietnam it’s considered unacceptable to give your children your name or the name of your parents.

In the past it was considered unacceptable to even say your parents’ names. You would also never know the names of your grandparents or other elders in the family, and on many occasions new parents opted for the name of a heretofore unknown dead relative, with much consternation ensuing.

There is, indeed, a great deal in a name. More than just what a person is called, it’s also wrapped up in family tradition or parents’ expectations.

Sometimes in Vietnam it’s a name that reflects when they were born. During wartime, many people were named Thong Nhat (Reunification), Chien Thang (Victory), Hoa Binh (Peace), or Hanh Phuc (Happiness).

So, be considerate and thoughtful whenever you say someone’s name, because you may be confronting not only one person but an unknown world of culture and tradition. VNS

Nguyen My Ha

Hanoi student wins scholarships to five US high schools

Hanoi student wins scholarships to five US high schools

A Vietnamese student has just won scholarships to five high schools in the US.  

Sad fact: Many students have below average marks after 7 years of learning English

Sad fact: Many students have below average marks after 7 years of learning English

Vietnamese students learn English for at least seven years at school. However, many of them cannot obtain basic knowledge, which has been blamed on the teaching method.



HCM City to be next destination of Italian Film Festival 2022

2023 AFF Club Championship schedule, structure announced

The 2023 ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Club Championship will start on September 27 2023, and end on May 15, 2024, the AFF Competition Committee announced at an online meeting on Monday.

HCM City’s dengue fever deaths highest in decade

HCMC recorded some 25 deaths due to dengue by October 2, the highest in a decade, according to the HCMC Center for Disease Control.

Hospitality providers in Hanoi Old Quarter revive

Hospitality providers in Hanoi’s Old Quarter have been gradually recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 15, most of them have so far been brought back to life.

After discovery of fake VietGAP-certification, 12 units under probe

After local media reported about vegetables with counterfeited VietGAP certificates, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) asked for a review of 12 certification units and threatened to strictly punish any violators.

Another three Vietnamese digital platforms qualify for being popularized

Vietnam is expected to maintain its seventh place in the number of new app downloads globally.

Foreign travel website suggests 10 best things when visiting Vietnam

Kayaking in the waters of picturesque Cat Ba island and taking a food tour to sample delicacies around Ho Chi Minh City are among the 10 best things to do in Vietnam, according to UK-based travel website Time Out.

Vietnam’s coconut kingdom protects organic coconut areas by biological methods

When the trend of consuming organic products is increasingly popular, the development of organic material sources has become an urgent requirement. Protecting these sources has become a great concern of producers in many countries around the world.

Electronics industry capacity must keep up with increased investment

Vietnam needs policies to enable the electronics industry to ready its supply chain as the country becomes ever more attractive for investment, Deputy Director of the Industry Agency under the Ministry of Industry and Trade Pham Tuan Anh said.

VN central bank shifts up interest rates to combat US Fed adjustments

After the State Bank of Vietnam implemented the new operational interest rate on September 23, all joint-stock commercial banks, with the exception of state-owned ones, have adjusted the deposit interest rate for most terms.

HCM City targets international cruise tourists

Ho Chi Minh City has great potential to attract international cruise tourists as part of an effort to speed up tourism recovery post-pandemic, experts said.

Waste criteria lacking for nation’s IPs

Vietnam’s industrial parks are in the process of transitioning to more ecological models, but are struggling due to a lack of regulations on reusing treated waste and wastewater.

Vietnam experiences solid rise in production

The Vietnamese manufacturing sector rose solidly inside growth territory at the end of the third quarter of the year.

VN-Index bounces back from two-year low

The benchmark VN-Index on Wednesday regained the 1,100-point landmark after falling to a two-year low, but low liquidity may threaten the market recovery in the next sessions.