Names: How do you say that?

Names: How do you say that?

Contributing author Schelly Talalay Dardashti is the US Genealogy Advisor for

If your family name is Smith or Green, you won’t relate to this post. However, if your family name is something more exotic – welcome to the club!

They look at your name, stammer and ask “how do you say that?” What do you do? Do you patiently spell it several times? Will you, as I often do, spell it out as in “D as in David, A as in Apple, R as in Robert” …. Do you break the name down into syllables for the other person? Do you give up and say, “Call me by my first name!” People look at DARDASHTI and their eyes glaze over. “Is that two Ds and two As?” asks the person on the phone or in a store. I usually break it into three syllables: Dar-dash-ti. For TALALAY, strangers usually put the accent on the wrong syllable, and say Tah-LAY-lee, instead of TAH-lah-lie. To confuse matters, one family branch uses TALALAY in English, but pronounces it Tah-la-lay. No wonder our ancestors switched to TOLLIN, TALLIN, TAYLOR, TOLL, TALL – and FEINSTEIN!

First names aren’t so easy, either. When my surname is giving problems, I might just give up and say “call me Schelly.” Of course, then they’ll ask how to spell that because there are so many variants: Schelly, Schelley, Shelly, Shelley, Shelli and more. When we lived in Teheran, some relatives thought my name was Shirley and they’ve been calling me that ever since. I just received a wedding invitation a few weeks ago addressed to Sherley. I recently finally convinced one cousin that it was Schelly, and she was quite surprised. She had forgotten how hard I tried to correct it so long ago.

My great-grandfather, according to the Newark, New Jersey city directory circa 1906, even flirted with TOLINI at one point, making us Italian. That was also the reason it took me years to find his first naturalization papers. I spent months calling the proper Essex County office to ask about the records. They kept telling me there was no TOLLIN, no TALALAY. Finally, having established a phone relationship with a friendly clerk, she told me that they had boxes of old records rarely accessed. I managed to persuade her to take a look by offering to pay for dry cleaning her clothes. Although she refused, I think the offer convinced her that I really wanted those papers.

In any case, she dealt with the decades-old dust, the creepy crawlies and retrieved our treasure. The miracle is that she found the papers. The moral of this part of the story is never to give up. Keep calling, try to find a friendly soul at the other end. But don’t do this if you live in the same city. It helps to be somewhere  far, far away, perhaps in another country. Obviously, if you’re half-a-world away, you can’t go there in person to check for what you need.

But I digress. (I do that a lot) Why this topic? An Arizona paper carried a story about another family with a really unusual name. Can you say URTUZUASTEGUI, boys and girls? There’s even a video to hear how the family says their unusual name, along with a few photos.

It’s a hard surname to pronounce and spell, but the unique name is very big in south Yuma County, where a street is even named after the well-known family. Somerton resident Josephine Urtuzuastegui, 86, has had nearly 70 years to get used to her married last name, but she’ll still admit that it’s been a challenge. The former Josephine Obeso was 17 years old when she married Charles Urtuzuastegui in 1941 and went from having a simple surname to a 13-letter mouthful.

She admitted the name had to grow on her.

“When I first got married, nobody could pronounce it. I was really embarrassed and would just say, ‘Call me Josephine.’” Then she had three sons — Charles Jr.; Alex, who passed away in March; and Robert — and with children came doctor visits. “The doctor could never say Mrs. Urtuzuastegui. I told him to call me Mrs. Josephine. After that everyone called me ‘Mrs. Josephine.’”

The San Luis City Council renamed the simple “A” Street to the well-known family’s name. Businesses on the street don’t understand why because people can’t say it or spell it in English or in Spanish. There’s a Facebook page for people who share this name. The name is actually from Spain’s Basque region, famous for its unusual language linked to no other on earth. This name also has a variant – Urtusuastegui – as relatives in Mexico spell it with S instead of Z. Read the complete story at the link above, and view the video to learn how to say this unusual name.

Do you have an unusual name? How do you explain it to strangers?


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  • Anne Hande

    September 10, 2015

    You would think that “Anne” is easy, but back in the days before the internet, I ordered an item by phone. Of course I was asked for the spelling of my full name, and started by saying, “Anne with an E”. The item arrived addressed to “Enn”.

  • Gro Aarum

    September 10, 2015

    Gro is a common Norwegian first name. I, however, live in Oceania and every time I present myself I get the question: – Excuse me, what did you say your name was? and – What is your real name?

    My last name is also difficult. It starts with Aa and most often it is misspelled as W when I spell it out as double A.

  • Perdita Herbert

    September 11, 2015

    My Christian name is Perdita. Very occasionally someone says knowledgably, “Ah, Shakespeare”. To others I say, “Just think of perdition”, which is inclined to make them nervous. I hate it when the ‘r’ gets left out because it looks like something to do with feet.
    My family name was Kemmis, which doesn’t seem too hard, but since the Norman invasion it has gone through Cameys Camois, Kemeys and probably more. I am very glad that my married name is much simpler, but the letter ‘r’ also gets left out, so it can be Hebert, Herbet.

  • Maari Evetts

    September 17, 2015

    My surname is Evetts and amongst other things I have had Evans, Everett and Ebbetts (common in the city I was in at the time). I got into the habit many years ago of saying my name and then spelling it but some still spell it wrong as they just don’t listen.

  • T. Intardonato

    September 17, 2015

    I have spent my entire life, as has my entire family, having our surname mangled by everyone we encounter. When I was younger and being a female, I used to look forward to the day I could marry a Smith or Jones and not have to spell out my name anymore. That didn’t work out since I’ve never married.

    My surname is Intardonato, of Italian origin, and I think most people just get freaked out by the length and number of letters. But the name is really quite phonetic and easy to pronounce if broken into the smaller parts. When I spell the name for people, or am trying to teach them to pronounce it…. I break it into the small syllables…. In/tar/do/nato. I usually get the surprised response… “Oh… that is easy to say.”

  • L. Josephine Kent

    September 21, 2015

    I am 76 years old. For special occasions, for instance, my family had to have passport photos taken, the photographer told us not to smile.
    I also had photos at the photographer’s when I had my confirmation in Church. The photographer told me not to smile. We smiled in our Family’s photos, taken by my Dad, though. Taking photo we never could get him to smile.

  • Peter Tyldsley

    October 13, 2015

    Smiling in photos did not come into vogue until the latter half of the 20th century.

  • Carol Seynhoven

    December 3, 2017

    My maiden name is Seynhoven. It was always pronounced incorrectly. Because my father was orphaned at a very young age, the correct spelling wasn’t known until after he died . The correct spelling was Seynhaeve. My family is the only one in the world, as far as we know, who spells our name Seynhoven. Our name will die out when my great niece dies . It seems strange to think there will be no one to carry on our name.I have searched for years to find an uncle who was named JAmes Emile Seynhaeve, but he was adopted from a Catholic Home as a baby and we were never able to find out his adopted name. To find him has been a lifetime search for our family.