October 18, 2011

By any other name

The whole science of naming is something that has fascinated me since I was a young child. I remember filling the margins of my notebooks with a list of the names that I thought were beautiful--Helen, Clover, Augusta, Beatrice, Felicity, Jessamine--and wonder which one of these I would pick for my future child, what she would be like, how her name would shape her. When they handed that blank birth certificate form to me in the hospital, all those neat little boxes waiting to hold the name we'd chosen for our daughter, I actually trembled with excitement. I couldn't believe they were going to let me name an actual person.

A lot of thought went into picking Lulu's name. Which, in the interest of full disclosure, isn't actually Lulu. I don't want to say exactly what it is because I feel hinky about giving her name on the internet. I mentioned it several times on my old book blog, but this is a blog about her life, and I don't want to share details of her life without her consent. One day, if she wants, I'll go back and do a search-and-replace on the whole thing with her real name, but until then, she's Lulu. It's her nom de guerre.

Lulu has three names, first, middle and last. Her last name is my husband's, because I am subjugated and antifeminist but mostly because my maiden name is German and hard to spell. Her middle name is for my paternal grandmother, who died when I was 11. I have 21 years' worth of memories of my mother's mom, my Mammaw, to share with Lu when she is older, but I wanted her to have something of my other grandmother, too. So we added a few letters to her name, Lois, and made a name that felt a little more fresh.

Lu's first name is short and sweet and to the point. It is the name of a character in my favorite book. It's a classic; it peaked in popularity in the U.S. in 1910 and has been sliding ever since. It's not a new oldie, one of the ubiquitous "pretty grandma" names like Violet or Alice or Eloise. It's common enough among the general population so that you won't bat an eyelash to hear it but it's not a name that you find much on women under 40, much less little babies. Think Jane. (It's not Jane. But Jane is on my list).

But on an everyday basis, we don't call Lulu by any of these carefully chosen names. Most of the time we call her stupid things like "Bicky" or "Dog-Dog" or "Pants." When we're not using these undignified monikers, we call her by a nickname. It's a foreign version of her real name, a legitimate name, not made up. It's in the top 50 or so names for girls in Holland and Belgium and France, but in the U.S., it's very rare. There is a Dutch pop star and French actress and a character in a popularish book and movie who share this name, but I have never met anybody in real life who goes by it. We like that Lulu has two names, J.D. and I, and that they are so different. We like that she could use either one of them her whole life, or that she can switch back and forth between them as her situation and identity dictate. Whether Lulu grows up to be a Supreme Court Justice or the singer in a punk rock band, she's covered.

I think something that I have always liked about names are the small--and not-so-small--ways in which they shape our lives. A child's name is so important to whom he or she will become. That's backed up by science--researchers have found that students with names starting with A or B do better in school than kids whose names start with C or D, that men named Dennis and Joe are far more likely to become dentists and plumbers than men named James or Andrew. When I meet a parent with a baby, I always ask what his or her name is, and then I try to think about how that name will shape that baby's future. Will little Atom grow up to be a physicist? Will Colton ride horses? Will Shiva backpack through India, feel an affinity for Hindu philosophies? I'm named for an aunt--my mother's sister--and we are very, very close, and so alike that it's scary. But what if my mom had named me for her other sister? Would I feel closer to her, share more of her traits?

But what I really love are the things a name says about the namer. The things I wouldn't otherwise know. When my very good friend gave her son a very Celtic name, one of the ones with a lot of consonants that don't sound how you expect them, I wanted to know what led her to choose it. It seemed like a kind of random choice. But then she told me the story of her Irish immigrant grandparents, why they left their home in Ireland, why they moved to America, their traditions. I was floored--I hadn't known my friend's ancestry was so important to her. I hadn't known she was Irish at all. And I'd known her for 10 years.

At story hour at the public library a few weeks ago, there was a mother with a four-week-old baby, and his name was Larry. "That is a marvelous name," I told her. "Most people think it sounds like a hick or an old man," she said, "But it was my dad's name." And then she told me about her dad, who had died. She gave part of his memory, and part of herself, to me, and I'd only known her for thirty seconds.

Even really common names can be more revealing than you'd think. A woman I went to elementary school with recently named her daughter Jennifer, which isn't strange, but seemed like a strange choice because of its unstrangeness. But there was a story there, too: my Filipino friend, with her Filipino name, had dreamed, when she came to this country at a young age, of being a bright and bubbly, quintessentially American Jennifer instead of the foreign-sounding Maricel. Jennifer represents countless Jennis, Jennys, Jens and Jenns to us; to her it represented a wish for her new life.

So it's surprising, given the deep, intimate, personal nature of the naming process, that people can be such TOTAL ASSHOLES about the things that other people call their children. Seriously, everybody on the planet? What is WRONG with you? People can find something negative to say about pretty much every name under the sun (as evinced by the fact that nobody liked the boy name J.D. and I picked out, which was JOHN, probably the most inoffensive name known to man). But we parents of kids with unusual names reap it harder than anybody else. Just the other day I was talking to my friend S., whose daughter is named Liesel, and she recounted to me the story of a woman who accosted her while she was in the grocery store, minding her own business, to tell her that she didn't like her daughter's name, which she had discerned from the monogrammed diaper bag hanging over my friend's shoulder.

