Backstory: (How to) Say My Name

It's Easier than it Sounds

Nothing beats a good mnemonic device. In 1998 when David Fincher was shooting the film Fight Club his partner — now wife, Cean Chaffin — introduced herself. “It’s chafe-in,” she said, “like jock itch.” And I’ve never forgotten that. Similarly in Barcelona in a taxi, Michael Chabon introduced me to his wife, Ayelet Waldman. Doing so he said, “I never say my wife’s name… I yell it.” As a testament to the power of those devices I recall not just the names but the circumstances of the introductions.

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I am Ukrainian, hear me roar. Or maybe Polish.

My father’s parents died when he was seven so I never knew them, not even their first names. Not until a family vacation when we drove to Idaho and visited their graves. To my surprise their names were Nick and Polly. Thus their names are an almost-mnemonic device for Palahniuk. Or as we pronounce it “PAH-la-nik.”

My grandfather, Nick, and his father, my great-grandfather, George, emigrated from the Galicia region of Eastern Europe in 1911. At different times, the area was claimed by either Ukraine or Poland so the family is divided about our national heritage.

Those original Palahniuks sailed from Bremen aboard the S.S. Saturnia, arriving in Quebec. They received their U.S. citizenship in Ukrainia, North Dakota in 1916. Born in 1939, my father tried to shed some letters from the family name, shortening it to “Palanik,”1 but when he enlisted in the Navy in the late 50s the government dug up his history and made him change the spelling back to match immigration records.

My dad’s small victory was that his first name, Frederick, was originally spelled “Frydryck.” We take our wins where we can.


A distant cousin of mine, the actor Jack Palance, was originally named Volodymyr Palahniuk. Not a name I’d like to have to hang on a theater marquee.