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How to Pick Baby Names That Will Wear Well
Naming a child is an awesome responsibility.
The opportunity to give a name is an act of power.
Rarely will any single decision you make affect another person for such a long period of time. Though some people do change their names, or adopt a nickname or stage name, in most cases the name you give your child will be their name for the rest of his or her life. If they do or become anything famous, it will be by that name that they go down in history. And, if you believe in an afterlife, it will quite possibly be their name for eternity as well. In a sense, it will become who they are.
Like the words I now pronounce you and The market is now open, naming is one of those rare speech acts that do not just describe or influence, but actually create, reality.
This is not to terrify you. Far be it from me to imply that each child has one perfect name meant for him or her, and if parents fail to pick it, they have failed. No, there are many perfectly good names that you could give your child. There are many ways to get it right.
I point out the power of name-giving to make just one point: The name you give your child is not all about you. Yes, you have the authority (and indeed the duty) to name your offspring, but the name you give them will outlive you, and will affect them far more than it affects you. Therefore, picking a baby name is not primarily about showing off something about yourself ... that you are clever or creative, or traditional or well-read. It is about picking a name that will serve your child well.
There are no hard and fast rules,
Having made the point above, let me hasten to add that of course your personality and that of your family are going to influence the name you pick. And that's as it should be. Rules are made to be broken, especially when it comes to names. We all know that someone with a strong personality, or a great talent, can carry off a name that is very strange or unusual, and even turn it into a personal trademark. So, the bits of advice below are just general guidelines. Any given one of them might be outweighed by some other factor that is unique to your family's case.
Also, fellow parents, I'm not here to judge. If you named your daughter Latrina, I am still happy to hang out with you.
... but the mind doesn't like dissonance.
In this article, I will advise you to pick names that are expected or that seem natural, rather than names that create cognitive dissonance in the hearer. There is a reason for this.
The human mind is designed to work from scripts, from its acquired knowledge of the way things usually go. When a person sees or hears something that is very unexpected, one of two things may happen.
The first is that the mind latches on to that thing, trying to explain it. Depending on the situation, the person's reaction can range all the way from laughter to "Hmm, that's odd" to "THIS CAN NOT BE!"
The second option is that the mind "fixes" the anomaly, either by immediately forgetting it, or actually "seeing" something that is more expected rather than the thing it actually saw. It treats the anomaly as a blank, and then it fills in what "ought" to be in that blank, from the script.
The same phenomenon can happen with names that don't seem to "fit."
So, this article is designed to help you avoid saddling your child with a life of correcting people's mishearing of his name, or of having everyone he meets spend the first few minutes of the conversation staring at him, wondering why he is named that.
If you like very unusual names, by all means leave a comment saying why, but you will probably not find the advice in this article useful.
With those disclaimers out of the way, let's get started!
How do you feel about very unusual names?
The name should make it clear whether the child is a boy or a girl.
Erin is fine because it's visually distinguished from Aaron. Sam and Alex at least come from Samantha and Alexis. But please, don't name your daughter Jayden or Torvald or Max. Think of her Kindergarten teacher, scanning the list of new enrollees on the first day, trying to figure out who is who as she glances between the classroom full of children and the list of names. Have some mercy on the poor woman.
Also, parents of girls, think of us boy-parents out there. Once a bunch of people start naming their daughters a name that has traditionally belonged to boys, it eventually becomes a girl's name and can no longer be used for boys. It happened to Leslie and Evelyn.
The name should sound good with your last name.
It does not have to match in genre (see the discussion of ethnic names below), but it should not rhyme with, make a silly sound with, or make a sentence or phrase with, your last name.
My own last name, Mugrage (muh-GRAHJ), is particularly tricky this way. Any first name that ends with -en or -in can sound like it's making a sentence ending "... in my garage." Consequently, I would never name a daughter of mine Karin or Karen, though those names may work for your last name.
Avoid obvious invitations to mockery.
We realize that no name is mockery-proof. Mean people can make a derisive nickname of anything, and even if they can't, they can still just say your child's name with a nasty intonation.
