Report on Canada’s “racial divide”

The field study that Philip Oreopoulos and I co-authored in 2011 was mentioned in The Globe and Mail‘s September 27th report on Canada’s “racial divide”.  Our study, along with great work by other Canadian researchers, is drawn on to describe the kinds of systemic racism that are experienced daily by indigenous people and people of colour in Canada. As the article’s author, Tavia Grant, states “the narrative that Canada is a bastion of multiculturalism and inclusiveness is one that glosses over some harsh truths.”


How Ontarians are changing their names

I was very  happy to be interviewed about my dissertation research for this article which appeared in the Saturday, September 10th edition of The Globe and Mail’s “Focus” section. As an added bonus, Eric Andrew-Gee’s writing is very fun to read!

Closing some chapters, opening new ones…

Since my last post I

  1. finished writing my dissertation
  2. successfully defended it
  3. acquired a full-time teaching position
  4. became a motherDiane graduation

So, life has been very exciting, and really quite great, except that I haven’t been posting here. This is partly because I have a less flexible schedule, and partly  because my needs have changed. Writing blog posts about names, as I was thinking about and theorizing my way through a doctoral dissertation, was really useful. This space allowed me to develop my voice as a writer, and my confidence as a social scientist. Rather than producing a largely inaccessible and distant-from-the-author tome, I was complimented by my committee for how much I am present in my dissertation, and how readable a tome it is. For that, I thank those of you who read my posts. I also encourage other graduate students to take the opportunity to work out their thoughts and theories in the comparatively bite-sized chunks that are blog posts. This was a really beneficial practice for me!

As mentioned, my needs as a writer and educator have changed– I want to remain active with name politics as well as developments in writing pedagogy scholarship. In May 2015, I became a Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre, so communication practices, especially writing and oral presentations have become a greater focus for me. My position’s mandate is to improve the quality of writing in scientific and technical spheres at McGill. This post is an example of the advice I offer, in lecture or workshop format, with a focus on practice.

Thanks for reading! I look forward to our future interactions.

“The Database is Drunk!”: When Name Mistakes are Funny

In February, two high profile and amusing name mistakes occurred, and they still have me thinking about how these situations differ from the name challenges experienced by people who have immigrated—a phenomenon which is the focus of my dissertation. We’ll get to those thoughts in a few paragraphs. First, the name mistakes!

Event #1: Misaddressed Letters of Invitation to the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences

Academics who attend the annual national Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, once known as “The Learneds”, received letters inviting us to register for the 2014 conference. But on nearly all of the envelopes, our surnames were misspelled!


Though I often experience minor misspellings of my last name, this misnomer had a strange anglicizing effect. And coming from a professional organization through which I network, it was especially disconcerting: how my name exists at Congress is important to me.

These mispellings had similarities. Generally, the first two or three letters of each surname was correct, and then our names nosedived away from reality. In my case, my name was altered from Diane Dechief to Diane Decker.

I might not have even noticed this name error, but the most exceptional of these name alterations came to my attention before I had  received my letter from Congress.This mistake was so wonderful and so odd that its recipient, Zoë Constantinides, shared her envelope:


Yes, Zoë’s Constantinides became , “Zoë Consulate General of Sweden”. OF SWEDEN!

And then other misnomer stories started rolling in. A friend who works in a university department was responsible for putting the Congress invitation letters into individual mailboxes. She said, “almost every name was wrong and hilarious” including one person’s last name being turned into “Schmaltz.”  And there were others:

Bruno Cornellier’s envelope was addressed to Bruno Corona.
Nathan Rambukkana was turned into Nathan Ramdas.
Beatriz Bartolomé Herrera became Beatriz Barton.

Peter Lester shifted to Peter Letocha.
Kat Sark’s name addition made her surname match mine: Kat Sarker.
And Dr. Owen Livermore became Dr. Livingstone.

But some people’s names stayed the same:

Morgan Charles
Gregory Taylor
Poppy Robbins

Then the hypotheses started flooding in:

Was this some kind of weird performance art project? (Erin MacLeod)
Or a case of spellcheck gone wild?  (Saleema Nawaz)

So, as Vice-President of the Canadian Society for the Study of Names, I took it upon myself to write a letter to the Congress organizers. I told them about Zoë’s name change, just to break the ice, and then I asked directly if spell check was to blame. I did not, however, float the drunk database theory.

I received a couple of very apologetic responses that were quite similar to the official apology that arrived (by email, not post) a couple of days later: spell check was not to blame, but a more generic “technical issue” was. The mail-out happened at the same mailing house that Congress usually works with. And fear not: Congress definitely still has our real names in their databases.

