Skip to main content

From Houssem to Whosem, and back to Houssem

A story of names, pronunciations, and effort

A story of names, pronunciations, and effort

Ever since I can remember, I’ve really liked both my first and last name. Seven letters each, when pronounced correctly, my full name rhymes together, almost melodically assisting each other. More importantly for me, it is their visual symmetry in Arabic that makes me feel attached to my name, you can take a look for yourself:  حسام شمام . I don’t really know much about the origin of my name, besides that my grandfather chose it. But what’s most important is that I like it, I’ve always had it, and I really enjoy being called by it. 

Given this context, I never thought my name could ever transcend from something I truly enjoy to become an annoying aspect in my life. After all, a lot of people in Tunisia are called Houssem. Well, now I live 5063 Miles away from Tunisia, and no one here is called Houssem. In fact, you are probably  trying to figure out how to say it while reading this, and that’s fine, I’ll try to help. 

The journey from Houssem to Whosem.

Way before Carleton, when I first came to the United States as an exchange student, I expected a lot of things to change about me, but I never thought one of them would be my name. Well, I am exaggerating, it’s more like the way to pronounce my name. Even though I’m no linguist, let me try to explain:

ح “Haa” or the hard “h” in my name is aspirated. Imagine exhaling a strong and deep breath to warm up your hands in the middle of the Polar Vortex in Minnesota. Easy! Now add an O sound to it, and that’s where people get lost.

Now think about the word “who.” Unlike the hard H like in my name, it’s a soft one that’s not aspirated. Instead of breathing out from your chest when you say the H, it’s more like whispering it. Anyways, to almost every native speaker of English I’ve met, these two letters sound basically the same, even when I say it right to their ear. I tried really hard to explain to all my friends, but after a few tries, they all accepted defeat, and that’s how I became Whosem. Sometimes I even went by Sam, especially for my linguistically lazy friends, and of course at Starbucks and Taco Bell.

The journey back from Whosem to Houssem…kinda

When I came back to the U.S. for Carleton, I thought the same would happen. In fact, I didn’t even try to explain. “Hello my name is Whosam, you can call me Sam if you want. I’m from Tunisia, it’s a little country in North Africa,” and that little speech became my introduction. But to my surprise, people actually tried to get my name right here, they still do. Instead of the “oh ok! Sam it is.” I got the “no, no, help me get your name right.” Till this day, no one has called me Sam yet, this time “Sam” is just too lazy for my Carleton friends. 

The memory that stands out to me the most is with my New Student Week group, a group of about 10 students you are assigned to during the Freshman orientation week. During our second lunch together, we literally sat for two hours, or until they turned the lights off on us in the dining hall, and they all truly tried to get my name right. Some got close, others still have much to learn, but what matters to me is that they tried, and they still do. Their constant attempt at getting the pronunciation touches my heart till this day. 

Now, I unapologetically say my name, Houssem Chammem. I mean, I was born with it.

Houssem has been political at Carleton since his first day. Besides joining the student government (CSA) and the Carleton Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), he is looking forward to start the Bernie campaign on campus next year. Besides politics, as an international student he also greatly enjoys working with the Office of Intercultural and International Life (OIIL) to foster greater diversity and inclusion on campus.