Nov 23, 2009
My son was almost named Balzac. My husband and I discussed several names and constructed our shortlist as a lot of parents do, and Balzac somehow made the cut. It wasn’t necessarily that my husband cherished Monsieur Honoré de Balzac’s writing but rather liked the sound of his surname. Ultimately I couldn’t live with my son being nicknamed “balls” or “ball sack”. My husband thought it would be character-building; I thought it would cost us a lot in therapy sessions.
Names are funny things. While one psychologist says we have strong perceptions about first names and associate them with success, luck and attractiveness, thus producing self-fulfilling prophecies such as a teacher giving higher marks to little ones with attractive names, another psychologist argues that the consequences of a particular name for self-image are not devastating and that a child’s name is unlikely to be a significant factor in his or her development. So what side of the fence are the children named Please Cope, Lotta Beers or Nice Deal on? Do I hear accusations that I’m making these names up?
Scouring census records from 1790 to 1930, authors of the book “Bad Baby Names” discovered the aforementioned names, in addition to Post Office, Major Slaughter, and Ima Hooker. Those still alive today – Miles Ahead, Cash Guy and Happy Day – said they liked having unusual names because it made them stand out. I suppose celebrity offspring Fifi Trixibelle, Sparrow Midnight and Zuma Nesta Rock will feel the same way when the question is posed to them in the future.
But what of those named for material possessions such as cars and clothing? In 2000, U.S. birth certificates showed that there were 353 Lexuses, 298 Armanis, 269 Chanels, six Timberlands, five Jaguars and some Infinitis, Celicas, Chevys and Courvoisiers. Some contend that such names represent parents’ aspirations or social status, which can have a significant influence on a child regardless of his or her background. Will the neurosurgeons or rocket scientists within the group resent their parents and change their names to Agnosia or Aeronautica? In an example of a blend of parental aspirations and determinism, my husband is currently reading a non-fiction book in which a lawyer is named Lawyer.
One developmental psychologist asserts that a name only has a significant influence when it’s the single piece of information you know about the person. Once a photo is paired with the name, the impact of the name diminishes. And if further information is added, such as personality and ability, the name drops to minimal significance. How long do the diminishing and the dropping take, I ask. If I heard that there was a new gal in the office named Ima Hooker, I’m convinced that when I saw her face or grew to know her personality, her name would always remain at the forefront.
When my husband and I were considering baby names, we were eager to choose a name for our child that would remain at the forefront. We had other criteria, too: couldn’t be a name of anyone we knew, couldn’t produce unfortunate nicknames or initials, had to sound pleasant, and most importantly, had to have a special meaning.
As per a suggestion in one baby names book, I solicited ideas from friends and family. The book said that while the choice of name is ultimately the parents’, because they are making the choice for someone else, they are really acting as a trustee in handling the affairs of the unborn child. My mom half-jokingly said, “Well, don’t name it Rice-A.” Our surname is Rooney, and Rice-A-Roni is a well-known brand of rice in the States. Oh, the hysterics of family. One friend suggested Luna and then said, “I guess it would all become too ‘oooooooo’ sounding.” When I told another friend an idea for a name, he said, “Isn’t that the name of the guy that was convicted of…” I cut him off and struck the name off the list.
For a moment, I considered Bechet (pronunciation bə-shā) in honour of my dog who I named after jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet. But then I thought, “What will our child say when I tell him I named him after my dog.” And I remembered what my dad said when I told him what I named my dog. “How do you spell that? It’s what? French? I can’t call a dog a frilly French name. I’m calling her Big Shay instead.” He also told me to write the name phonetically on her collar because if she were lost, someone might be calling her “Betchett”. One can learn a lot about child-naming from a pet-naming experience.
I recall looking online for baby name ideas, and I was astounded by the categories. There were nationality categories: African, Arabic, Chinese, German, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Scandinavian, among what seemed an endless list of others. And there were alternate name categories such as floral, animal, Arthurian legend, gems, geographical, mythology, and celebrity baby. There was even a moods baby names category, with my personal favourites Bliss, Journey and Memory. Some of the nature baby name suggestions were Air, Haze and Corona. Of all the categories, I was most entertained by the occupational baby names, including Anchor, Butler and Proxy. What fun if Proxy wed Penn Jillette’s daughter Moxie Crimefighter. Proxy and Moxie sitting in a tree…
Apparently, most parents today flock to the popular baby names category. A study conducted by researchers from two American universities examined 127 years of naming trends from the Social Security Administration and found that once a name starts growing in popularity, Americans take that momentum and run with it. This explains why the Michaels and Emmas, and their companions the Isabellas and Jacobs are starting to fill nurseries all across the U.S. of A. and will carry on doing so for foreseeable years.
I did my own bit of research. Upon noticing the seeming popularity of the name Henry – I know four with less than two years under their belt, counting my son’s godmother’s Henry Hawley, my stepbrother’s Henry Wyatt, a friend’s twin son Henry, and the week-old Henry, another friend’s nephew – I looked up the popularity. Indeed, it seems to be on the rise. Parents of Henrys, the name of your son is in the top 100 in England, Australia, Canada and the US as I write this.
Both my brother’s first and middle monikers are in the top 20 most popular names. With a name like Dylan Thomas, one might assume he was named after a certain Welsh poet, but his name is a combination of Bob Dylan and Saint Thomas Aquinas. My family has a knack for combination names. My clever grandparents named my uncle Amerfino, a literal amalgamation of American and Filipino. My female cousins have names like Temecia, Ileana, and Nekia and middle names like Esperanza (Spanish for hope), Estrella (Spanish for star), Hope and Destiny.
My own middle name comes from a 60s singer who performed at Woodstock in the rain. Psychology professor and former president of the American Name Society, Cleveland Evans, says the taste for obscure names developed in the 1960s, the flower power era when parents felt less obligated to keep family names. He adds that it wasn’t until the 80s when parents really wanted to give their children unique names. One such example is Jon Blake Cusack 2.0. Not Junior. Not the II, but 2.0. Dad is a self-described “engineering geek” who talked his wife into the name that imitates the naming process for new versions of software. Two other boys have unique names as well – ESPN, after the sports network.
From Aad to Zyta, the sheer choice of names can be overwhelming. With exhaustive lists trimmed down to shortlists, and further spousal negotiations when factoring in future career aspirations, social status, nicknames, and the possibility of offended family members, I would suggest breathing deeply. Like childbirth, there’s no escaping it. A child has to be given a name. In the meantime, I’ll ask my hypnobirthing friend if she’ll consider adding hypnonaming to her practice, offering breathing exercises and relaxation techniques to parents in the thick of the naming process.