Rys(zard)Thursday, Dec 19, 2013 · 1400 words · approx 7 mins to read
I started communicating with my fellow human beings on the Internet in 1996, the year I went to university. I had access at university via SuperJanet2 and that excellent network, what it gave me access to, and how quickly and reliably it let me do it, has shaped my approach to computing ever since. It let me access free software for the first time, got me started on IRC, and gave me a solid grounding on the Internet’s architecture and rapidly changing topologies.
IRC has been part of my daily life, with minimal breaks, for the last 17 years, give or take. It’s the first Internet communication medium that I used. It’s done a lot for me over the years: made me my most loved and cherished friends, got me two great jobs and indirectly helped me meet the hopefully future Mrs. Me. It also helped me change my name.
My first IRC nick was “Ryszard”. It made sense, of course, because that’s my name. The Polish equivalent of Richard, it’s a name with a long history stretching back over a thousand years, with many popular forms in almost all languages, especially those with Indo-European or Germanic heritage.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it ever since I was old enough to acknowledge it. It was given to me by my father, Ryszard Sommefeldt #2. Ryszard Sommefeldt #1, his father, naturally gave it to his first-born son because apparently that’s what you do, and Dad did the same with me. As #3, I’m supposed to give it to #4 if such an offspring presents itself in the future mists of time. I say supposed to, since Dad and I have never really discussed it and, as you’ll find out, I’m not overly keen. What we have discussed is my frustrations with Ryszard as a name, mostly in the context of growing up in Scotland in the 80s and 90s and my life as a Netizen.
Socially it was pretty awkward as a young kid in the North East of Scotland. My friends had common names, almost overwhelmingly ones that were only a couple of syllables, short and with no ambiguity about how to pronounce or spell them. I got a confusing collection of consonants in the middle that most people that I have met in my life have had trouble with. sz isn’t anything fungible in the average British lexicon.
In fact, I can’t remember the last time I either introduced myself to anyone as Rishard in the spoken sense. When I’m on the phone and need to confirm my name for security reasons, I always pronounce it properly like that, but 9 times out of 10 I’ll be asked to repeat it. I have this conscious reflex now where if I’m prompted for the repetition, I always follow it with, “it’s the Polish version of Richard”, even though that doesn’t matter for anyone who asks. I’ve spent my life explaining my name.
Ordinarily that wouldn’t matter, but efficiency is my thing. I don’t like to waste time, especially on repetitive tasks. It’s the programmer in me talking now. I’ve spent my entire life at a computer automating things away so they’re more efficient the subsequent times they happen. I must have explained my name hundreds of times, often completely embarrassed when I was younger. So I decided to shorten it, to make it easier to pronounce and explain and type. Much efficiency. So short. Very easy. Except the contraction has been just as bad in spoken terms.
I started with IRC, changing from Ryszard to Rys (well, really ryszard to rys). No problems there: it had a relationship to my old nick, most clients autocomplete on tab, and my IRC social circles have always been purposely small. That went fine.
So I became Rys almost everywhere else online too, somewhere around late 2005, and I’ve been Rys ever since. I got a new job a few years ago and there was a space on the intake paperwork for preferred name, so I’m Rys at work. Legally nothing’s changed, so I’m Ryszard where it concerns both my true legal identity and my finances.
Back to meat space, where people other than my bank or governments want to talk to me, Rys has been an abject failure in efficiency improvements. I met a online friend for the first time and I was Rise. I’m variously Reece/Rhys at work. My girlfriend’s Dad, despite being told it’s pronounced differently, calls me Rhys. He even writes it down like that in Christmas cards. One of my oldest, dearest friends calls me Rish. At least that’s close. My girlfriend’s 7 year old sister, my favourite person ever, calls me Risey. She can call me whatever she likes, I guess. My brother, bless him, who’s only ever known me as Richard (oh the hilarity, even my own brother doesn’t call me by my real name!), utters a painful Rizz these days, trying to respect my retarded, contracted choice.
So, that means very rarely am I called the name that I aimed for. It’s pronounced Riss. Like a snake with a really bad cold.
I guess it’s my own fault for not taking it seriously enough to legally change my name to something short, simple, one or two syllables and unambiguously pronounced, written down or typed. Hindsight.
Now I’m nearly 34 years old, which is really too late to be asking everyone that knows me to call me something else yet again. Plus, there’s one saving grace to Rys: it’s uniqueness on the Internets where I’m well enough known in my little sphere of interests and influence. There’s no other Rys that plays in my sandpit. There are very few others in the wider world, probably because it’s a terrible contraction of a terrible name. No offence to actual Polish Ryszards who take no issue with it whatsoever because of their social context, but I grew up in Aberdeen.
My friends and family wonder why I think it’s a terrible name. After all, I’m #3 in a line of fine, hard-working gentleman, and I’m doing my bit to carry that on. Plus, there isn’t another Ryszard Sommefeldt alive on the entire planet other than my Dad. When he shuffles off the mortal coil, my name is its own UUID!
But they haven’t spent most days of their memorable life, from small child to grown man, spelling it, pronouncing it and correcting it with everyone that needs to know it. I know for a fact there are Ryzard, Rysard, Riszard and Rizard Sommefeldts dotted across databases across the UK, entered in by people who didn’t listen to my spelling or the correction. Sometimes I just give up trying. Call me whatever you like, I’m very much past caring.
Like my family, place of birth, nationality and almost all other big choices made in my life until I was old enough to make my own, it was chosen for me. That shit sticks with you, irrationally for the most part. It becomes part of you, welded to your consciousness and the person you become, through no fault of your own. Yet, when I could have made the decision to do something about it, I made as poor a choice as I believe my Dad did. Mum didn’t even have a say, so I’m told.
I can’t give my first born male child that built-in efficiency disadvantage that I had. He, as I did, will have no choice. The name we give him will stick. He’ll overwhelmingly likely die with it intact, potentially more than a century from now. So I need to take care to not waste his time, as mine has been, so he can have more time to be more awesome.
So, there won’t be a #4. There’ll be a Tom, Mark, Steve, Tim, Adam or Paul.