Saturday, June 23, 2007

One thing they never tell you about child raising is that for the rest of your life, at the drop of a hat, you are expected to know your child's name.

I have always had a bit of a thing for names, their history, meanings, and variations. I own at least half a dozen baby names books, most of which I acquired BEFORE I had my children. Like Anne of Green Gables, who thought her name distressingly plain and wished it was Cordelia, I hated my name and always wished it were different. My mother’s other top choices (and reason they didn’t win) were Leslie (gender ambiguous), Samantha (name of our cat), and Tamar (Biblical woman raped by her half-brother), all of which I prefer to my actual name.

My mother’s very top choice was Jennifer. There are many things I am, but a Jennifer is NOT one of them. (Besides, there were four other Jennifers in my graduating class.) Family legend has it that right before I was born, the movie “Love Story” came out, and a wave of Jennifers washed over the maternity wards. My mother used to tell the story that the nurse was so sure I would also be a Jennifer that she already had the form filled out and had to write up a new one when my mother gave her my actual name. “You were the only girl baby in the maternity ward NOT named Jennifer!” my mother declared proudly. Now that I have given birth, I realize that a maternity ward might hold, tops, six babies at a time, so that’s not quite the feat she made it sound; also, I only recently discovered that “Love Story” was released in December 1970; I had been born the previous April. Good story, Mom, but no dice.

I have always liked the Jewish tradition of using the initials or meaning of a name of a deceased relative as a jumping-off point for your child’s name; you get to be original, but you also honor your family. A name should have some resonance. My chief complaint about my first name is that it has none, my mom just liked it. My middle name is my maternal grandmother’s, and I would much prefer to go by that.

I guess it should not be a surprise that the meaning of a name wasn’t quite so important to either of my parents. Another family legend (this one corroborated by my mother’s best friend, my aunt) was that my mother told my dad he had to shorten his last name as it wouldn’t fit on her Saks charge card. This is so very typical of something my mother would say and expect, that it rings true. At any rate, true or not, my father Anglicized and shortened his very Eastern European name very soon after my parents were married. (The fact that his parents disowned him upon marrying my mother probably also contributed to the bastardization of his surname.)

My children, all three, have very traditional names. So traditional, in fact, that many people think we are devoutly religious. (We are not.) And despite our stereotypically Irish surname, my children are not named Connor, Brendan, Liam, or Seamus.

My oldest son is named for my father, and his (my son’s) father. I always thought we would nickname him, but it never worked out that way; his (two-syllable) full name suited him so much more. It’s uncommon, but not freakishly so; it’s a dignified, very English-sounding name, and it suits him perfectly.

My middle son is named in honor of an iconic musician H idolizes, and has his father’s middle name as his middle name. He also has a third name, because we weren’t sure if we were done having children or not, and if we were, we wanted to get my father-in-law’s name in there as well. Seg’s name has since grown more popular, due mainly to a certain skeevy English film actor who rose to stardom about the year my darling boy was born.

When Terzo appeared, we named him for my father-in-law (same as Seg’s third name). His middle name is a classic name that, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, is also the name of a title character in one of Primo’s very favorite children’s books. Yes, we let our then-four-year-old middle-name his new baby brother. Of course, we loved the name, and so does everyone who hears it; it’s turned into a nickname used by, mostly, H’s musician friends since it is also the name of the lead guitarist of an Australian rock band which shall remain unnamed. Our family nickname for him is an androgynous derivation of his first name that I happen to think is adorable, but it’s not so far off its original that it will obliterate his real name.

We had girl names picked out for each pregnancy. After Primo was born, we revisited our girl choices as the name we had picked got very popular, and thank God Primo was not a girl or he’d have been one of a dozen Sophias. The girl name we picked for baby-that-was-Seg and baby-that-was-Terzo was a classic, as well as being my mother’s middle name. (She threatened to come back from the grave and haunt me if I ever named a child her first name (think Borden Milk.)) The middle name is a derivation of my mother-in-law’s name. The poor woman has eleven grandchildren, ten of whom are boys and one of whom has a wildly popular Irish name with a cutesy spelling, and whose middle name is made-up.
Who knows, perhaps at some point we’ll even have reason to use a girl name. Or not, as the case may be.

