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.”)
My name is “Michel,” formally pronounced “Mee-shell.” Like Michelle Obama, for example. My late wife used to call me “Mish.” But when I introduce myself to English audiences or clients, particularly American ones, I don’t pronounce it that way 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.
Canada is a bilingual country, so most anglophone Canadians will instantly know that “Michel” can be male or female. But after someone introduced me to my very first American client decades ago, he responded in a 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,” for example.
“Michelle” or “Michèle” is the female name, like Michelle Obama. 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 introducing myself in person with “Mee-shell,” it would confuse a lot of Americans.
This happened several times. More times than I cared to count. So at a certain point, I felt compelled to do something about it since I was tired of explaining myself. So today, I pronounce it “Michael,” which is my 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 the teacher asked us 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 spoke English in the hallways, we could get reprimanded. Even suspended.
(Long story made short, in the late 70s and 80s, there was a movement to secede from Canada, culminating in not one but two votes on Quebec independence. The government-funded school system definitely shared the anti-Canadian, anti-English sentiment.)
Nevertheless, I wasn’t trying to translate my name or break any rules (it was an English immersion class after all). I was using the nickname my parents used so often — even when they didn’t speak English.
I thought I was being smart by using it in class. (Luckily, Sister Helen was a lot gentler with me as time went on. I even became her teacher’s pet.)
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 child, when my parents called me by my French name — that is, my proper name — it was an alarm bell because I knew I was in trouble for something! When I heard “Michel Guy Fortin!” I knew I was in trouble.)
So, 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.
By the way, Michael comes from Hebrew. “Mika-El” (where “Mika” is Hebrew/Aramaic for “Who is like” and “El” is God). It’s a theophoric name, meaning that the bearer of the name is invoking the name’s divine protection — like archangel Michael, who was the “protector and leader of the army of God.”
Nevertheless, here’s a final thought. Most French Canadians are bilingual. In fact, many francophone Canadians incorporate English words in their day-to-day vocabulary. We call them “anglicisms.” (I know we did it alot as kids in both grade and high schools.)
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.