On Naming

November 9, 2011 § 4 Comments

Tellingly, this banner does not read "It's a chance to let everyone your child will ever meet know how clever her parents are!"

This is the part when I, a childless twenty-three-year-old, give you advice on how to parent – or, more accurately, how not to parent.

Specifically, I’m interested in what happens before the potty-training, before the volcano science fair project, before the eighth-grade graduation, indeed, often even before the child is born: I’m interested in naming, and where the line falls between “creative” and “child abuse.”

Celebrities have made bizarre-ass kids’ names more popular recently. Everyone has heard about Apple, Coco, and Pilot Inspektor. Hell, Nicholas Cage named his child after superman. (His son is Kal-el. Seriously.) The British chef Jamie Oliver, whom I find generally adorable, gave his four kids my favorite totally mad names: Poppy Honey Rosie Oliver, Daisy Boo Pamela Oliver, Petal Blossom Rainbow Oliver, and Buddy Bear Maurice Oliver. If you take the naming decision as a joke you get to play on your kid for the rest of his life, don’t do it halfway.

For a humorous collection of the most insane celeb baby names, check out Cracked: http://www.cracked.com/article_15765_the-20-most-bizarre-celebrity-baby-names.html

Now, the fact that a celebrity does something does not mean normal people – or, really anyone – should do it. You don’t see me running around asking for Slash’s hair stylist or Lindsay Lohan’s therapist’s number. But regardless of whether or not Sylvester Stallone chose to name his kid Sage Moonblood (note: he did), there are certain stupid naming practices that will likely persist.

I’ve identified five categories of naming impulses that can lead to appellative chaos:

1. Normal name spelled a strange way. These parents want to give their child a common name but still feel the need to leave their stamp on it somehow, in this case a stamp reading, “If found, return to Psychiatric Wing.” These names sound normal – Rachel, Jessica – but when written, their latent cray-cray is revealed: it’s not Rachel but Raychul, not Jessica but Jessikuh. Spellings with a cultural or ethnic background do not fall under this category; the Jewish “Channah” for “Hannah,” “Shaun” instead of “Sean” or “Shawn” – these are totally acceptable. I’ll even provide a little leeway if a parent wants to spell Jamie “Jaime” so that it’s spelled the same as the French for “I love.” But “Leesa” (Lisa), “Emilee,” “Jorja” (Georgia)? You have got to be joking. The bat-shit fundies on that TLC show 19 Kids and Counting (although apparently the mom’s pregnant with number 20, because 19 children is never enough – it says that right in the Bible) have given each of their kids a name beginning with the letter “j”. Rather than be restricted to names that are actually spelled with the letter “j,” however, they named kid #6 Jinger (like “Ginger”). I hope she’s a redhead. And I seriously wish her name were pronounced “Jinger” like “ringer,” though I doubt it.

2. Normal name pronounced a strange way. I’m not talking about “aw-na” versus “Anna” as in “apple,” nor do I have a problem with ethnically-informed pronunciations. If you’re Latino and say “Da-veed” instead of “David,” no sweat. My problem is the conscious choice to make reading your child’s name aloud difficult for everyone for the rest of his/her/hir life. If your daughter’s name is spelled Divine or Devine but pronounced like “Devin,” that’s too bad because “divine” is already a word. Or, vice versa, if her name is Devin but you want to pronounce it “Dee-vine,” tough tuckus.

3. Foreign word as name. Yes, Reina does sound lovely, but if you are white/Asian/not Latina and you interact with Spanish-speakers, it just becomes a bit awkward. However, if calling you “Queen” makes them uncomfortable, let them know they can always substitute “Your Majesty.”

