Thursday, 5 May 2016

A million Polish names to deal with, and people still find "Gronmark" difficult?

I'm waiting for a new e-cigarette kit to arrive (I'm getting into rich, exotic flavours, and need to upgrade), so I've been listening out for the bell to ring or the thud of package on doormat. Alerted by a familiar thunk!, I just went down to discover a book ordered by son. The geographical address was correct (well, obviously - I mean, it got here, right?) but it was for someone with the surname "Grondom". Rhymes, presumably, with condom. Unless my son has adopted a rather peculiar alias, I suspect he entered his name correctly when making the order. So how does anyone get from Gronmark to Grondom?

I've never been precious about people getting my surname wrong. It's weird and relatively rare. There are hardly any of us in Norway, but quite a few in Finland (Grönmark) and America (where the umlaut tends to disappear). While I use the "ø" on this blog, I drop it for commercial or official correspondence, because it freaks people out - and computers tend to react strangely to it . For instance, it took us a while to figure out why a relative found themselves being addressed online as "Grnmark", until we realised that the company's system had either not recognised "ø" as a valid letter, or a human being at the other end had assumed the user had put the "o" in by mistake and had then gone through the complicated procedure of striking it out rather than just, you know, using the delete button. But it is a separate letter which appears after "z" in the alphabets of the Norwegian, Danish, Faroese and Southern Sami (which sounds like a charming nickname) languages, rather than a ligature or a diacritical variant of the letter "o" (thank you, Wikipedia).

I can feel your attention wandering - and I don't blame you. Okay, I've never had a problem with this - I was, for instance, amused to receive a letter addressed to "Scott Gronmatic" (although less amused to find the NHS had sent me a prescription card for a Mr. Gronmaric - but that may have been caused by my atrocious penmanship when I filled out the form). It's a foreign name, and while it may eventually become a hate crime to get a foreign name wrong, we're not quite there yet. (Total digression: I was annoyed, years ago, by a Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch which made fun of stupid American politicians mispronouncing the Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa's name - when I've always found Americans much better than  Brits at that sort of thing: for instance, only in America has anyone ever written down my name after hearing it once once and got it spot on. "How did you do that?" I asked. "Well, how else would you spell it?" the young clerk replied. Well, he could have written "Grondom", I suppose.)

It surprises me when British businesses don't make an effort to get people's names right (the public sector, obviously, routinely gets the name and the address wrong, and won't put it right no matter how many times they're told about the error). But you'd expect businesses to be more on the ball. After all, there are an estimated 800,000 Polish-born Poles living in Britain, and God knows how many people of Polish descent (especially in West London). The 15th most common Polish surname is Wojciechowski - and how are you going to handle that if you can't manage something as straightforwardly phonetic as Gronmark? What about Przybyszewski and Przybylski (which mean, fittingly,  "he who has arrived").  Then there's Indian names (Balasubramanium, anyone?).

So, no - I don't understand how British companies can get in such a tizz over a piece of cake like Gronmark. You'd think anyone who watches Premier League matches on TV would be able to wrap their heads around funny foreign names by now. And they'd have no problem with the current coach of Brazil's Sport Club Internacional, Argel Fucks, or the Brazilian striker for Santa Cruz, Creedence Clearwater Couto (unfortunately, I can't find any real evidence for the rumour that there was an Algerian goalkeeper in the 1970s called Ars Bandeet).

Anyway, let's just hope they've managed to send young Grondom the right book.


  1. I feel your pain. My whole family has suffered from this misspelling all our lives. Is our surname convoluted you ask? Well judge for yourself, it's Seery. 5 letters, 2 of which are the same, but people get it so wrong you wonder at their sanity. We get Sealy, Seeny,Seedy, Sherry and frequently, if you can believe it, Merry! Mind you it can come in handy with cold callers who ask if they are speaking to Mr Merry, and I can truthfully say no!

  2. Coming from another direction, I once worked for a public relations company that had dealings with a tinned ham company in, as far as I can remember, Denmark. Their in-house magazine was translated into English as "Seeing and Hearing". In Danish one of the words had an O with a / inside, which obviously I didn't have on my typewriter, so I went ahead with just a plain O, thinking that was good enough. We received a letter asking us to write a slash through the O, as what I was writing to them was "Seeing and Whoring".
    PS. The Poles would have far fewer consonants if they had adopted the Cyrillic alphabet, but then most of us would not be able to read their names at all!