Special for the Armenian Weekly
When I was three, my younger sister Sareen would follow me around everywhere. She was only 18 months old and called me “Daga.” “I am not Daga,” I would admonish quietly. “I am Nareg.” Even at the tender age of three, I understood that I had a lifetime of gently, yet emphatically, correcting mispronunciations of my Armenian name to look forward to.
Growing up, I often wished that my name were John. It’s common, easy to pronounce, and not weird. My name, Nareg, is the opposite of all three of those things. Nareg is not on the Top 100 list of baby names in the United States; no one pronounces the name Nareg correctly unless they are Armenian; and it is, well, kind of odd.
The day I met the only other Nareg in America was a seminal moment in my life (I know there are other Naregs in America—it’s just that I feel like there are no other Naregs in America). I was nine years old, and I was attending a service at the Armenian Apostolic Church. After the service, all of the children gathered in the hall to hear a talk about an Armenian camp in the Boston area: Camp Haiastan. A handsome, debonair young man came up to the podium and began to speak to us. I don’t really remember much of what he said about the camp, because I stopped listening as soon as he introduced himself to us: “Good afternoon kids, I am Nareg.” What? His name was Nareg! I was thrilled that I was not the only person with this strange name! There was hope yet! Here was this smart, articulate Nareg, whose life clearly had not been marred by years of correcting mispronunciations of his/my name!
Though my name is not easy to pronounce, most of my teachers and friends are able to approximate its pronunciation, using a slightly Anglicized version. Armenians, even those born into the diasporan communities, have no such problems pronouncing my name, of course. The “r” rolls off the Armenian tongue, and the “ah” in the first syllable of my name is correctly and easily vocalized as though one is opening wide (“ahhh”) for the dentist. However, those poor non-Armenian souls who first encounter my name have a rough time of it.
One day in fourth grade, our substitute teacher, Ms. Wolfe, called on me to answer a question. The class, somewhat lacking focus, immediately quieted down in anticipation of what promised to be an interesting (and humorous) attempt to say my name. In Ms. Wolfe’s thick New York accent, I became Nurraajj. I tried to correct her. “I am Nareg,” I said simply. But, alas, my attempts fell on deaf ears. I am grateful that my classmates stopped calling me Nurraajj after only three years.
Ms. Wolfe’s mispronunciation notwithstanding, my name sounds odd to any English-speaking person. Many verbalize Nareg as “not egg,” or even “noir egg.” I like eggs, so I am OK with egg references—but generally not when they’re connected to my name. “I am Nareg,” I asked my grandmother Nami, “but why?” Nami told me that I was named after a Christian saint, Gregory of Nareg, who wrote meaningful and beautiful prayers. Apparently, I was born after my parents, my extended family, and our church community read Gregory of Nareg’s prayers. Doctors had told my mother that after my older brother was born, she could not have any more children. It seems the medical professionals were wrong.
I have decided that even though my name has its challenges, it is something that I am proud of. My name is more than my identity; it is an answer to many prayers. In that, it is a peek into the soul of the Armenians.