4. Existing English words as name. Apple. Objects are particularly strange, but abstract words are also quite strange. Traditionally, some (mostly girls’) names have been words that signify positive attributes: Hope, Joy, Faith. Even some of the more ill-chosen, in my opinion, (Temperance, Chastity), still persist. Yes, historical people wanted to burden their daughters with names that were moral imperatives, but they also didn’t know about germs and thought masturbating caused blindness, so I think it’s acceptable to depart from their example. So don’t go calling your son “Brevity.” Also, nouns aren’t the only words that make bad names, though I’d caution against christening your offspring “Panoply,” “Rhapsody,” or “Garden.” “Culvert” sounds like a good idea but isn’t. Verbs (“Scurry”), adjectives (“Antipodal”), adverbs – most existing words are probably a bad idea. Even if you think it’s obscure – “Miasma,” maybe, for your lovely daughter – word nerds like me will be wondering why you wanted to name your child after an infecting vapor.

5. Completely made up name. Throw together any combination of letters and call it a name. Indeed, try out punctuation as well. I’ve heard tell of a girl named “La-a,” and her name is not pronounced “La” or “La’a”: it’s pronounced “La-dash-a.”

I understand the impulse to give your child a unique name; my name is uncommon enough that most people misspell it and many mispronounce it. My best friend has a fairly unusual first name but a downright strange middle name: von Wulfen. It means “from the wolves.” She has hated it our entire lives. I have always thought it was basically the coolest name possible (a perspective likely made possible by the fact that it is not my name). Here’s a hint, then: if you want to throw in some cray-cray along with the family “Thomas” or “Catherine,” stick it in the middle name. Then it’s at least a bit hidden, and your son doesn’t have to spend kindergarten to second grade learning to write “Velociraptor” at the top of his assignments. (Confession: I may or may not think “Velociraptor” would make an awesome name. In theory. In practice, I intend to love my kids, not send them unarmed into the world with a sign saying, “I’m a freak!” My kid will probably be enough of a freak on his/her/hir own.)

In terms of finding interesting names that won’t draw the attention of child protective services, I myself often like surnames used as first names, especially as a means of giving the child a namesake; I had a female friend in college named “Austen” after Jane Austen. I know an English Lit Ph.D. candidate at Stanford whose son is named Whitman, with the nickname “Whit”  – pushing it a bit but ultimately pretty cute, I’d say. However, the surname-as-first-name rule doesn’t always work. My neighbors recently gave their son a family surname: Thorsen, “Thor” for short. No. Dear god/dess no.

Your child is not a pet. If you call a dog “Gobsmack,” or “Fork,” or “Federal Reserve,” it may bring you embarrassment at some point, but it will not stimulate the dog’s peers to make his/her/hir life a living hell. I’m sure Apple’s classmates have never made a joke about having her in their lunchbox, and I’m sure when she gets older there will be absolutely no sexual innuendos constructed around the fact that she’s named after a fruit. I’m totally positive.

Ridicule – you want your child to get less of it, not more. Do your part to make that happen.

My mother grew up knowing three sisters, the children of hippies, who were named Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. If you view this example as inspiration for your own name-creation endeavors, rather than as a cautionary tale, please begin this blog over from the beginning.

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§ 4 Responses to On Naming

  • Amanda says:

    One of the girls at the program I did this summer talked about the names her mom sees working at a maternity ward. My personal favorite is Shithead, obviously pronounced She-theed.

  • Russ Nickel says:

    I love that Nic Cage named his son Kal-el. I try to tell that to as many people as possible. My middle name is Kirk after Captain Kirk, so I’m gonna name my first born son’s middle name Picard, since he’ll be, wait for it, the next generation.

  • MichaelEdits says:

    My students in China helpfully adopted “English names” of their own free will to spare me the nightmare of learning over 1000 Chinese names when I don’t even know 1000 Chinese words.

    What’s my favorite English name? Tough call, but it’s probably Squall Lionheart. Named after a videogame character, I believe. If his parents put that on him, that’d be bad, but he did it to himself so it’s cool.

    Honorable mention to “My name is Hibernant. That means I like to sleep in the winter.” Meaning, the first half of my class every week.

  • […] Most helpful post – On Naming and On Naming, Part 2. I do it for the […]

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