Event #2: The Oscars, 2014


Later in February, the Academy Awards took place. And a highlight was this gaff: While introducing performer Idina Menzel, John Travolta, seeming more nervous than drunk, mistakenly called her Adele Dazeem. Idina Menzel was about to perform at the Oscars! And John Travolta had gone to rehearsals in preparation for that introduction!

Travolta’s name mistake was quickly noted and was responded to creatively: a widget made the rounds of social networks, “Travoltifying” names left and right. On Facebook at least, people seemed charmed and amused by having their names Travoltrified. I admit to using the widget myself– for the sake of name science.

So why are these name errors funny, in contrast to the name mistakes experienced by people who have immigrated?

1. Exceptional cases: if people usually get your name right, and then this one time it’s wrong, that’s funny.

In contrast to the situation for people who have immigrated and have their names miswritten and mispronounced constantly, an occasional misnomer is worth a chuckle.

But it’s also funny that the Congress participants whose names are most common STILL didn’t have their names flubbed.

2. How they got it wrong: The misnomers created by both Congress and John Travolta were really very different than the original names.

It bears repeating. Zoë Constantinides became Zoë Consulate General of Sweden!!!

That said, many people I interviewed for my dissertation were shocked by the ways that their names have been changed. In one case, a participant from Colombia who originally used four names (two first and two last) had one of his last names truncated on his Permanent Resident Card, and his newly formed last name appeared to be Dutch.

3. The people who made these two name mistakes felt really sorry and apologized profusely.

John Travolta was apparently “beating himself up all day” for the mistake he made in front of 43 million viewers. And Jean-Marc Mangin, Executive Director of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, personally apologized “for this mistake and any inconvenience it has caused”.

In many of the cases described by the participants, people rarely even realize that they’ve made a mistake with the participants’ names. Apologies are rarely anticipated or received.

4.  We were all in it together.

In these two name situations, we weren’t individually having our name messed up and feeling like no one else could understand. Except, potentially, for Idina Menzel. But then, thousands of people wanted to have their names transformed as Idina Menzel’s was; maybe that provided her some solace. One notable thing about the Congress misnomers is that people with the most common names, who didn’t have their names altered, may have actually felt a little left out of the hilarity.

Name errors and embarrassment about making them come down to this: if we know and care about someone, we get her name right. To mispronounce or misspell someone’s name demonstrates either a lack of care or an ignorance of how their name should be. The name mispronunciations that people who have immigrated so often experience can be diminished with effort and care that is enacted socially, professionally, and bureaucratically. When someone is important, we usually get their names right. Isn’t that so, Congress and Jan Thozomas?

Jan Thozomas

I had a fun interview about my dissertation! Here’s the result:

Journalist Alina Dizik interviewed me earlier this month, as she put together this article for BBC’s “Capital” section. The article’s original location is here:


26 February 2014

Would you hire a Parkshit?
by Alina Dizik
Name tags (Flickr/Getty)Name tags (Flickr/Getty)

When Malaysian-born Norhidayah Binti Nazarudin moved to the United States after a stint working in Japan, she was ready for a new name that was more familiar to her colleagues.

So Nazarudin, whose family still calls her Hidayah, became Heidi, a popular American name. As a banker turned blogger, she believes Heidi gets her more attention than her birth name and work contacts have confessed they were previously unsure how to pronounce her given name and hesitant to approach her for work-related questions.

Changing your name to fit in better at the office or as an expat might seem extreme, but it is becoming increasingly popular. Some people want to offload an embarrassing moniker and others, like Nazarudin, want to Anglicise their name for work.

There’s good reason, say some experts and name-changers. As an increasing number of people relocate abroad for work, names that seem average in one country can seem awkward somewhere else. Many people now seek name changes – whether official or simply nicknames – as a ticket to more callbacks from potential employers and better treatment by colleagues.

At the same time, human resource and hiring managers review hundreds of CVs per week, and research in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK shows that there is some bias when it comes to calling back candidates with non-Anglicized names, says Marie Wilson, a professor at the University of South Australia Business School who’s researched the topic.

“Names are often the first thing that a potential employer encounters, and names may trigger stereotypes about men and women, or about a particular ethnic group,” she said her research found.“Migration and global careers, lead to a greater emphasis on having a name that travels well,” said Wilson. Rather than pursuing a name change legally, Wilson says more people now use nicknames to “localize” themselves.

And using a more ambiguous name isn’t always a way to keep the part of the world you come from vague. Using a different name on business cards or a CV doesn’t require going through red tape. Ari Abitbol never needed to legally shorten her name from Arielle. But she says using a shortened version, Ari, professionally helps when finding work in the reality television industry where most of her colleagues are male, she said.

