What’s In A Name????

Shelby? Shalaby? Shelaby? Shalbey?

Well when you are an immigrant that can be very complicated!  Take my family name for example….

Phonetically it is pronounced Shelaby but because it is an Arabic name, when it is transferred into English there is a variety of possible spellings.

You see, when my grandfather came from Lebanon (then Greater Syria) through Ellis Island with a Turkish passport (because they were under the Ottoman Empire at the the time). He was the first of his siblings to come to American and he got the English spelling Shelby and with each of his siblings that followed, every one of them got a different spelling; Shalaby, Shalbey, Shelaby, Chalabi etc.

The variety of spellings doesn’t really matter to Arabic speaking people, you see we may say or even write it Shelby but they will SAY Shelaby.  When I was 16 I told my dad I wanted to legally change my last name to Shelaby and his response was, “You’re going to get married soon and take on you husband’s name so why go through all the trouble of changing your name.  It doesn’t matter anyway because ‘Our People’ know what our name is.” So all these years I was Roxanne Shelby and I hated it….Shelby just didn’t suit me and little did my dad know that I wouldn’t get married until my 40’s!

At a certain point I compromised and chose to spell my last name the more authentic way as my artistic name, it just seemed to fit. And when I got married and took my husband’s name, I had the opportunity to change the spelling of my name to Shelaby when I made it my middle name.  But then the tribal part of me took over……I was getting married and taking on my husband’s name and joining another tribe, if I also changed the spelling to Shelaby I would be different from my brothers who spell it Shelby. And now I want to maintain a connection to my brothers, my tribe. So its still Shelby.  Who knew names could be so complicated!!

In Lebanon and around the Middle East your family name (last name) means everything.  Often when people meet you the first thing they ask is, “What’s your family name?” before they will ever ask your first name.  I learned early to answer “Shelaby, from Lebanon, the village of Mashghara”.  Often your family name tells them what your religion is, your social standing etc.

So do you know the story of your family name??


  1. All of the differing spellings make it so hard to trace ancestors, though. But yes, I’ve seen all of the variations of your family name in my searches. My Great Grandmother was a Bonnesar, Bounassar, and a million other variations. I believe her brother, Dave, was a musician at The Fez in its early years 🙂

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