What's in a name?

4th January 2018

You know the surprising moment when you discover that your favourite celebrity has a completely different name. You will go through the stages of shock, feeling deceived and being intrigued all at once. Then you feel that slight smugness because you’ve uncovered their boring real-life roots. When famous people change their name it’s often to elevate their public appeal and is brushed off simply as another element of the celebrity package. But there are other reasons choose a different name to improve their chances of success.

Perhaps your name doesn’t sound quite like a “successful” person’s name or you may have been told to tone it down to make it easier for other people. In fact, if your name isn’t traditionally British, you’re probably using a variation of your name or a whole different “British name” alongside your birth name.

If this is the first time you’ve heard of people doing this, you have had the neglected luxury of going through life without having to give up a part of your identity.

Gradually, hearing your name twisted and torn to shreds becomes a common occurrence

If you have not been one of the lucky ones, then you’ll be accustomed to the anxiety of waiting for the teacher to read out your name during registration. The way they linger, their silence and their hesitation exposes the division between you and them. That tiny moment of wavering reveals your failure to pass the “British name” test. As if you needed another reminder that for some reason you do not fit in because you’re too “foreign”. Gradually, hearing your name twisted and torn to shreds becomes a common occurrence. The remaining tatters of these stubborn letters become merged with your identity.

This is not just prevalent in your everyday interactions but extends to life-altering situations like job opportunities. Talented individuals are held back purely because of their name – their job application rejected because of their moniker rather than their skill set.


In 2009, the Department for Work and Pensions commissioned a study where researchers sent out three applications with equal qualifications for 987 jobs. One application out of the three used a white-sounding name. There were 10.7% of applications with white names that were successful, while only 6.2% of applications with none white-sounding names were successful.

The study was nearly a decade ago and yet the problem does not seem to have gone away. Recruiters say they still have better success rates with white-sounding names because employers discriminate. A recruitment agency boss tells us: “I see it a lot when people have foreign names the company changes them to Dave or Paul. Being a multicultural company should be a USP but companies are still stuck in the dark ages.”

This is not a huge surprise to anyone whose name sounds “foreign”.

Aalia* recalls that during high school she started being addressed by a nickname because it didn’t sound “British”.

“I just went with it because why not? People could finally say my name without butchering it but even this unsolicited nickname was a butchering of my name,” she says.

“Orange is the New Black actress, Uzo Aduba asked her mum to change her name to a more Western sounding name because people couldn’t say it. Her mum told her that if people could say Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name then they will learn to say her name. Although I stand by this point, by choosing to introduce myself with a shortened version of my name it does not mean I am trying to ignore my heritage.”

She notes that, despite telling some people what to call her, they have repeatedly ignored these requests. Hearing other variations do not sound right to her. “It is annoying because they are taking my name from me.”

Aalia emphasises that making this choice for herself displays the agency she has over her name. She adds: “I own my name now. I don’t get shy about how foreign it sounds and me using a nickname is my choice. I have given permission for my nickname to be used by the people I like.”

Missed opportunities

Having a foreign sounding name can lead to missed opportunities, especially when you are young and less aware of systematic discrimination. This can cause low confidence, the impact of which can continue well into adult life.

Kashmala passed the exciting enrichment opportunity to be involved in a youth society during her early teens. “It was a place where you had to constantly introduce yourself. There were constant mishaps with my name where nobody could pronounce it. They would always ask me if I could be called something easier,” she says.

“The low self-esteem and the lack of confidence was enough to drive me to a ticking point. I didn’t go again because pronouncing everyone else’s name right and then making me repeat mine 20 times made me feel secluded and alienated.”

To solve the problem of being discriminated against, some have found changing the name on their CV to be the solution. Others have even gone to the extent of legally changing their name. Yet this is often disregarded and considered a byproduct of what comes along with having a non-white name. “Foreign people” are expected to simply ignore these situations.

In the past, governments have displayed a commitment to increasing inclusivity when hiring graduates. In 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that organisations would adopt name-blind recruitment practices to reduce any opportunity for bias. This includes graduate employers such as Teach First, KPMG, the NHS and Civil Service. Name-blind recruitment promotes hiring people based on merit alone by hiding their name on the application.  

People are made to feel guilty and embarrassed for having a name that’s ‘too hard to say’ by colleagues who spend their weekends talking about Tiémoué Bakayoko and Zlatan Ibrahimović.

Having a name that is unfairly categorised as being “too foreign” has prevented many people from progressing in the public sphere. The psychological implications of this are often ignored and the individual is accused of being too sensitive. People are made to feel guilty and embarrassed for having a name that’s “too hard to say” by colleagues who spend their weekends talking about Tiémoué Bakayoko and Zlatan Ibrahimović.

Name-blind applications are a step forward and it’s great to hear that both public and private sector organisations are taking this issue seriously. But let’s not lose sight of the end goal – a society where these kinds of measures are not needed at all.

*Name changed, ironically.

4th January 2018