What prompted all this name musing was this article in the Wall Street Journal about name consultants. Prospective parents are paying consultants to help them pick out names for their newborn babies. I think this is one of the craziest things I have ever heard of, paying a stranger good money to name your child.

The stupidest thing about this phenomenon is that these gullible parents think they are getting unique names for their babies, and yet just about every name is trendy as all get out.

Last fall, John Bentham, 36, a Las Vegas theater producer, and his wife, Shannon, 29, who runs a nonprofit foundation, says they felt "enormous pressure" to find a strong-sounding boy name. "I wanted a name that would look good on a marquee or a political banner," Mrs. Bentham says. Though they had agreed on the letter "j," none of the names they came up with -- Jude, Julian, Jake, Jason, or John Jr. -- seemed original enough. They hired Ms. Walker and Mr. Reyes, who produced an 11-page list of possibilities, including Jackson. In March, the Benthams welcomed little Jackson Dean into the world.

Do you know how many Jacksons I personally know? Off the top of my head, three children, one teenager, and a grown man. That’s FIVE Jacksons, just in my personal realm. It’s a fine name which I actually like quite a bit, but it’s not especially unique. It’s TRENDY. And I don’t live in a hotbed of trendiness, either, my friends.

In the end, choosing a name for your baby should only have a couple hard-and-fast rules:
1. Check the initials.
They should not spell anything rude, vulgar, or stupid. (Or trendy. Sheesh.) A friend of mine switched the first choice for her son’s middle name, changing his potential initials from APE to ACE. Wise choice.

2. No matter what you name your baby, it can be twisted or tweaked into something that can be made fun of, or used to tease him. But for God’s sake, try to not make this typical childhood process moronically simple. I don’t care how cute Gwyneth and Chris thought the moniker Apple was, they don’t have to live with it or get through grade school with it; poor little Apple does.

3. NEVER give twins, or any of your children for that matter, rhyming names, or names that could be rhymed. Because the lowest common denominator will prevail. As Theresa Bloomingdale points out in her hilarious I Should Have Seen It Coming When the Rabbit Died, Dirk and Eric will not become Derek and Eric, they will become Dirk and Erk. Ann and Dan, or Jim and Tim, just result in confusion among your kids when you call. They're going to ignore you anyway; no point in giving them an excuse.

4. If you spend more than five minutes conjuring up a unique spelling for your child’s name, change your name choice. If it takes you that long to figure out how to spell it, just think how long it’ll take your little one to get the hell out of kindergarten. Not to mention spending her life having her name’s pronunciation mangled by all and sundry.
I have a friend who named his daughter a unique and actually quite lovely Gaelic name; but the spelling contained so many extraneous consonants that the unfortunate child spent her entire kindergarten year being called something quite the opposite of what her parents intended, and it was even misspelled in the yearbook. Not worth it.

5. Do NOT name your child after any type of consumer product. EVER. The urban legend of Lemonjello and Orangejello are the obvious no-no example here. But seriously, folks, children should never be named after cars, alcohol, tourist destinations, or sports arenas. That means that an acquaintance’s daughter Tallie (Talledaga) should just have been called Mary!

I have probably ranted about this before, but if I save even one little girl from being named Nevaeh, I will have done some good in this world.


blackbird said...

My mother had decided to name my youngest brother Jason - and then Barbra Streisand had HER Jason and there were dozens of them so it ended up my brother's middle name.
As for my name, she has a story that is just bullshit, so I guess I'll never know...
she also claims that our first initials are for the city in which we were conceived. CLAIMS.

Joke said...

Wow! You knew the Jackson Five?


Sarah Louise said...

Well said. In my family, the boys get the father's first name as a middle name. So if father is Andrew Phillip, son would be Paul Andrew. It's a nice tradition, though, like many name related traditions, pretty sexist. For a long time I thought I'd like to give a daughter of mine my first name, but have decided against it and haven't had a reason to change my mind. I find all the naming stories and stuff fascinating.

