Where I Don’t Have to Spell My Name

All my life, I have had to spell my name out for people. Slowly and often painstakingly, I have to sound out each letter. My name seems to confuse everyone at first.

“What was that again?”

“Wow, you are going to have to spell that for me.”

I have even had someone say, “You really should change that name; it’s too hard.” 

I work as an emergency physician–in Reston now, and previously at Fairfax and Sibley. People are used to doctors from different parts of the world, and they often assume I am a foreigner, sometimes even saying as I approach them: “Oh, thank God you speak English.” So, it ranges from inconvenient to embarrassing to amusing to downright insulting.

Some people are naturally intrigued; is it Greek? Is it Italian? I have a dark complexion, so sometimes people ask if I am Persian or Turkish. Just when I think I have pretty much heard it all, someone comes up with something new.

My name certainly is unique and quite distinctive. It is originally Italian, and undoubtedly changed from the original PaganuZZi to the current PaganuSSi at some point. No one really knows for sure where or when this happened, but even Paganuzzi is a bit unique by Italian standards

In September, my wife Julie and I had chance to visit the sunny peninsula of my ancestors. We traveled all around Tuscany and along the Ligurian coast. It was a wonderful trip filled with all the beauty, splendor and extraordinary moments that that magnificently enchanting land could hurl at us. Most notable for me was the simple, yet glorious fact that I never had to repeat or spell my name. Not once did someone recoil when I said it. Often they repeated it back to me with a lyrical gusto that made me smile.


They didn’t so much say my name as they sang it. They made it sound like an aria from a Verdi opera. They pronounced it with such aplomb and mellifluous flourish that it made me proud of my name instead of embarrassed to have to explain it. Once, forgetting where I was, I began to spell it for someone taking my dinner reservation. She laughed, of course, waved her hand in the air with gentle dismissal, and told me in accented English, “If I can no spell that one, I will just go home.”

My name causes a very different kind of stir in Italy than it does in Washington. It lands me an extra glass of grappa, an extra-large portion of risotto, a private tour of the wine cellar, or a meeting with the entire kitchen staff, who are thrilled to have an American with an Italian name come to their restaurant. 

Often, they pick me out before I even tell them my name. They say things to me like: “You have an Italian face…where are you from?” Once I explain that my family comes from the Emilia-Romagna region, I am immediately embraced–sometimes in a literal bear hug–as a brother and given special treatment. I am afforded the insider rights to whatever shop, business, or restaurant I happen to be in. For once I get to say, “Membership has its privileges.” After all, what’s in a name anyway?

Peter Paganussi, MD, is an emergency room doctor at Reston Hospital Center who lives in Oakton.