Unusual Names: On being named Shanti

by Shanti Knight

In my relatively short lifetime of  23 years, reactions to my name, both my own and those of others, have taken quite a journey. In the beginning, it was one that promised little more than mispronunciation. For the first year of my life, even my own grandpa called me “Shanty.” Before I traveled to the Netherlands, Japan, France, India, and many other places, I spent my childhood in a Midwestern town of 8,000, nestled between cornfields and tucked into the toe of Indiana’s boot.

I read an article recently about the power of our names, which said that name sounds, popularity and meaning can influence the paths we take in life. Shanti is a name that has attached me to a culture (it’s a vernacular and prayer word that means “peace” in Sanskrit and Hindi) with which, partly because of the name itself,  I feel a comfortable connection despite my own very different ethnic heritage of Irish, English and French bloodlines.

My unusual name hasn’t just set me apart, though. It has also paved a path for me all over this world, somehow granting me a cultural neutrality that helps me make friends with people from not just India, but also Mexico, Saudi Arabia, the Ukraine and Bosnia. Shanti is chorused in prayer, it’s echoed in yoga classes on every continent and is nestled in the middle of the title of a recent Bollywood hit, Om Shanti Om. And despite its new fame as a character in Jungle Book 2 (shown), it’s still definitely not a top 1,000 name in this country. Having an ethnic name does connect me with that ethnicity that is not mine, and this kind of connection has given me the curiosity to participate in and appreciate people from every corner of the world.

This name has never been an understated part of my life, since it’s as much a part of my story as it is that of my parents, who traveled to India when they were first married. They brought home meditation, woven scarves and bright photographs, and my name is hardly a subtle reference to that aspect of their story.

The first half of my childhood world, the small midwestern town half, misunderstood my name in both spelling and pronunciation. The rhythm of roll calls stumbled as teachers tried to decide whether to call out “Shanty” or “Chanté.” Many a hometown friend has dropped the “t” in the middle and settled on “Shawnee.” However it’s been said, it’s had just as many spellings. S-H-A-U-N-T-I. S-H-A-W-N-T-I. In the third grade, a classmate gave me fold-up Valentine’s Day card addressed to S-H-O-N-T-Y.

The other half of my childhood world was the Indian half. Some of our family’s closest, most longstanding friendships are with Indian people here in the U.S. to whom my name is familiar. At an Indian wedding when I was 17, I commented to some girls my age, about my name’s being uncommon. One of them said, “What? Oh, yeah, for white girls.”

When I meet Indian people I haven’t known all my life, they almost always ask me immediately, “Do you know what your name means?” Sometimes I forget that they can’t tell by looking at me that I grew up in a home which in many ways is probably very similar to those of children raised in America by Indian parents. This is a home that smells like sandalwood because we burn incense, not candles, where meditation and yoga are regular practices, where paintings of Krishna and figurines of Ganesha are scattered throughout, where my mom cooks curry and brown rice the way some Midwestern moms cook macaroni and cheese, where “chai” isn’t followed with “latte,” where the sitar is the soundtrack, and where I had stick-on bindis in my first makeup bag.

There are times when my name has been annoying, when I am so ready to cringe at hearing “Shanty” or “Chanté” again, when, even to me, it has sounded too ethnic. I like that it’s different, and I like the meaning, but it just sounds so Indian, and sometimes I feel so aware that I’m not Indian, and I crave a name that matches the way I look.

Moving first to a charter high school, then Bloomington, Indiana for college, and then even more when I moved to New York City, all this changed. People in more urban and diverse areas are generally much more familiar with this word, and so there’s less mispronunciation and misspelling. Instead, in these recent years, I’ve experienced many more people who hear my name as refreshing and interesting. This kind of approval has, in a large way, helped me reconsider my name and find a new appreciation for it.

My Los Angeles-based aunt, Michele, named her son Sinjin seven years ago. When Sinjin was about two, Michele asked me whether I liked having a different name— and wondered if she should have asked me that before she named Sinjin. My review was mixed. I was just starting college, when my new appreciation for my name had begun. Now, though, I think I can safely conclude that an unusual name is a good thing, especially as an adult. And I think I can also conclude that Sinjin’s experience growing up with his name will be different from mine. His friends include Estrella, Jade, Paloma and José. And he even has a friend named Shanti–though that Shanti  is a boy.

An unusual name is a gift for which I’m grateful and one I do want to grant my own children. I wish Sinjin, Jade, Paloma and boy-Shanti all the shades of adventure that come with having those names. I want them to know that while they may find themselves frustrated with their names at times, in my experience, an unusual name has more good experience to offer than bad.

