Dear Prudence

Make a Name for Yourself

Prudie advises a parent whose son’s name has an unfortunate meaning in their new country’s language.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at

Q. Unfortunate Name: We recently moved abroad and will stay there for three years. Our 4-year-old son’s name has an unfortunate meaning in the local tongue. It’s a common word but unflattering for a child (think “jelly” or “rat”), and he’s getting teased. He’s been learning to laugh it off, and it’s getting steadily better. But the teacher recently suggested he pick a new name, and since then, it’s “teacher said” and “I want to change my name.” I think the teacher is way out of line (he’s being teased, not excluded or bullied). Am I being too hard on my son?

A: So imagine showing up at your new office, introducing yourself around, and ignoring the startled looks and sniggers when it turns out your name means “Large Bottom” in the local parlance. The teacher is not suggesting changing your son’s birth certificate, but making a tweak so that he doesn’t have the burden of spending the next three years in misery. I think she has made a great suggestion, and you, your husband, and your child can figure out if he wants a brand-new nickname for this adventure abroad, or if he wants to transpose a few letters to his given name. Give your son the opportunity to have a name that means “viking warrior,” not “rat jelly.” 

Q. Estranged Brother and Heartbroken Mother: I have not spoken to my brother in three years. We have always had a bad relationship, and despite my efforts, I had to sever the relationship after an extreme outburst from him. He has had issues with drugs, alcohol, and anger in the past. He has never hit me, but he has had extreme outbursts where he has threatened to kill my pets. I have repeatedly said that if he would apologize, then I would be willing to try to communicate or be in the same room as him. My mother thinks I should try to smooth things over, especially now that he has a 1-year-old whom I have never met. I do not want to “bend” when I have forgiven him countless times in the past and don’t understand why he can’t say, “Sorry.” I would be happy never speaking with him again, but I do wonder about my niece. What should I do?

A: I wonder about your niece, and I worry about her, too. Sometimes troubled people recognize the trouble is within themselves, get help, and build better lives. I hope this is the path your brother is on, but if so, you haven’t mentioned it. My fear is that he is a dangerous substance abuser who is now the father of a vulnerable child. It never really works to demand an apology. If it’s not forthcoming because the offender sees it as necessary, getting one under duress doesn’t actually address the problem. Your brother sounds potentially dangerous, so it is a good idea to have responsible adults looking at this child’s living situation. If you want to check up on your niece, your mother can be the go-between and say you would like to come by and get to know his daughter. If you decide you want to do it, go with other family members, not alone. During the visit do not mention the past, just the little girl in front of you. But if you feel it is better to keep your distance from your brother, then talk to your mother about the necessity of her keeping a watchful eye on the safety of this child. 

Q. Re: Unfortunate Name: I think your answer was terrible and shortsighted. Instead of the teacher taking this opportunity to educate the class about respecting cultural differences and respecting others, you suggest that a child change his name. Parents—get the principal involved and teach your child to be proud of who he is and where he comes from. Generally I agree with you, but you missed the mark on this one.

A: I can just see an all-school assembly in which the principal says to the students that “Rat Jelly” is a beautiful name in America and no one should laugh when they meet someone called “Rat Jelly.” The entire student body will likely have to stay after school because they will have collapsed in hysterics at this lecture. Yes, in an ideal world, a foreigner whose name means “rat jelly” in your language will only hear, “Welcome, Rat Jelly, it’s nice to meet you.” But in the real world, especially the world of 4-year-olds(!), this will have little people falling on the floor. There is a long tradition of people who go abroad adopting a first name in the local language to make life easier. It’s even fun to have a new identity in a new country. Let the boy choose a temporary, new name.

Q. Non-Family Business: I’m in a long-term relationship with a woman (both mid-20s) and on good terms with her family. I’m currently on the market for a car, and my girlfriend’s father offered to sell me his old car, in great running condition, for a deep discount. It’s a deal I can’t refuse, except for one thing—I’m planning to break up with his daughter soon! He knows I need a car and wants to help—and won’t accept full price for it. How do I navigate this situation?

A: If you insist on getting the car, you need to close the deal with Dad and drive away before he realizes what you’re up to and booby-traps the car. However, my suggestion is that if you are putting the brake on the breakup until you get title to the car, speed things up, break up with your girlfriend, and obtain your own transportation later. You want out, so get out. That way you don’t have to tell Dad he’s making you an offer you can refuse. 

Q. My Best Friend Won’t Raise Our Baby If We Die: My best friend “Sarah” and I have been friends for more than 30 years. While she has siblings, I am an only child and have always considered Sarah the sister I never had. She is a wonderful and supportive friend and a great mother to her two children. My husband and I are expecting our first child in a couple of months. We recently drafted a will and asked Sarah and her husband to raise our child should anything happen to us. She said no. Prudie, I am devastated. If the situation were reversed, I’d have said yes in a heartbeat. I know it’s a huge ask, but I also saw the request as an honor—a true testament to how much I love and value her and our friendship. Plus, we have a fairly significant life insurance policy, and there would be little to no financial burden. I want to appreciate her decision, but I can’t help but feel like my best friend has betrayed me. Am I wrong to have expected differently?