Also, you can't anticipate everything. Your little Virginia may grow up and marry someone named Hamm. A new, vulgar word may emerge in the next fifteen years that sounds like your child's name. I get that. Just don't give your child a name that at this time means or sounds like anything vulgar, negative, or silly, no matter how much you personally like the name.
Use a standard spelling, if there is one.
I still remember when the scandal broke with Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers. As another Jennifer, I was of course mortified to share her name. But I was really unhappy that she spelled it with a G. This made everyone unsure of how to spell any Jennifer's name. I have been asked how many n's and even how many f's my name has. Because you just never know!
For girls' names, using an unusual spelling often makes the name look like it belongs to a ditz. (The name Jennifer already has this problem, and the G just adds to it.) The name Erykah may look sexier than Erica, but it will also be harder for her to get people to take her seriously.
For boys' names, unusual spellings just tend to confuse people.
Some names have acceptable variations in spelling, and that's fine. You can pick between Catherine/Kathryn, Sarah/Sara, Rebecca/Rebekah, John/Jon, and Geoff/Jeff.
Other names are so new or inventive that they don't have a standard spelling. That's fine too (as long as you have other good reasons to give your child such a name). Just please don't add a lot of extra h's, or create a name with a pronunciation that can't be guessed from reading it. Again, the rationale is that your child's need to have a (relatively) smooth(er) time in school, the job search, and on the job outweighs your need to express your individuality.
Ideally, the name should be somewhat versatile.
This is not always possible, but it's best if the name has at least two different options on it, so to speak.
Many names have a cute, fun nickname that you can make from it, but don't have to. For example, Andrew can be Andy, Margaret can be Maggie or Meg, Charlotte can stick with Charlotte or go with the more sophisticated-sounding Char, or even with Lottie if she wants to.
Other names have very few possible nicknames, ones you may or may not like. For example, Agustus almost always ends up as Gus. In my own family of origin, every single one of the children ended up with a nickname consisting of the first stressed syllable of our first name. Luckily, none of us were named Helen.
If you do give your child a first name that is not very versatile, he may call on his middle name if he wants a change. So bear this in mind when picking middle names, as well.
Do you like your own given name?
Don't use ethnic names unless you have an actual claim to them.
Yes, I know that every name comes from somewhere and so every name could be considered ethnic. (More discussion on this in a moment.) I actually love reading through baby-name books and finding out what country each name originated from, and what it means. With my writer's imagination, I find the least familiar names the most romantic.
However, I did not give my children exotic-sounding names just because I loved the names. I wanted my kids' names to give people a pretty good idea of what country, subculture, and ethnicity my kids were from. I love the names Raul, Diego, and Domingo. I did not use them, because it so happens that I had married an Anglo, and not only do my little blondies look very Anglo, they also don't have the slightest claim to being Latinos.
So, what do I mean by an "ethnic" name? Basically, an ethnic name is any name that calls a lot of attention to a certain ethnicity or national origin. The degree to which names do this depend on their recent cultural history, and of course it is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. So trust your instincts. The point is, don't give your child a name that is very strongly ethnic-sounding, and does not match any ethnicity on the child's family tree. That just confuses people, and this whole article is about finding names that do not cause confusion.
In general, within the United States, most Anglo-Saxon names do not sound ethnic, but rather generic. (But not all of them! See below.) This is also true of many Bible names (Andrew, John, Deborah, Mary). America being the melting pot, various names from other countries have also come to lose their exotic sound. See the totally subjective, only moderately researched chart that I have put together, and leave suggested changes to it in the Comments section. Please realize, this chart is not meant to make fun of any ethnicity. I love almost all the names listed in the chart, and would give most of them if circumstances were appropriate.
Many American families with, say, an East Asian last name will give their children generic-sounding first names. This is very appropriate, because it makes them sound like exactly what they are: ethnically Asian Americans. Both parts of that identity are important and worth holding on to.
Perhaps your family has an ethnic heritage that isn't immediately obvious from the way your kids appear. If you want to give them a first name that sounds distinctively German, or Welsh, or Finnish, or Native American, I think that's terrific. Bear in mind that your child may be asked about the name, and this will give him an opportunity to explain his heritage. (Will he enjoy that opportunity? Your call.)
