OK, this post has been a long time coming.
For over a decade, people keep asking me, “So, what is it: Michel? Michael? Mike? Or what?” (I prefer “Master Overlord,” but I digress. Oh, and here’s a little-known fact: a nickname high school kids gave me was “Spike.” Long story.)
My name is “Michel,” formally pronounced “Mee-shal.” My late wife used to call me “Mish.” But I don’t pronounce it “Mee-shal” for several reasons.
My name is French-Canadian. I was born in Gatineau, Quebec. For those of you not familiar, Quebec is primarily a French-speaking Canadian province.
Here’s the problem. Being in a bilingual country, most anglophone Canadians will instantly know that “Michel” can be male or female. But when I was introduced to my very first American client decades ago, he responded in a surprisingly confused and disconcerting manner:
“What? But, you’re not a girl!”
This confused me at first since the female version of the name requires an “e” at the end. Similar to Italian, Spanish, or any other Latin-based language, words that end with “a” are female, and “o” (or the lack of an “e” in French) are male. Like “Gino” versus “Gina.”
“Michelle” or “Michèle” is the female name, like the first lady for example. But the “e” at the end is silent. In writing, if there’s no “e” at the end, it’s easy to recognize that it’s a male’s name. But when I used to introduce myself in person, it would confuse a lot of Americans.
But this strange event happened again and again. It happened more times than I cared to count. So at a certain point, I felt compelled to do something about it since I was getting tired of explaining myself.
So I decided to pronounce it “Michael,” which is a nickname, anyway. As a child, my French-speaking parents nicknamed me “Michael.” I even remember when they bought me my first 45-speed vinyl record, which was “Playground In My Mind” by Clint Holmes. (The chorus goes, “My name is Michael, I got a nickel…”)
I also remember when I took English immersion in junior high school. (Boy, do I remember!) When we were asked to introduce ourselves on the first day of school, I told my teacher, Sister Helen (yes, it was a catholic school and some of our teachers were nuns), that my name was “Michael.”
The principal was in class that day. (Coincidentally, his name was Michel, too.) And I remember Sister Helen looking at me, with a stern frown that Catholic nuns are notorious for, saying in her disapproving voice:
“Les noms propres ne sont pas traduisibles!” (“First names are not translatable!”)
Now, maybe she said that because the principal was around, and he was a proud francophone. Francophone Quebeckers are very protective of their language and culture. (They even instituted laws to do so.) Heck, if we were caught speaking in English in the hallways or during recess, we could get suspended.
But that’s another story for another day. 😉
But little did she know that I wasn’t translating my name (after all, it was English immersion class) but rather I was using the nickname my parents used so often, even when they, or I, couldn’t speak a smidgen of English as a young child.
I thought I was being smart by using it in class. (Luckily, I’m a quick study. I learned faster than any other kid in class. So Sister Helen was a lot gentler with me as time went on. I even became her teacher’s pet.)
And you know, for a lot of French Canadians it seems, calling a Canadian francophone person by the English version of their name often ends up as a nickname. It’s like a term of endearment, particularly when used by your closest friends and family.
For example, I had a friend named Jean and we called him “John”. Another, Caroline (pronounced “Caro-leen” in French), we called her “Caro-line” (the English way, which rhymes with “fine”). This was a very common practice.
(As a kid, when my parents used to call me by my French name — that is, my real name — it was an alarm bell because I knew I was in trouble for something! When I heard “Michel Guy Joseph Fortin!” I knew I was in deep doodoo.)
Nevertheless, I’m used to “Michael” and I prefer it. After all, it’s my nickname. It’s the name I use in business and I introduce myself with. Sure, it’s spelled “Michel.” But I pronounce it, and prefer when people pronounce it, as “Michael.”
So if you ever wondered, now you know. I hope this solves it once and for all.
A final thought: Most French Canadians are bilingual. In fact, many francophone Canadians incorporate English words in their day-to-day vocabulary. (I know we did as kids in both grade and high schools. A lot.)
Here’s a perfect example. It’s also one of my favorite vloggers (i.e., video bloggers) on the Internet. This guy is from Montreal and he produces videos with claymation and barbie-doll characters, with his own face superimposed. It’s the funniest stuff I’ve ever seen!
If you’re American or an anglophone Canadian, you’ll hopefully grasp at least 50% of what this next video says. (Just the video itself is a riot!) And if you’re Canadian or of French descent, let me warn you: you’re going to roll on the floor laughing your posterior off. I know I did.
Here is an English version, however a lot of the jokes get lost in translation. But it’s still quite funny.