i – and a large number of haitian-americans i know – went by two names growing up: a “haitian name”, and an “american name”. as a child, i knew most haitian people in my circle by their haitian name. i was always intrigued when i heard them referred to by (or somehow found out) their “american name”. now the reverse is true: i’m generally introduced to haitian-americans by their “american names” and i’m always interested in hearing what their “haitian name” is.
the “american name” is generally a person’s official (government) first name. but the “haitian name” is usually one of two things: a person’s official middle name or their haitian nickname.
in haiti, it’s not uncommon for people to go by their middle name instead of their first name. this custom is still true for some haitian-americans. i have relatives who for many years i knew only by their middle name (not knowing as a child that many haitians go by their middle names as we didn’t practice this custom at my house, or that the name i had been calling them for years wasn’t their first name). it wasn’t until “friending” some family members on Facebook, in some instances, that i realized that not only the name i know them by is their middle name, but also that there exists a world of (american) people calling them by their first name. shocking! in another instance, it wasn’t until a cousin of mine transferred to my school that i learned her first name!
haitian nicknames are a whole other story. although i was aware nicknames were not a person’s “official” name, the revelation of the “american name” was still surprising to me at times. the thing about haitian nicknames (in my experience), is that they were only shared among the haitian community. for some reason, these names rarely leaked out to the american “outer world”.
based on my observations, haitian nicknames are typically (not always) two-syllable names which fall in one of the following three categories:
- consist of alliteration (i.e. “nanotte”, “mimi” or “dadi”)
- consist of repeating syllables (i.e. “fanfan”, “joujou”, “loulou”) or
- just generally contain the “oo” or the “ee” sound (“michou”, “pouchon”, “fany”)
**variation: the word “ti” (meaning “little” in creole) may be added to the front of any haitian nickname without warning.
go ahead, think of all the haitian people you know. i bet the majority of them have haitian nicknames that fall into one of those three categories. (if you think this is not true — they probably just didn’t share their haitian nickname with you — ask them!).
my haitian nickname is “gigi” (pronounced “ghee-ghee” — see category #2), my mom, “kekette” (category #1), my dad, “doudou” (category #2/#3), my brother, “sha-lou-lou” (although not a two-syllable nickname, i would still categorize it as a mix of #s 1-3), my younger brother somehow managed to avoid a haitian nickname altogether…but still, that’s 4 out of 5!
anyway, i’ve always liked my nickname. there’s something about nicknames that make you feel warm, loved, included and connected. there’s a level of comfort and kinship that a nickname conveys. but for whatever reason, in my younger years, i did not want my haitian nickname known outside of my haitian circle. i know this to be true for quite a few of my haitian friends as well. the haitian nickname is just for the haitians.
in my mind, it seemed too french for the american public — like it wouldn’t translate well on the american tongue; all the warmth and love it conveyed would be lost in translation. (we all know how some of our “french” last names are sometimes butchered by the english tongue). thankfully though, as an adult, i’m over it. i don’t mind people knowing my “haitian name” — it’s just a part of who i am.
today, my three (half haitian/half american) children go by their first names in their respective school settings and they each have nicknames — none of which are your typical haitian names (although they do each end with the “ee” sound). i hope they get that same warm, “belonging” feeling from their nicknames as i did from mine.
do you have a “haitian name” that was different from your “american name”? what was it? does it fall into one of the three categories? did you share your haitian name with the american public? will you (have you) passed this tradition down to your kids?