Why Arabic students whose name begins with the letter “N” have to be careful when choosing nicknames in Egypt


A key theme of  20 strategies for becoming an advanced practical Arabic speaker : get out, make tons of mistakes and often get embarrassed.

Why? Because there’s  a million language nuances that can only be learned through extensive trial and error and random conversations with people from all walks of life. For example:

An awkward but useful lesson I learned in Cairo

Egyptians uniquely pronounce the Arabic letter  ( ث )  with an “S” sound  even though according to “correct” proper grammar it should be “Th.” What this meant in practice for me is that when I’d tell people my name, I would get this:

“Nasen?” “Nisen?” Nasen?” …… No, it’s “Nathan”

I got tired of spending 30 seconds over and over explaining how to pronounce my name. How did it help me get Arabic speaking practice by teaching Egyptians how to pronounce my own name?

Thinking I was being clever, I figured that with those I’d only know casually such as taxi drivers or clerks, I’d call myself some other name but still similar to Nathan. This would be easier for Egyptians to pronounce.

What’s a name close to Nathan that begins with an N?

I gave it about 10 seconds of thought. And came up with Nick. I started telling people that was my name in more informal situations.

Why did I keep getting looks like this?

I didn’t know. On the other hand it wasn’t something I thought about too much. The good news was that as “Nick” everyone pronounced my name right.

I thought the odd looks might have had something to do with my accent, but figured that would be smoothed out with more practice. For another reason, the situation played itself out a few weeks later.

Ahmed, a guy at the local corner store where I often went and chatted, with extreme caution, tapped me on the shoulder:

Mr Nick, can I tell you something? 


Will you promise not to get mad at me?  You really won’t get made at me? 

I won’t get mad at you?  What is it?

You really promise? [he was extremely worried about this]

Yes, I promise I won’t get mad at you.

Ok, I just want to tell you that your name means something bad in Arabic. [ Awkwardly made a hand gesture to try and convey the meaning]

 I went home and looked up the meaning.

The next day, just to make sure I understood correctly, I asked my Arabic teacher (who pronounced my name Nathan correctly and had no issues on this front) about this.

It was an awkward conversation.

She confirmed that “Nick” was maybe not the best choice for this situation. I stopped calling myself Nick.


Are you an Arabic student or a professor? Check out the Amazon E-textbook – coming in September.

The first 19 people to send me an email at Nathan.r.field@hotmail.com answering the following questions will get a free review copy:

1) What has been the hardest part about developing spoken Arabic skills for you?

2) What are the strengths you personally have seen in the various programs you have tried? Weaknesses?

3) If you read any of the above posts, which parts did you find most useful? Which did you hate? 


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3 thoughts on “Why Arabic students whose name begins with the letter “N” have to be careful when choosing nicknames in Egypt

  1. Geir Skogseth

    Hehe, it took me a while to understand why many Egyptians and other Arabs kept mispronouncing my first name, which should be dead easy for them to pronounce: Geir, pronounced Gayr – جاير , with a hard G, just like in Cairo Arabic. Still people would call me Gayil, Jayil, Ghayr, Ghayir, etc. Finally someone confessed that it was just too similar for comfort to Fusha Ja2ir/Ga2ir (جائر), a synonym of Zalim (ظالم) – “oppressor, tyrant, despot”.
    Now, whenever I sense some hesitation I just explain that I know the meaning in Arabic is not very nice, but that it’s an old Norse name with an entirely different meaning (lance, spear).
    I don’t envy Scandinavian women with the first name Annika, though…


  2. Nathan

    Thanks for sharing Geir. I am glad to hear that other Arabic students had this problem too.

    One’s name is one’s name. You can’t change it but these kinds of mildly awkward experiences teach roots of the language that you wouldn’t learn otherwise, at least not in the classroom.

    On the topic of embarrassing names — when the US Army went into Iraq, they set up an initial council of representatives from the various Iraqi communities.

    The initial council was called the National Iraqi Council.

    And the military loves acronyms.

    So just as it took great courage for my friend from the local grocery store to finally tap me on the shoulder, it took even greater courage for local Arabic-language reporters to let the US General that kept saying “The N.I.C.” met today …..


  3. Pingback: How to neutralize Arabic curse words from annoying Egyptian teenagers without cursing yourself – Real World Arabic

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