My Word: Call Me Koren

25 June 2013 Koren Helbig

My Word: Call Me Koren

Ed#431, April 2013

It seems I’ve become something of a name tart, the kind of girl who recklessly responds to almost any sobriquet uttered in her general direction. It happened rather gradually. I certainly wasn’t this way in the beginning, when (in 1984) my dear parents decided to bestow upon me a highly unusual first name, Koren, to match my equally unusual surname, Helbig.

As I grew into a gangly teen, I plunged into denial over the tricky pronunciation of my name. I was certain that, if I corrected just enough of the mindless mortals who dared stumble over it, I would soon be skipping through life without a care in the world, as though my name were Jane or Emma.

All that changed when, flanked by a group of adolescent friends, I strutted to a Kodak counter to collect a roll of newly developed photographs. “Photos for Hellpig!” the sales assistant screeched, having amplified my mortification by pointing at the offending word scrawled in large black letters on the packet. My heartless playmates fell about laughing. This was the point when denial turned to anger. I was a big eater, and I realised then and there that this horrid nickname was destined to stick. (It did. Years later, my sisters and I turned up to a swank restaurant only to discover a merciless boyfriend had booked our table under “Hellpigs”.)

I was forced onto the offensive. Soon I resorted to fake names at takeaway stores, prompted by a particularly embarrassing mini-biffo with a man over a Boost Juice. The hapless sales girl called out “Aaron!” and I dived in, assuming I’d once again been mis-labelled ‘Karen’. I was accused of using an alias. 

My local coffee shop once jotted me down as ‘Korea’. Korea! That barista came dangerously close to witnessing a human version of North Korea spontaneously combusting. 

I saw red when those new to my name exclaimed “How unusual!” – as though this could be news to me. But worst of all were tedious conversations with new acquaintances who insisted on detailing the lives of those with a similar name. “Koren? How unuuuuuusual! I have a friend named Korin, she’s blah blah blah…” It’s not as if I rave on about my mate Jess when someone tells me their name is Jo, do I?

I was becoming sour. It was time to bargain. Or at least reward good behaviour, like training a dog. Little did I know this strategy was also fraught with danger. When I boarded a plane one day, the attendant nailed my name first shot. I praised him heartily, recounting how one chap had recently messed up catastrophically and addressed me as ‘Paul’. “I mean, Paul! That’s just insulting,” I enthused. To which, predictably, he replied: “My name’s Paul.” I could only mutter, “insulting for a girl”. 

I entered into a depression around the time I realised the father of the guy I’d been seeing for three years still couldn’t get things straight. The constant questions about my name’s origin just got me down. (Mum says Koren is of Greek origin, Google says it’s Iraqi. Helbig, meanwhile, is obviously German. I know you were wondering.) The council sent a letter addressed to ‘Lauren Helvig’ and I almost wept – although I brightened when I noticed the correspondent had also invented the Brisbane suburb of ‘Padfington’.

Gradually, very gradually, I surrendered to my problematic name. I gave in and entered the fifth and final stage of grief: acceptance. Or perhaps defeat. I stopped correcting people, started answering to all manner of bastardisations: Korin, Corrina, Kirsty… Even the more peculiar slips-ups – the odd Elaine, Heidi or Bianca – failed to trouble me. And then something curious happened. Little allies started popping up all over the place in my circle of colleagues and friends, people who took it upon themselves to correct mispronunciations when I no longer had the strength.

So you can call me Koren. Or Karen. Or Lauren. Chances are I’ll answer. But maybe you won’t be getting it wrong for long.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist based in Europe. Follow her on Twitter @korenhelbig.