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What’s in a hard-to-pronounce name?

I’ve always had mixed feelings about my name.


Not Larry. I’m cool with my given name. It was a common name when I was in school. There would often be three Larrys in my classroom.


But it was often considered a nickname for Lawrence, which didn’t make sense because Larry and Lawrence both have two syllables.


I once asked my mother why she didn’t name me Lawrence. She said she didn’t like Lawrence but was OK with Larry. Good enough for a boy, I guess.


But Penkava is what I had difficulty with. On the one hand, it was my family name and reminded me of my heritage. My paternal grandparents were from a village east of Prague in what’s now the Czech Republic, or Czechia.


When they came to America, they pronounced their last name as PYEN-kuh-vuh. It was definitely an immigrant name.


When my father, Louis Jr., started school and had to learn English, he eventually changed the pronunciation to PEN-kay-vuh to make it more Americanized. Unfortunately, many Americans, when seeing the written name, want to say Pen-KAH-vuh.


In fact, I’ve met others with the same name who pronounce it Pen-KAH-vuh as well. So I’ve quit correcting people, telling them either way is fine. “Just let me know, in your favorite pronunciation, when I’ve won the lottery.”


My problem over the years hasn’t been distinguishing between PEN-kay-vuh and Pen-KAH-vuh. It seems that most people won’t attempt to pronounce my last name phonetically. Even worse, they look at the spelling and come up with Perkins or Petunia or some other concoction that’s not even close.


I can remember when I was a boy teasingly being called Pancake or Pincushion or some other slight. “OK,” I thought, “my name is not Smith or Jones or Williams. I just have to deal with it.”


By the time I was a student at Franklinville High School, my buddies started calling me Pinky. I adjusted and accepted the nickname. It was no worse than Poochie, which one of my buddies was called.


Pinky became so entrenched in the high school culture that some of my teachers referred to me as such: “Pinky, who invented the printing press?”


Even today, when I run into a high school classmate, they’ll greet me as Pinky. It’s who I am — or was.


It wasn’t until I was in my 50s that I found out what Penkava means in Czech. It’s the word for finch.


When I was taking a college class with a visiting lecturer from the Czech Republic, I went to his office for a meeting one night. “By the way,” he said, “your name means a bird.”


“Yes, finch,” I replied.


“Well, I don’t know what kind, just a bird,” he said.


He dealt in geopolitics, after all, not ornithology.


Even later I learned how Penkava and finch are tightly connected. In Czech, which is a Slavic language, the “ava” or “ova” represent gender. “Ava” refers to masculine and “ova” is feminine.


So, removing the “ava” at the end of Penkava, you get Penk. P and f can be interchangeable in many European languages. E and i can also be reciprocal. 


Some folks spell Penkava with a “c” for the “k’. And c, in many languages, can be pronounced like ch — I’m thinking “ciao.”


Hence, Penk can also be spelled, and pronounced, Finch.


Although, my Uncle Frank Penkava once insisted that Penkava means “thinker.” I’m sure he was confusing the name with penser, which is French for “to think.”


When you think of Finch, pretty soon you’ll be reminded of Atticus Finch, the courageous lawyer in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I have no idea if a finch is related to a mockingbird, but that’s beside the point.


I tell people, now that I know what Penkava means, that if I’m ever in the witness protection program, I’ll choose to be named Finch. But I won’t be Atticus. Then people would be asking me, “How’s Scout?” Or, “Whatever happened to Boo?”


Nah. I’ll just stick with Larry. 


Or, come to think, Pinky Finch might be my calling card.


Now that has a ring to it.

Larry Penkava is a writer for Randolph Hub. Contact: 336-302-2189, larrypenkava@gmail.com.