After graduating from college she experimented with using Ari on her CV and created a new email address using the name. She says more of her queries were answered after she began to use a more male-sounding name, she said. “I wasn’t getting as many bites until I changed my name,” said Abitbol, 27, who is based in New York.

Legal hurdles

Changing your family name, however, can prove more problematic. It can be much more complicated than the first name, says Axle Davids, 46, who was previously Axle Dickman. Davids, who lives in Toronto, decided on the name change after comments about the meaning of his given name detracted from the serious conversation when he introduced himself in a professional setting. He felt self-conscious when sharing his last name and didn’t want to pass down the teasing to his own kids.

It took two years to complete all of the required paperwork but having a more common name was worth it, he said. The surname Davids — which came from part of his mother’s maiden name, Bar-David, as inspiration — raises few eyebrows.

“When I am introduced to new people – particularly in a business context — my last name isn’t the first topic of conversation,” he said.

Malaysian-born Norhidayah Binti Nazarudin changed her name to Heidi after moving to the US and quickly received more queries for work. (Courtesy Heidi Nazarudin)

While Diane Dechief, who interviewed 23 name changers in Canada as part of her PhD dissertation on the impact of personal names says it can be bittersweet to say goodbye to a birth name.

“People were sort of happy, but disappointed, that something like their name could stop them from [accessing]opportunities,” because a name is both easy to change to remedy that, but also a very personal attachment, she said.

When Dechief, now a lecturer at Montreal’s McGill University, studied employers as part of her research, she said a non-Anglican name signaled to some that the candidate had recently immigrated to Canada, even if the person’s experience showed this was not the case. In a 2011 study of 7,000 resumes that highlighted identical experience except for their ethnic-sounding names, applicants with English-sounding names received 35% more callbacks on average, says Dechief, who helped conduct the research.

In later research, most of her subjects said the career opportunities with a “pruned” name seemed worth the hassle.

Family values

Not all name changes are accepted at face-value by employers, warned Roy Cohen, a New York-based career coach. For instance, if someone changed their name to cover up past media attention or a firing, it can backfire. But employers typically accept changing a name to avoid unfair ethnic or gender stereotyping, said Cohen who is author of the Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide.

Additionally, coworkers or work acquaintances can sometimes feel uncomfortable pronouncing a name that has a different connotation in another language, said Cohen who advised a client named Parkshit to shorten his name to Park. “When a new name allows you to feel more confident, then it’s the answer,” he said.

Nazarudin said family and friends who’ve formed an emotional attachment to your previous name, often don’t realize the career hurdles involved in keeping it. Sometimes the new name can make a close family member feel disrespected. So plan ahead so a career move doesn’t cause trouble at home.

“My father took it a bit personally,” said Nazarudin, who told him to keep calling her Hidayah. “But I told him it was a business decision.”

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“What if Robert Lepage changed his name to Stephen Harper?” And what if Kent Monkman and Margie Gillis did, too?

The question quoted in this blog’s title was posed by Janez Janša during a talk at ImageMcGill University earlier this month, as he presented NAME – Readymade. In 2007, Janez Janša and two other Slovenian artists (Janez Janša and Janez Janša) changed their names to that of Slovenia’s then-current right-wing Prime Minister, Janez Janša.

Since then, the artist Janez Janšas have presented exhibits, published a set of essays, and made a film about their name changes, as well as continuing their art practices as solo artists. The politician Janez Janša has since been charged with plagiarizing Tony Blair(!), and via a non-confidence vote (in March 2013) was ousted from his second (non-consecutive) term as Slovenia’s Prime Minister. Besides this, in June 2013 he was charged with corruption. Note: None of the latter Janez Janša’s undoing seems directly related to the former Janez Janšas’ name changes.


The Janez Janšas’ acts of changing their names to that of a Prime Minister whose political views they oppose can be understood in many ways. To me, as a researcher of names—and name changes in particular—two aspects of the Janez Janšas’ act of changing their names resonate particularly: name change as art practice, and name change as politics.


Name Change as Art

The Janez Janšas’ act of simultaneously changing their names, especially when presented as the “NAME – Readymade” exhibit, book, and film begs an examination of what exactly is a personal name. For those unfamiliar, the Janez Janšas’ use of  “Readymade” refers to Marcel Duchamp’s practice of repositioning everyday items as art pieces. The most famous of these is his 1917 piece “Fountain” which features a urinal.  Through his readymade practice Duchamp asked, when is an item art and when is it just an everyday object?


