Patterico's Pontifications


Their Names Die with Them — Thanks to the Grinding Wheels of Bureaucracy

Filed under: Crime,Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 10:07 pm

Jill Leovy has an excellent piece in today’s L.A. Times titled Their true names die with them. It’s about the apparent inability of LAPD to understand the conventions of Spanish (and Korean, and other foreign) names, and record them properly.

The LAPD’s most basic arrest form — the “5.10” — is designed according to English name conventions. It provides spaces for “last name, first name, middle name,” a format that all but guarantees a Spanish name will be botched, because it won’t fit into the spaces.

Why is that? Leovy explains:

Latin American name conventions differ from those of the United States. Drawn from many countries, with varied and irregular spellings, U.S. surnames form a diverse pool. A Bill Bratton or a Wolfgang Puck or a Tom Cruise is recognizable even without a middle name.

But in Spanish-speaking countries, there are relatively few surnames to choose from and spellings don’t vary much. Names like Rodriguez, Garcia, Hernandez, Perez, Sanchez, Aguilar, Diaz, Gonzalez, Martinez, Morales, etc., are so common that used alone, they do little to pinpoint any one individual. A Jose Rodriguez vanishes amid throngs of Jose Rodriguezes.

This problem is solved by the use of two legal last names in most Spanish-speaking countries—a father’s last name as a primary surname, followed by a mother’s maiden name. Many people also have middle names that help make their first names more distinct; thus, a Maria is Maria Elena.

. . . .

These conventions are consistent and well-established abroad. But in English-speaking America, they go haywire.

So what is the LAPD doing about it? Not much:

The department says it trains around this issue. But not surprisingly, officers queried in the field described making it up as they go along. Some said they hyphenate Spanish-speakers’ names. Some said they use one or the other last name. Some said they put one of the last names in the “middle name” slot.

Here’s an idea: stop “training around it” and change the form.

Oh, I’m sorry — did I just propose a change in how things are done in a huge bureaucracy?

Sorry. That makes me look really, really stupid — no matter how good the suggestion is.

I’ll shut up now.

5 Responses to “Their Names Die with Them — Thanks to the Grinding Wheels of Bureaucracy”

  1. Patterico:

    Needless to say, I run into this a lot… considering my own name.

    Back at university, I changed my name to Dafydd ab Hugh. I have no regrets — I had good reasons to change it, none of them disreputable — but the point is that I now have no middle name, but a last name with a space in the middle.

    Computers used to choke on it (they’re better nowadays — with the advent of database systems that allow spaces in record entries, rather than assuming a space meant a new record). People freak out. Many companies seem to know me as “Mr. Hugh.”

    I once got a telephone call; the nice lady asked, “is this…” (I recognized that pause; she wondered who had typoed the customer name) “Mr…. Huge?”

    “Yep, that’s me,” I bellowed in my deepest voice, “and I’m HUGE, HUGE, HUGE!”

    Bookstore sellers can never figure out where to file my books; they usually pick H instead of A. But actually, that’s not too bad: I would rather sit just below Harry Harrison and Robert Heinlein and just to the right of Robert E. Howard than over in the upper-left side of the sci-fi shelf, next to Lynn Abbey and miles away from Robert Asprin.

    After a lengthy learning curve, during which I had my credit cards repeatedly rejected, I took to running the two parts of the last name together as “Abhugh.” This is easier; but still, when I make a restaurant reservation, I always say “Luke Skywalker”… because I weary of spelling my name four times — and then having to reassure the maître d’hôtel that I have correctly spelt my own name.

    You say “change the form.” But still, there must be some conventions on alphabetizing. Suppose some defendant is named Jose Maria Sebastian de Capistrano Garcia y Vega; does that go under S, d, C, G, y, or V?

    And what about Japanese and other Oriental names? They typically list their family name first, given name second: Hattori Yoshi. We would write that as Yoshi Hattori. How do you write it on the form?

    Or worse… some names are, say, Korean names translated as best they can into Japanese; but there are multiple ways of doing so… and a passport official might write the Japanese version one way, while the defendant writes it another. So you look at it and say “that’s not the same name!” But it is.

    Sachi ran into this when she worked at a bank, but under more benign circumstances: A customer wanted to cash a check made out to him under one name, but his passport had a different version.

    Sachi knew it to be the same name, but it looked very different when rendered from Korean into Japanese into English. How was she to convince her (American) boss? Fortunately, there was another Japanese speaker at the bank who verfied what Sachi was saying, and they cashed the check.

    This requires a lot of thought. It’s not so easy to change a form to take into account names written in the forty or fifty languages used in California alone… without losing a lot of critical information. (How do you write a glottel stop in English? An apostrophe — Pua’a? Or a hyphen — Pua-a? And what about a click, which is found in the Khoisan class of languages in Africa? The International Phonetic Alphabet inludes more than six different kinds.)

    Or suppose a defendant tells you his name… in Mandarin; the form-filler writes the best English transliteration. Then the witness shows the defendant’s Chinese signature on a forged check and translates it into english letters… according to the Cantonese pronunciation. Two completely different names. Yao!

    Or a simpler question: Japanese has two versions of the letter o, one “hard” and the other “soft.” It’s difficult for a roundeye to tell them apart; it’s impossible to describe (in English) the distinction. The best I can do is say one is “o,” the other is “o!”

    But to a Japanese, they are as different as r and l are to us (did she say “frying fish” or “flying fish?”) Two names that are “identical” in English can sound — and be written — completely differently in Japanese. (Japanese also has an unusually large number of homonyms: Sachiko can be written several different ways in Kanji, for example, all pronounced — and spelled in English — identically.)

    And then there are the problems associated with the slot for a defendant’s date of birth! What if he answers “52 Shōwa?” That’s the way it would be written in official documents in Japan… meaning the 52nd year of the reign of the emperor who reigned during the Shōwa era.

    A quick trip to Wikipedia would inform the desk sergeant that the Shōwa-era emperor was Hirohito, and the 52nd year of his reign was 1978. (After death, he was renamed Emperor Shōwa, as is the custom.) The defendant’s minor daughter might have been born in 11 Heisei. The defendant, who has just immigrated here last year from Japan, might actually not know what year on the Western calendar that signifies.

    To quote Fagin, “I think I better think it out again!”


    Dafydd (445647)

  2. More of this rediclous PC and bilinguial nonsnsnes and all that other ediclous gobbeldy gook

    krazy kagu (4ca035)

  3. I agree to some extent, krazy. How about the multitude of conventions gets changed, adapted, assimilated to one – ours? Of course, that would assume we actually know who is here in this country.

    BTW these name conventions also wreak havoc with courthouse documents of every category.

    Patricia (824fa1)

  4. I blame the linguists who come up with transliteration schemes that don’t make sense to lay-folks.

    Александер becomes Alexander. Why change the “ks” to an “x”? Leave it.

    Витали becomes Vitaly – why does one “и” become an “i” and the other a “y”? Veetalee would be a more reasonable choice.

    Japanese isn’t so bad; the romanization for it is pretty straightforward. Chinese is a complete mess. Phonetically pronoucing a translitterated na me is almost guaranteed to be completely wrong.

    mrsizer (b8f3d1)

  5. Dafydd, for your own ignorant sake please be advised that the correct term is “Asian” and not “Oriental”. Thanks.

    ronald fasting (b71b25)

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