Lizzie Pook | Contributing Writer | Wednesday, 16 December 2015

What Life Is Like When You Have A Really Weird Name

What Life Is Like When You Have A Really Weird Name

The Debrief: Lizzie Pook has been ridiculed for her unusual surname, but she’s determined to be proud of it

Artwork by Grace Danico

Now let’s just get rid of that massive elephant in the room shall we: I know my surname sounds a bit like shit. Pook – it’s a kind of absurd, unpronounceable thing that brings to mind a cross between a grim bodily function and a bearded dwarf from Lord of the Rings.

It hasn’t been easy carting about this unwieldy name for 30 years. Not only did Pook make me an easy target for mockery as a kid – 'Lizzie Puke' was often bandied around; 'Lizzie Poo-face' (multiple variations of) was incredibly common – but it’s had a profound impact on my adult life, too.

 There’s nothing like a ridiculous surname to stoke the anxiety and awkwardness I feel in certain social situations. Take networking events, for example. Forced small-talk over an Iceland King Prawn Ring is soul-destroying enough, but imagine having to psych yourself up before giving your name to the name badge lady, or introducing yourself to someone new – some people laugh heartily, by the way. Many look at the floor. Others are kinder: 'What an interesting name, is it Swedish?'

It’s not bloody Swedish. I’ve done lots of research into the meaning behind ‘Pook’ (a British west country name) and answers range from ‘forest sprite’ to ‘bale of hay’. But the ever-reliable online Urban Dictionary really puts the knife in: 'Pook generally describes a junkie or someone addicted to drugs – as in "you fecking pook head"'. Sigh.

However, as excruciating as it is to have to spell out a name that begins ‘Poo’ several times a day, sometimes I revel in knowing that my name is just fucking funny. I used to work in a pensions office and the automatically-generated password for my computer was Pooooooo1. I refused to be bowed by this ridiculous password, and instead it became something to laugh about with my colleagues over beer after work. I was also once introduced to a girl from Russia who looked me dead in the eye and said, in a heavy Bond villain accent, 'Your name means fart in my country.' I chose to laugh in the face of both these situations because having a funny surname means having a memorable one, too. People are always going to remember an ’Elizabeth Hornswoggle’ over, say, an ‘Elizabeth Holt’, and as a writer, perhaps I should feel lucky to have a byline that stands out – even if it is for all the wrong reasons.   

BUT. Science doesn’t necessarily agree with me on this. In a New York University study, researchers found that people with easier-to-pronounce names often have higher-status positions at work. Another study, by Marquette University in Wisconsin, found evidence to suggest that names that were viewed as the least unique were more likeable, and that people with common names were more likely to be hired. So far, so deflating. But to go even further, one school of thought even believes that our surname can actually have an impact on not only our personality but our career choices, too – something called ‘nominative determinism’ (which would explain why someone called Guy Rich might become a banker, for example, or if a Rachel Care was to become a nurse). 

Well yes, having such an unusual name can definitely affect your personality. Pook has probably sucked out some of my confidence – I would never voluntarily stand up in a room full of people and introduce myself (“Pook...no...POOK...As in P for Peter, O. OH FORGET IT!”), it’s just too goddamn mortifying. But thankfully, I can take comfort in the fact that plenty of others are going through the same thing. I have a friend, a brilliant writer whose name is Noo Saro Wiwa. She often bemoans the constant mispronunciation of her name. Her publishers even spelt her surname wrong on the proof copies of her first novel, FFS! (Her childhood GP also used to insist on shouting ‘Saro Wiwi? SARO WIWI?’ across the waiting room at every appointment, which makes me laugh. A lot). 

But while those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be Smiths or Joneses continue to mutter our surnames quietly to bank cashiers, I’m still proud of my ridiculous name. Not only is it a lifelong tie to my late father and his side of the family (the Pooks are all super smart, too; I should be honoured), it also means my friends give me the best nicknames: ‘Pookie,’ ‘Pookalele’, ‘Pookatron’(I could go on). And frankly, that just makes me feel loved. Having a weird name also makes you kind of unique, without even having to try. So whether you’re a ‘Fingerbottom’ or a ‘Phuck’, go ahead and shout your ludicrous surname from the rooftops (and be ready for some odd looks), it’s the most interesting part of you.

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Follow Lizzie on Twitter: @lizziepook