Another special problem is when you as a family are living in a country not your own, perhaps as a diplomat, a missionary, or with the military. Do you try to pick a name that will work in both countries? Do you give your child a name that commemorates where he was born? One thing to consider is how long you expect to be living as expats. If you will probably move back to your home country when your child is quite small, then as he grows older he may not even remember the land of your sojourn. It's better, if possible, to give him a name that will help him fit in wherever he will be living long-term.
Totally Non-Scientific Table of How Names Sound in America
Country/Language of Origin
More Mainstream-Sounding Names
More Ethnic-Sounding Names from the Same Country
Aiden, Alfred, Brant, Douglas, Edward, Edmund, Avery, Bonnie, Catherine, Chelsea, Dawn, Edith, Megan
Aetheldred, Aeltheric, Beowulf, Egbert, Godric, Graham, Aethelwin, Mildred, Wealtheow
Amal, Jamal, Aisha, Maya
Achmed, Mahmud, Fatima
Anette, Cheryl, Danielle, Madeline, Michelle, Natalie, Nicole
Babette, Gigi, Nanette, Pierre, Jean-Paul, Jean-Michel
Carl/Karl, Otto, Walter, Elise, Heidi
Dieter, Friedrich, Wolfgang, Anja, Dagmar
Alexander, Andrew, Darius, Jason, Agatha, Arianna, Kyra
Aristotle, Dionsyius, Heracles, Ariadne, Artemis, Athena, Hestia, Polyhymnia
Aaron, Adam, Abraham, Daniel, David, Ethan, Gabriel, Joshua, Solomon, Deborah, Elizabeth, Mary/Mara, Rebecca, Sarah
Asher, Eliezer, Elihu, Josiah, Judah, Moses, Naphtali, Jocabed, Keren-Happuch, Tirzah
Brandon, Brian, Dylan, Patrick, Ryan, Sean, Colleen, Erin, Fiona, Patricia, Peg
Ennis, Derry, Fergal, Finn, Kerry, Dierdre, Maeve, Niamh, Siobhan
Claudius, Marcus, Claudia, Diana, Julia, Juno, Maria, Venus
Agustus, Magnus, Virgil, Lavinia
Allistair, Bruce, Bryce, Jamie, Malcom, Allison, Aileen, Blair, Margaret
Angus, Argyle, Mungo, Bridgit, Moira
Evan, Gareth, Ian, Lloyd, Owen, William, Caitrin, Gwen, Morgan
Bran, Gwilym, Hugh, Llewellyn, Angharad, Enid
In short, the name should "sound like" the kind of person your child will likely be.
Other things being equal, the name should lead people to expect a person who looks and behaves roughly the way your child will look and behave.
This will make things somewhat smoother for your child as he or she moves through life. A name that fits won't remove every challenge or obstacle, but it will at least avoid adding an extra little dash of confusion to nearly every encounter your child has with another human being.
You can't perfectly predict how your child will look and behave, but you can get a pretty good idea of it from family resemblance, family traits, and how you plan to raise your child.
So, if you are a hippie family raising your children off the land, your child will likely grow up to adopt your values. It might be appropriate to name him or her Leaf or River, especially if that kind of name will be somewhat common among your friends. I wouldn't normally recommend that kind of name, but this illustrates the way in which what name is appropriate will be influenced by your family circumstances.
If you are an intuitive type, it is also perfectly fine to spend a few days with your baby before you name him or her. Now with ultrasounds being a routine part of prenatal care, most people know the sex of their baby before it is born, and some have already named the baby and are even using the name before it is born. While this is sort of sweet, you don't have to do it that way. If you have put some thought into what names might be good for a child of yours, perhaps as you get a sense of your child's personality, you will be able to tell which of those names is most appropriate for him or her.
Spend some time thinking about it, and praying if you are a pray-er. Give your child a name with dignity, one that is versatile, and one that is appropriate for someone of his or her sex, ethnicity and subculture. After that, congratulations. You've solidly cleared an early hurdle by giving your child a name that will serve them well. Now you can move on to the next super-hard task of parenting.