what's in a name?

what's in a name?

This post contains some characters from the international phonetic alphabet. While there’s no logical reason for you to know how to read it, seeing the difference in the symbols might be enough to tell that there is a difference in pronunciation. Also, some characters are bold; that’s all on Squarespace and I don’t know how to fix it.


I am a stickler when it comes to spelling my name: four letters is not that hard. In the age of the internet, very little pisses me off more than people misspelling my name in messages. My name is AqilDhanani on every social media platform, and yet I still receive DMs where my name is misspelled. In many cases, someone would have to spell my name correctly at least once in order to send me a message with it spelled wrong. And the entire time you’re typing the message, the correct spelling of my name is staring you in the face. I’ve even gone so far as to set up filters to catch common misspellings of my name and move them straight to the archive. Have I missed important work emails because of that filter? Nothing so important they couldn’t spell my name right. Spelling someone’s name correctly, even if it’s a goofy “Braedyn”-type name, is a simple courtesy that can’t be forgone in a time when our names are literally everywhere.

There is one exception, though.

In class, we were discussing how we express ourselves as Muslims in America. We watched the following video, where Hasan Minhaj talks about a Muslim Makeover, how Muslims can hide their identity in America. It’s a joke, obviously, but he does make some points.

I want to talk about his first point: changing your name. I have family members who’ve changed their name in order to be more successful in business: for example, Nooruddin changed his name to Dean. But talking to a bunch of high schoolers, the prospect of changing your name to fit in seemed a bit far-fetched. But then I saw it: my Starbucks cup sitting on the table.


Sure, I didn’t go off and change my name to Alex, like I wanted to in grade school. But, I was complicit in hiding my real name from the world. Did I do it out of shame for my heritage? Was I afraid of being outed as a Muslim to these Pumpkin Spice loving yoga moms? Am I insecure about my own identity? No, no, and yeah but that’s not important right now.

When I go to Starbucks, and they ask me my name (which only happens about half the time) I always say the same thing: “/’ʌː.kɪl/ A-K-I-L”. It hasn’t always been that way. I used to pronounce my name correctly and spell my name correctly, but I learned not to do that. I’m not ashamed of my own name. I spell it incorrectly because when an English-speaking person sees the letter Q, their brain shorts out and starts leaking out of their ear. Not only is brain matter on the Starbucks counter a health risk, it also delays me getting my venti hot almond chai by that much. Also, the purpose of my name on a Starbucks cup isn’t for reading (they’re not going to match the cup to my photo ID to give me my drink), i’s for calling out over the gaggle of teenage girls and their too many frappuccinos. By spelling my name with a K, I can ensure that what’s called out is closer to my actual name than whatever people think a Q without a U sounds like.

“But”, I hear you saying, “there are different ways to spell that name.” South Asians tend to spell the name with a K because glottal consonants (sounds you make with the throat) don’t really exist in South Asian languages. Urdu has them, but that’s cuz they borrowed them (along with some fricatives) from Persian. When I tell people my name in Jamatkhana, they tend to automatically spell it A K H I L, which looks like it would be pronounced /’ʌː.xɪl/ or /ʌː’xil/ which brings me to:


Recently, since moving to a new place and meeting new people, I’ve heard more than once people ask how my name is actually pronounced. I usually respond with: “well, it's pronounced /ʕɑ’qiːl/ but no one can say that, so /‘ʔɑː.kɪl/ is fine.” I realize typing that out make the joke incomprehensible, but I promise it gets some laughs in person. My name is Arabic, it’s written like this: عاقل. Unfortunately, Arabic has some phonemes (mouth-sounds) that don’t exist in English. And more unfortunately, my name has two of those phonemes. I have the ق which is pronounced like you’re trying to choke yourself with your own tongue, and I have the ع which is pronounced like you’re succeeding in choking yourself with your own tongue. I’ve only heard my name correctly pronounced in the first go by two people: one of my Arabic professors and the customs guy in Dubai.

Growing up, I got called /ʌ’kil/ (uh-KEEL) a lot in my 92% white school in middle America. But at home, my parents and brothers called me /’ʌː.kɪl/ (UH-kill). And my sister, because she likes to over-enunciate, called me /’æ.kɪl/ (AH-kill, but the AH like you say when someone pokes you in the eye). I’ve since split the difference and usually go by /‘ʔɑː.kɪl/ (AH-kill, but AH like the doctor is shoving a popsicle stick in your mouth). Interacting with new people was always tough growing up. While /ʌ’kwil/ (uh-QUILL) was the most common, I also got uh-QUEEL, AY-quill, AY-cool, Aku, along with countless others. During role-call, I eventually resorted to saying “here” whenever the substitute teacher inhaled sharply.


I’ve known the meaning of my name almost as long as I’ve known my name. Growing up, I was told that it means “wise”, although that usually translated further to “wise-ass” due to my habit of correcting people. In university, I learned about noun structures and found out that my name technically means “person who has ʿaql” or “intellect”. While that can technically be used for any cognizant being, it’s used as a defining characteristic: i.e. if you’re defined by you’re intellect, you could be ʿaqil.

This is part of the reason spelling is so important. If we’re taking Romanized spelling seriously (which you should never do), “Akil” would be “person who eats” and “Akhil” would be “person who is iced”? I’m not 100% sure on those, I just threw their consonant stems into Google Translate (another thing you should never do). Arabic is a phonetic language, and even small, seemingly insignificant changes can bring bigger issues. That’s what the name means, but what does it mean to me? I mean, wouldn’t a rose by any other name still smell as sweet?

 You thought I was going for Shakespeare?

You thought I was going for Shakespeare?

Lots of people believe that names carry a certain power over your personality. And while studies have shown that people are treated differently because of their name, and babies are sometimes named a certain way based on how they look. There’s nothing more that correlated anecdotes about a name actually playing a part in one’s “destiny”. What follows is one of those anecdotes.

Sure, my name is associated with smart people, and I try to be smart. But who doesn’t try to be smart? Who doesn’t constantly learn, at least by accident? It would be like a baby named “Jasmine” when she stops pooping in her diaper. Sure, she lived up to her name by being fragrant, but it was an inevitability.

I never felt that strong of a connection with my own name until just last year, when I was reading (you guessed it) Justice and Remembrance, by Reza Shah Kazemi.

Being true to one’s intellect—to the treasures buried deep within it and not just to the rational functions operative on its surface—is tantamount to being ‘spiritual’. For Imam ʿAlī, the ‘true intellectual’
(al-ʿāqil) is one who not only thinks correctly but also acts ethically, and, at the deepest level, one who seeks to realize the ultimate Reality. The intellectual is defined as one who ‘puts all things in their proper place’
— Justice and Remembrance, p35

That’s right! Hazrat ʿAly talked about what it means to be a real Aqil. Obviously my mind was blown when I read that, and so was the rest of the book club (I say ‘book club’ to make it sound like it wasn’t just me and one other person). Not only was this a more in-depth definition than “person who has intellect” or “wise-ass”, but this was goals. This was life-goals!

Now I’m not about to say that I’ve “lived up to my name”; I’m far from that. But I have something to aspire too; I can try to live up to my own name. And, speaking of “seek[ing] to realize the ultimate Reality”, check out my other blog where I endeavor to do just that.

beaver the builder.

beaver the builder.