"When people do that to me," I said. "I wish them hemorrhoids."

"When people do that to me," Liesel's mom said, "I wish that they would be somehow unfairly implicated in a heinous crime and forced to flee the long arm of the law and the grip of the one-armed man. Like in The Fugitive."

So we talked about it some more, at length, and came up with a list of dos and don'ts that everybody must follow when talking to parents about their childrens' names. Because we decree it so. And because the penalty of not doing it is hemorrhoids.
  • DO call the child by the name the parents have chosen. Even if you don't really like it or you feel stupid saying it. Don't choose an alternate nickname, or make one up, or use the middle name instead.
  • DON'T be afraid to ask questions. It's OK to ask how a name is spelled or pronounced. It's OK to ask more than once if you need to. Because pretty much everybody prefers that you ask multiple times rather than getting it wrong.
  • DO let us know if you know someone else with the same name as our child. But please don't tell us if you had an evil teacher/horrible boss/person you never liked with that name.
  • DON'T be afraid to say that you think a name is unusual. We know the name is unusual; that's usually why we chose it.
  • DO try to chose your words carefully, though. Words like "strange" and "weird" and "odd" don't always sound the best. It's always better to say "interesting."
  • DON'T say you dislike a name. Don't ever do that, please. Usually by the time a parent is sharing a name with you, the kid is born and here and that's his name and your opinion will only make everybody feel bad. Remember that if we all had the same taste in names as you, then your own child's name wouldn't be so special. And everyone wants their child's name to be at least a little bit special--that's why there are 50,000 nicknames for Elizabeth, and why people go so ferally batshit crazy when someone "steals" the name they've chosen.
  • DO try to find something to like about the name that's being shared with you. Even names like Ethel and Edna can be charming if you think of them in the right way. For instance, Ethel Waters was a totally boss jazz singer and Edna Ferber wrote some of the most adorable books in the history of books. Accentuate the positive. And there's always a positive.
  • Most importantly, DO ask about the story behind the name. You'll almost always learn something important or meaningful about the person who chose it.
If you hear me calling my kid Dog-Dog, though? I give you permission to look askance at me for that.

"One day I'll learn to talk, Pantoufle. And then I'll get my revenge."

How did you pick your child's name? What does it mean to you? Please share the story with us in the comments.


  1. This is pretty much the best blog post ever, and I wish I'd written it. Because Joy and Grace (also not their real-life names, for anyone wondering), have such unusual names for this country, and I think they are absolutely beautiful (duh, or I wouldn't have chosen them), but recently I've been wishing I'd named them, I don't know, Anne and Lucy, or something like that - book characters I love, so they still have meaning, but aren't so different that I have to justify them to everyone I meet. And why should I have to justify what I named my kid, anyway? Who gave the rest of the world the right to judge that very personal decision?

    Honestly, I picked the names I did simply because I loved them. But I've taken to telling people that Joy's name, Slavic in origin, is for Carl's Lithuanian/Polish heritage, and Grace's Welsh name is a nod to my Celtic roots (I have maybe one drop of Welsh blood in my veins, the rest is Scottish and Irish and Dutch and English and a whole lot of French, but NOBODY NEEDS TO KNOW THAT), just to stop them from wondering.

    If we'd had a third daughter I would have given her a Hebrew name. I have NO IDEA how I would have explained that one to people.

  2. I know your daughters' real-life names, and yes, while they might be unusual for this country, they are so fitting to them, they couldn't be Anne or Lucy.

    I have to admit that I do the heritage thing a lot, too, when I think I'm going to get static from people. I can just tell, sometimes, that someone isn't going to like my kid's name and is going to have SOMETHING TO SAY about it. SO I head it off at the past and say it's for my grandma. And people back right off. Nobody wants to say something mean about somebody's grandma.

  3. Actually my mother says mean things about the grandma I'm naming "Daisy" after all the time, but I her opinion is probably the least important to me on the planet.

  4. And that's so wrong of her. The only thing that should matter about a name is that the parents love it. Growing up with a difficult spelling, a hard name to pronounced, a name with a "bad" nickname, or that rhymes with something rude? I've met people named Ashleigh and Ruaridh and Ines and they all seem to be doing well in life, despite these things.

    The only people I can think of off the top of my head who really named their kid something awful and life-ruining are the folks in PA who named their kid Adolph Hitler a few years back. That's something that will affect the kid's life. And so I think that should be the new litmus test. As long as the people aren't naming their child Adolph Hitler Jones, nobody is allowed to try to talk them out of it.

  5. Did I ever tell you guys about the lady who was SO distressed when she heard Joy's name, because if you mispronounce both it and our last name, it sounds like an obscure word for rear end, and she was afraid kids were going to tease her about it on the playground. I was like, seriously, lady? If the kids are stupid enough to mispronounce her name like that, they aren't going to be smart enough to know this word for rear.

    Adrienne, you know I think Daisy's name is beautiful, and the majority of people in the world, even if they hated the name on its own, would think it so lovely that you wanted to honor your grandmother like that. It IS lovely.

  6. Oh for Pete's sake! So she was worried about what would happen if someone called your child a name that's NOT HER NAME?

    I worry sometimes that people will call my child Penis McGee. It's not her name, but oh no! Someone might call her that anyway, and then people will tease her!