Shanti Knight is a freelance writer and photographer based in New York City. She publishes a personal lifestyle blog, Starshine (http://shantiknight.blogspot.com) and is one of the founding members and contributors to an online literary magazine, the Stringer (www.thestringermag.com).

Do you have an unusual name?  Has your experience been more positive or negative?  Would you give your child one?

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18 Responses to “Unusual Names: On being named Shanti”

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jem Says:

July 9th, 2013 at 3:25 am

Ooh, Shanti, I love your name! As a fellow Gen Y-er with an unusual name (Jemima), I can relate to you a lot. I have decided that the positives far outweigh the negatives: although it is an annoyance to have your name butchered (“Gemima”? “Jemma”? “Jemimah”?), I adore being the only one. It’s a conversation-starter, for one, and it’s always SO much fun to meet another one (I met a 10-year-old Jemima the other day!). Additionally, you feel it really BELONGS to you (and you’re the only one to turn around when someone calls your name; instead of being one of fifty Rachels that turns around). It helps that I love the name itself!
Advice to parents who are considering unusual names: go for it; but if you’re hesitant, use one that has an easy nickname (e.g. Jemima – Jem/Mimi; Clementine – Clem/Tina; Geneva – Gen/Evie; etc.)

tori101 Says:

July 9th, 2013 at 3:59 am

Great blog!
Living in the UK we have large Asian communities and actually hear Shanti a lot. I think it’s pretty.

niteowl13 Says:

July 9th, 2013 at 8:38 am

I totally understand. My name is Glenys and I live in Canada, not the UK.

calypsotheoneandonly Says:

July 9th, 2013 at 8:54 am

I’m Indian, and my name is pretty common here (there are 3 in my grade, and I personally know another). I’ve always liked Shanti (It didn’t used to be my style at all, but then I watched Om Shanti Om. And fell in love with it – both the movie, and the name). Great post!

linelei Says:

July 9th, 2013 at 9:57 am

Thank you for sharing your reflections on your name! Your childhood probably foreshadows that of my future children, as I studied in India and have a fascination with the place, culture, and names. I have even considered Shanta or Shantam for a girl or boy, as well as Mirabai (after the famous poet and Krishna devotee) or the very out-there Ahimsa (“nonviolence”). I like your point that such a name not only gives you an instant connection to a culture not your own, but also opens the door to a variety of cultures. That is a gift I would like to give my children! It’s not just about being unique; a name can help shape the tone of someone’s life, and interconnectedness with other cultures is a beautiful tone for this increasingly globalized world.

clairels Says:

July 9th, 2013 at 9:59 am

When I was about 11, the name “Shanti” came to me in a dream. In the dream, a classmate dismissed the name as “weird,” but I defended it–Id’ never even heard it before! When I woke up, I immediately used it for a character in a story, before I even knew what it meant. Since then I’ve learned about its origins and have come to like it even more. I smile whenever I hear the name. Thank you for this lovely story!

GrecianErn Says:

July 9th, 2013 at 12:11 pm

My childhood BFF had an unusual name for Iowa – Anousha. Her mom is Greek and her Dad is Iranian. She has the only ethnic name of her siblings. I remember meeting her, and just loving her name. I spent the first 9 years of my life as a Navy Brat being surrounded by different cultures and people… moving to Iowa and the constant sea of whiteness was a culture shock for me (and I’m as white as they come.) So to meet someone with such a heritage was awesome. I’ve always loved her name. And she mostly was frustrated by it. She actually goes by Ana in social situations like work, reservations, etc. She says it’s easier than explaining. Her first roommate in college was from Russia and her name was Anoushka… that was not a happy coincidence for either of them. 🙂

Stringer Editor, Shanti Knight, Discusses Her Unusual Name | the Stringer Magazine Says:

July 9th, 2013 at 1:59 pm

[…] Unusual Names: On being named Shanti […]

Haili73 Says:

July 9th, 2013 at 6:35 pm

I have a unique-ish name (a variant of McKayla/Michaela) which doesn’t sound too out-there when you hear it, but it’s when people try to read it that they have problems. It’s spelled Michaila.
I’ve been called:
Mikyla
Mikella
Mitchayla
Mishella
…you get it.
My name has been spelled just about every way you can spell Michaela, but some notable misspellings are:
Michailia (the most common- they hear I have an i in my name and they kind of go crazy and add an extra…but I like the way this misspelling sounds if it were to be pronounced as its written- Mi-kay-lee-ah)
Michala
and my favorite- Michalila. Just say it.

