To name a lily

Evolutions of my name and identity in the wake of the Armenian diaspora


My mother named me after her favorite flower, the lily. Hoping to blend the English word with an Armenian pronunciation, she invented a new name, “Lillian” (pronounced “lee-lee-yan”), an innovative manner of bridging together the two languages to create something new. As a first-generation American, I represented the interweaving of entirely different cultures into a multicolored fabric that would assert its beauty through its unique pattern.

She was soon disappointed to find that the name Lillian had already existed for centuries in the English language when I entered preschool. My classmates naturally referred to me with the traditional pronunciation“luh-lee-un,” and my mom’s invention gradually crumbled and faded away from speech and hearing. It was simply not meant to be — a seed planted on foreign soil that never takes root and grows.

However, at home, my mom continued to insist on calling me by the name she had chosen for me, and I developed two separate identities: Lillian, the girl with the old-fashioned name popular among American grandparents, and Lillian, the girl with the name invented by her mother.

As a first-generation American, I represented the interweaving of entirely different cultures…

This experience of naming and renaming foreshadowed a lifetime of evolutions in the pronunciation of my name. A title that was supposed to be the one secure, reliable aspect of one’s identity became flexible and charged with multiple meanings for me. The teachers at the Armenian school I attended for ten years learned to pronounce my name by my mother’s intention. In contrast, the duality of my name was seemingly too confusing for the young minds of my friends, and early on in elementary school my best friend christened me with the nickname I’d cherish for years: Lil. Lil spread and flourished among my classmates, a one-syllable, easily digestible replacement for my stuffy, old-person name. Lil and I were inseparable, and I grew to fulfill the expectations her name carried: sweet, quiet, unobtrusive, uncontroversial.

When I left my Armenian elementary school for an American high school, I faced the second nominal crisis of my young life. Since I had only been surrounded by other Armenians until then, the pronunciation of my last name, Avedian, had never posed a problem. However, at my American school, I soon realized that correcting people to pronounce my last name correctly was a futile effort. After repeating my last name with the correct pronunciation, I’d receive blank stares, slow nods and silence, only to have my name butchered once more later on in the conversation. And so, in an endeavor to avoid singling myself out as the girl with the name nobody can pronounce, I assimilated, presenting myself as Ms. Avedian, that’s “uh-vee-dee-yun.” I couldn’t expect to make friends and do well in class and rise to leadership positions if my name made people uncomfortable, could I?

My nickname followed me to high school though, and my friends very quickly began referring to me as Lil without my prompting. By this time, I had come to see my nickname as a marker of familiarity. If somebody called me Lil, it was because we had passed the threshold of friendship beyond which Lillian was too stiff and formal on the tongue. It would only be used by someone who said my name cheerfully and often. Lil, Lil, Lil. In fact, Lil was the one aspect of my name that I had carried with me from my youth, and hearing it on the lips of my newfound friends was incredibly sweet. Lil was the one connection to my childhood I retained within my process of gradual assimilation.

…I soon realized that correcting people to pronounce my last name correctly was a futile effort

When I entered UC Berkeley, I was in a stage of my life in which I felt more comfortable with my Armenian heritage and wished to never again separate my Armenianness from those aspects of myself that I presented to the world. I did not fear correcting my peers as many times as necessary until my surname fit on their tongues as it was always meant to. This was my small victory over the forces that demand assimilation and conformity, an assertion of my culture’s rightful place within this country.

My family’s struggle with naming and identity is not restricted to my own. In Iran, where my family resided for centuries before immigrating to the United States, Avedian was transformed into the Persian Abedi. Upon moving to the U.S. in the 1970s, my father legally changed his first name to its American counterpart as a pre-emptive defense against the era’s rampant anti-Iranian sentiment. My mother continually adopts an American name when she interacts with people unwilling to pronounce the three syllables of her beautiful, authentically Armenian first name. “That’s too hard. We’ll call you Amy instead.”

Lillian, the old white woman, followed me to UC Berkeley, yet this time the list of her variations exploded: Billion, Bill, Billy, Lil Bill, and the most obnoxious, Dolla Dolla Billz. My friends delight in inventing increasingly outrageous and outlandish nicknames for me, teasing me while knowing that I secretly enjoy being crowned with these nonsensical titles. Lil, adorable and innocuous, has faded from view, replaced by the loud, unapologetic, confident and often ridiculous Lil Bill. Lil Bill does not belong to her childhood, nor to her culture; she is wholly unattached, a product of her college experience and the transformations in character it has wrought. She belongs to UC Berkeley, and will most likely vanish at graduation much like she appeared: without preamble or explanation.

“That’s too hard. We’ll call you Amy instead.”

After leaving Cal, my name will likely transform once again in accordance with the environment in which I find myself, changes in my personality and factors for which I cannot presently account. I have embraced the flexibility and intimacy of my name as an expression of my identity that is far from steady, but rather reflective of who I am in one singular moment. Perhaps the articulation of my first name will never be fully under my control, yet there is comfort in knowing that some parts of myself belong to this world and to the people I love. Lillian may come and go as she pleases, yet one thing is for certain: I will always be Avedian, daughter of Armenian immigrants, descendant of a long line of proud Armenians, bearer of a beautiful and eternal Armenian culture.


Contact Lillian Avedian at [email protected]

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