Badger said...

My first name is an Irished-up version of Bad Grandma's middle name, and my middle name is Good Grandma's middle name.

While I liked the idea of naming my son after his two grandfathers, it would have meant he shared his name with a VERY prominent African-American musician. Or he would have had an extremely obvious reversal of that name, which is just as bad.

In the end we picked a name that had ethnic significance and sounded like a strong, male name. It has since become ridiculously popular, and a lot of people spell it wrong (even when naming their own children). And just this month we met a GIRL who has the same name. It is NOT a girl's name. Weird.

The girl's name comes both from the Bible (not why we chose it) and DH's family tree (THAT would be why). It has ALSO become very popular. Shit! We did not do this on purpose, I swear.

The boy has DH's middle name and the girl has mine (and thus, Good Grandma's). This resulted in the girl's initials forming an acronym that's used by the British navy. Whoops.

Could this comment be any longer? Sheesh. I should have just blogged about it my own damn self!

Sarah Louise said...

I don't know anyone named Jackson.

Alice said...

I agree with EVERYTHING you said. I wish my mother had read it before I was born...

teachergirl said...

You wouldn't believe the mess of names I have to deal with every new school year. My word, your post should required reading material, attached to the blank birth certificates waiting to be filled out. That way, I might not have to suffer through every Tequila, Lexus, Tymashian, Qordale, and Alize that wander in the door.

Iamthebookworm said...

When I was in a bookstore, I heard a man call his tiny toddler daughter "Carmen Electra."

Suse said...

There was a piece in the paper this week about a couple in New Zealand who tried to call their child 4Real.

PS. I always think of Badger as Badger. I can't think of her with a real person name. It's just so wrong.

Anonymous said...

My step-sister was very pregnant when her grandmother, named Harriet, died. We thought it would be nice to name the baby girl Harriet, but their last name is Potter.

Anonymous said...

Yikes! Is Sophia THAT high on the popularity list? I've held onto that name for a girl since I saw the movie "Vanilla Sky" in 2001. I hated the movie but I absolutely adored the character "Sophia" played by Penélope Cruz. I heard that the original movie, Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) was better but I haven't seen it yet. My daughter is due this September and I'm sticking with the name but not just because of the movie. I also like it's meaning, which I absolutely had to look up. I would hate to name her and then find out that in Greek it meant something like, "born in a graveyard".

darkorpheus said...

On a business trip once, a friend of mine met this Hong Kong advertising executive named "Panties" - I kid you not.

It's an odd thing thing, with cultures that do not speak English as a first language, a lot of things get picked up as first names - I've known Hong Kong celebrities that named themselves (they named themselves!): Dior, Noodles, Strawberry and Apple.

Unknown said...

I had to chime in on this as we are attempting to get pregnant right now and are thinking a lot of the name Grayson, my partners family name...what do you think of Grayson?

Anyways my name is Dawn and I was teased horribly as a girl, Dawn dishwashing liquid takes grease out of your way...blah, blah, blah and I hated it...but my father wanted my middle name to be West Virginia where both of my parents families were from...thank god that my mom changed it at the last minute to Marie...whew

The worst child name I've ever encountered...First Name Promise Last Name Land...Promise Land!

jenny said...

hey, hey, say "a Jennifer" like it's a bad thing.

I am feeling unfairly maligned.

but at least she didn't name me Duchess - the Aristocats came out that year too.

Jess said...

Somehow I never tire of names. And it's agonizing to me that you aren't mentioning names (although I understand why). Mine hovers around bizarre but never quite lands there, but with each child my parents picked more ordinary names. Just call me Guinea Pig.

I'm so obsessed with names that I would never in a million years allow someone else - let alone pay them - to come up with names.

Velma said...

Names alone would be enough of a discussion to keep us drinking together until well past last call. I'll save the story about the Peanut/Elvis Costello connection for when I can actually buy you a drink!