Ajit Muttucumaraswamy calls himself Ajit Muttu. He switched because “the average British person was not used to long names. Two syllables was the most they could manage.”
Professionally, too, the change paid off for the Sri Lankan accountant: “Employment was important. Long names would put off some people.”
This isn’t just hearsay.
Liberian-born Max Kpakio was denied an interview for a job at a Swansea call centre but when he re-applied using the name Craig Owen he was invited to an interview for the same post.
For Shahid Iqbal, “Changing name was a case of opening the doors.” He adopted a British-sounding name and found that vacancies he’d previously been told were filled were open. He now owns an engineering company in Birmingham: “I approach my customers as Richard Brown and quite a few have openly admitted that if I’d approached them as Shahid Iqbal, they wouldn’t have given us the opportunity.”
Discrimination channelled through “un-British” names was confirmed a few years ago by a report commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions which sent matching CVs to UK employers using ethnic-sounding names and a conventional British name, Alison Taylor. The most successful applications were those signed by Taylor.
Or take the case of Mahmoud Barreh. He found that his posts under articles on news websites were often excluded – until he used Michael as his first name. Then his comments were included.
Historically, new names were sometimes adopted – or imposed by immigration officials – at the point of entry. Daniel Nelson is a name that sounds as English as a pub argument, which was why the surname was adopted by his East European grandfather.
Often newcomers adopt nicknames because the natives experience difficulty – or unwillingness – in pronouncing unusual names correctly.
Not so many years ago, annoyance was caused when a couple of British radio commentators laughed on air about the ‘impossibility’ of the names of the Sri Lankan cricket team.
That wouldn’t happen today – and not only because the BBC pronunciation unit would put them right. Jokes about the foreignness of foreign names are still an irritating part of office and café banter (it’s worth remembering that almost any joke about a name will have been made scores of times already), but times are changing.
Thanks to the number of migrants, we are more accustomed to “funny” names. Two or three years ago Premiership football crowds stumbled over the names of players in their own team which they were invited by the public address system to shout out. Today we can all say with aplomb the names of Italian, Turkish or Nigerian players.
Maybe the natives are becoming less insular, and perhaps the next Muttucumaraswamy to arrive will be able to stick to his real name.
Some migrants stick hard to their names
Marzanna Antoniak of Glasgow kept her birth name, which is the Slavic Goddess of Winter or Death. Although she suggests the nickname “Mana” for those who have difficulty with pronunciation, “many people do want to make an effort and learn how to say my name properly. It means a lot to me.
“I think if I had a common Polish name which was difficult to pronounce here I would perhaps consider anglicising it as many people do,” she says. “But with such a meaningful and beautiful name, I can be only proud of it.
“I guess the majority of us embrace their names, they are a crucial part of our identity.”