Over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to witness the distress of students, colleagues, bank clerks, and panel respondents at having to say my last name. I’ve taken to giving pronunciation lessons at the start of classes and tweeting joke instructions at the beginning of conferences. This post aims to help the distressed and the curious by shedding some light on my surname’s pronunciation and origin.
First things first, the pronunciation is fairly straightforward:
The origin of the name is Bulgarian, and its Cyrillic spelling is Огнянова. It comes from an old version of the word for “fiery”, or “made of fire” (ognyan/огнян, later ognen/огнен). The ending, -OVA, is a suffix typically used to form feminine surnames (or feminine possessive forms of nouns) in Bulgarian and Russian. Something English speakers find peculiar is that the masculine version of this suffix is just -OV (or -OFF), and therefore spouses or male and female siblings can have slightly different family names (e.g. my brother’s surname would be “Ognyanov”).
As far as first names go, you may hear me introducing myself as Katherine or Katya (Kah-tyah). Katya is a Bulgarian/Russian diminutive for Katherine, Katerina, or Ekaterina. I have a strong preference for it over variations like “Kate”, “Katie”, or “Katy”. So much so in fact, that I will likely not realize you’re referring to me if you use one of those.