The Janez Janšas extend this question to reposition a personal name: can a name change be considered art? It seems that yes, it can; at least in the case that a known name is simultaneously adopted by three artists, in a particular political climate. The Janez Janšas’ presentation of their group name change as art is quite convincing. Can we see more of this? In what other ways can names be the basic material of an art practice?


Name Change as Politics

As I write my dissertation about name changes made by people who have migrated to Canada over the past forty years, I am often thinking about the personal and public politics that influence name changes and name reversions. Quite simply, all name changes are political. Whether changes to names are made as strategies for belonging, or as efforts toward maintaining or promoting a personal or cultural origin, they represent political choices. And many individuals’ choices are more Imageobviously based on broader national or global politics, particularly when deflecting prosecution, or defending perceptions of a culture: think of the Osamas who had to decide what to do about their names after 9/11. (The 2005 film by Mahmoud Kaabour and Tim Schwab, Being Osama, documents this dilemma).

To me, the political aspect of the Janez Janšas’ decision to change their names is playful heckling. The politician Janez Janša, not unlike Canada’s own Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, tightened public funding for the arts and limited the freedom of the press, amongst other challenges to democracy. That three well-known artists responded to these actions by simultaneously changing their names to match that of Janez Janša is a great political tactic. Suddenly, the spotlight that usually follows this politician is diluted and weakened by other well-known people sharing his name.

And as with Duchamp’s urinal, a name repositioned has its meaning interrogated. The resonance of a national leader’s name is diminished as it becomes just as insignificant or as ridiculous as any other object or word. The artist Janez Janšas have chosen a slowly unfolding, playful, legal route to demonstrate their dissent. To the public who is aware of this name change, it’s a wonderful joke to be let in on: at least a smirk ensues.  

Sure, changing one’s name also comes at some cost to one’s identity and through time spent dealing in bureaucracy. But as a political art practice, it engages in an inventive, novel way: one that seems more apt than ever with our online social networks’ focus on names as part of online presences and personal brands.

So, what would happen if Robert Lepage changed his name to Stephen Harper?
And what if Kent Monkman and Margie Gillis did it, too? 

Why do we want to write our names all over everything?

Anticipating the upcoming Canadian Society for the Study of Names conference, I’ve been thinking about the names of public places. This is in part because one of the guest speakers is Reuben Rose-Redwood, a toponymic activist.

What does it mean to be a toponymic activist? Rose-Redwood’s bio and abstract are here, but in brief, he’s against selling the names of public buildings to philanthropists and corporations. I’m super curious to hear Rose-Redwood’s talk, and I’ll likely write a follow-up blog, but these are my current mullings/questions:

Over the past decade in Canada, a number of (re)christenings of buildings have taken place. This is a clear indication of our federal government’s trend toward privatization, but what does it mean for public places? These buildings are parts of our campuses, or our sport/concert complexes, but we’re now asked to think of and refer to these seemingly public spaces with a private label: the name of an individual or a company has become our referent.

Examples of these kinds of name-sales in Montreal include McGill’s Schulich School of Music, Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, and of course, the Bell Center. Looking West, Calgary’s Saddledome has had four prefixes since it was built (Olympic, Canadian Airlines, Pengrowth, Scotiabank), but it does remain distinctively Calgarian as “the Saddledome.”

During this same decade, the amount graffiti in Montreal –and perhaps in most places?– has increased. Montreal can boast some very impressive street art, but tags are more my focus here. Wikipedia’s extensive glossary of graffiti defines “tag” in this way:

tag (scribble): A stylized signature, normally done in one color. The simplest and most prevalent type of graffiti, a tag is often done in a color that contrasts sharply with its background. Tag can also be used as a verb meaning “to sign”. Writers often tag on or beside their pieces, following the practice of traditional artists who sign their artwork. … The verb tagging has even become a popular verb today in other types of occasions that are non-graffiti-related. Tagging first appeared in Philadelphia, with spraypainted messages of “Bobby Beck In ’59” on freeways surrounding the city. Since then, individual graffiti scenes have displayed very different forms of tagging that are unique to specific regions. For example, a Los Angeles tag will look much different than a Philadelphia tag, etc.


Tagging is a way to put your name on a public space for the price of a can of spray paint and the risk of a fine.  Can tags be thought of as a response to the sale of naming rights? Perhaps not, but perhaps. Thinking of tags in this way, I kind of admire the response: I can appreciate more fully the fluid arcs of spray paint.

But then, what is it about us humans that our impulse is to write our names on everything?  Why this desire to mark a territory, to claim a space with our name? (This question was actually posed to me, disgustedly, by my friend Sabrina.)

I’m not yet sure, but it certainly seems to be happening at every level.