I was supposed to be Haili (that’s where the spelling came in) It never caught on, but as for nicknames, I’ve been Caila (not Kayla, I was a stickler about spelling when I was little. Probably why Mickey never caught on…I would have spelled it Michey.) Occasionally my brothers will call me Michaili when they want to be cute and get me to do something, but other than that, I’ve not had a lot of nicknames.

My advice for people who want to give their kid a unique name:
please, please please…no younique spellings…just don’t. I mean, Caitlynn or Katelyn are fine, but please no Alivia. Name your daughter Olivia, for goodness sake!
Find something unique, relatively easy to pronounce by looking at it, and preferably nickname-able.
My current faves are Antonia “Annie” and Rosalind “Lindy”

I’m happy with my name. Knowing me, I would’ve hated being named Michelle or Ashley or Sarah. I hated sharing my name with the few Michaela’s I’d run across (particularly the 3 at my church who all spell their name Michaela- and I don’t. Guess how my name gets spelled? Yep. Michaela.) I didn’t even like it when I hung out with Kaylas or Calebs because their names were too similar to mine. I loved having a unique name.
Though for some odd reason, some people like to think my name’s Michael…which is really weird…it only happens in writing. Which is funny because my dad’s name is Michael.

cutekittypunk Says:

July 10th, 2013 at 6:17 am

That was a very interesting post because I can’t see you, and immediately I thought you were Indian or Surinaam in origin, but here you are “a white girl” – yeah, definitely different.

shantiknight Says:

July 10th, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Wow, thank you all for the awesome responses. @Michaila, the alternate spellings can be the most difficult sometimes!! @Clairels, that is so interesting and cool! Can I read your work somewhere? @Linelei, sounds like your kids may have a similar experience 🙂 xoxo thank you all for the comments and support!

clairels Says:

July 10th, 2013 at 5:05 pm

@shantiknight Thanks! There are links to my stuff at http://www.claireshefchik.com (still under construction, alas). Can’t wait to check out The Stringer!

kristinjade Says:

July 18th, 2013 at 7:33 pm

We have the same last name! 🙂

Shaye Says:

July 21st, 2013 at 2:39 pm

My name is very uncommon and unique. @GrecianErn, I can relate to your friend. I am the oldest of 5 and my name was the most unique. My name is Shatavia and I have never met anyone with my name before. LOL. It was hard for me to go to school surrounded by Ashley, Britney, Nicole, Sarah, Jennifer, and Amber. Everyone had a common name except me. I am all grown up now and I love my name.

ilovenames89 Says:

July 30th, 2013 at 7:51 pm

I also understand. My name is Machion. (Michon) but my mother mis-spelled it. I do love it!!! With being with Ashley,Brittney,Courtney’s. It’s great having an uncommon name. but now with The walking dead people ask if i’m named after her lol i look at them and say my age lol

crazymusicalgenius96 Says:

September 16th, 2013 at 1:32 am

My name is Marisa, which is the alternate, more Hispanic spelling of an already semi-uncommon name. Combined with my very Italian last name, people mispronounce and misspell my entire name all the time. I wanted to change it when I was younger, but I could never think of a name that fit me any better than Marisa did. I like it now, especially considering that the more common spelling has dropped in popularity, but I still have to correct people a lot.

halle Says:

September 20th, 2013 at 7:25 pm

My name is Halle, pronounced and spelt like Halle Berry (not named after her lol!). It’s pronounced like Sally but with an H. No one ever gets my name right! I’ve gotten Hailey, Holly, Hail (yes, hail. like the chunks of ice). And when people spell it its always Haley, Halee, Halie, Halley…even my best friend thought it was Halee! And people get offended when I correct them! I had a teacher who was taking attendance and called me Hailey. I corrected her and she said, “Oh well it’s pronounced Hailey”. SHE tried to tell ME that I was pronouncing my own name wrong! It gets annoying, but I do like my name. I’d much rather be a Halle than Hailey. I’ve never personally met another person with my name. My sister’s name is very common, and so is my brothers. I like that I don’t have to be “halle f” or “the other halle”.

katieree331 Says:

November 18th, 2013 at 11:49 pm

I like my name, it suits me, but it is one of the names that became extremely popular in the year of my birth. My name is Kaitlin, and as a baby born in the mid-80’s I always had at least one other girl in my class with the same name, of course spelled differently. Ironically, my parents wanted something new that they hadn’t really heard before and Kaitlin was that in the U.S., until the year I was born. I definitely want to give my children unique, yet recognizable names. I live in the NJ/NY multi-cultural area so many names are on the table vs. middle America. Shanti is beautiful by the way, and I have heard it before, but not often so it’s great that you are embracing it!

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