A: There’s got to be more to this story than you’re conveying. You asked of her something that is an honor and also a burden. I assume your lifelong friend said more than, “No. And hey, there’s a great sale on shoes at Nordstrom. Want to go?” I am assuming Sarah explained that while she appreciates your faith in her, she knows that three children would be more than she could handle, etc. You do not want to designate someone as guardian of your child who is not fully on board with this. It is good that you have life insurance and are updating your will. You can also reassure yourself that it is an extreme unlikelihood someone else will have to raise your child. But with Sarah out, scan the horizon for good candidates among family and friends. Designate someone now, and as the years go on, you can always change your mind and update the guardianship. Do not let this affect your friendship with someone who has meant so much and who you know will never mislead you.

Q. Re: Unfortunate Name: I think that you make a good point about the kid getting a nickname. When I was in high school, we had a Turkish exchange student named Ofuc (I am spelling this phonetically—I don’t recall how it was actually spelled). I wish that someone had pulled this poor girl over on her first day and advised her to come up with a nickname. Yes, we all have to learn to be mature and aware of other cultures. But allowing an impressionable kid to be ridiculed over something that can so easily be solved seems cruel. In French class, we all chose “French names” to try to be more aware of differences between American and French cultures. Wouldn’t it be a nice cultural exercise for this kid to pick a name that works in the country where he lives?

A: Oh dear, poor Ofuc. It’s amazing you were all so mature. And great point about French class. Indeed, the first thing we did was to choose a French name. You are totally right about the boy having fun choosing a new “local” name. 

Q: The Wicked Stepmother’s Fortunes Have Changed: When my father remarried my stepmother less than a year after my mother’s death, she quickly cut my brother and me out of his life. Our dad stopped paying for our college educations because she chastised him for “spoiling” us. They led a luxurious lifestyle (almost entirely paid for by our mother’s family fortune) while my brother and I struggled, eventually building our own lives. Now our father has died, and we’ve inherited what belonged to our mom. Our dad didn’t leave our stepmother destitute, but she will need to scale back significantly. Now our stepmother has asked for financial support from my brother and me: allowing her daughter to live in one of our mom’s properties, paying for her grandchildren’s private school, etc. We could afford to help her. The issue is that we have no desire to do so. Do we have any obligation to this woman?

A: She persuaded your father to cut off your college tuition payments and now she wants you to pay for her grandchildren’s private schools? Let’s give her credit for chutzpah. You and your brother struggled and persevered. Good for you! Now you have inherited what was yours all along, minus all the expenditures for the indulgent life of your evil stepmother. If her grown daughter is living in a property that belongs to you, you have to give the daughter legal notice about her coming eviction. Private school is a luxury for those who can afford it, but 90-plus percent of kids go to public school, and unless your stepmother has put money aside for the grandchildren’s education, that’s where they will go. Since you and your brother now are flush, maybe you two will want to donate to a scholarship fund at your alma maters to help kids like yourself who are struggling financially to get an education.

Q: Re: Unfortunate Name: There was an odious habit of changing names of (particularly) Chinese students in foreign universities to English ones, to save us the trouble of learning to pronounce them. I used to rail against these people and tell them to use their real names. I stopped when I spoke with Henry, who was from Vietnam (though ethnic Chinese, I think). Anyway, he said to me, “My name is _____.  But if you pronounce it _____, then that means ‘Tampon.’ ” I called him Henry from then on and tried not to be so condescending to other people, even if she wanted to change her perfectly lovely Chinese name to “Flora.”

A: Thanks. And thanks for the lesson in not railing against the perfectly reasonable choices people make for themselves.

Q. Sleep Hazard: My husband has nightmares during which he thrashes around in our bed and wakes me up. It wouldn’t be so bad if I could wake or calm him, but that seems impossible. The problem is he has kicked and hit me—hard—several times. I am increasingly afraid to sleep next to him. He thinks I am exaggerating and refuses to sleep elsewhere. I love my bed and need my sleep without getting injured. Ideas?

A: He needs to see his doctor right now. Likely, he may need a night in a sleep lab. Your husband has a disorder that could be dangerous for you and for him. People who do such thrashing sometimes get up while asleep and do stuff like jump out windows. Comedian Mike Birbiglia had a career breakthrough when he did a bit about how he jumped out a motel window in Walla Walla, Washington, while sleepwalking. If your husband won’t believe you, get up and film him one night while he thrashes, and if you have to, you go sleep on the couch until he gets some help.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week!

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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