What’s in a Name?

When I was a little girl, my older sister and I would spend Sunday afternoons playing the game of Life in our shared pink bedroom. But rather than play the game from start to finish, we circled again and again the small section of the board where you could land on a birth of a child space. We loaded our little cars with pink and blue pegs until they could hold no more. And after each “birth,” we searched my parents’ tattered baby name book and made a list of our children’s names. We loved being the first to land on the “twin girls” spot so we could name our twin pink pegs “Yvonne” and “Yvette.”

As an adult, naming children has not proven quite as much fun for me. Oh, the thinking of names and imagining little toddlers with those names still carries a certain amount of magic, but the actual process, not so much. Take my oldest, for example. We went to the hospital armed with 4 names, two of which we quickly discarded after he was born. They didn’t seem to fit him. My husband declared he liked the other two equally and it would be my decision. So there I was, after 30 hours of laboring through 2 nights, half out of my mind with lack of sleep and crazed hormones, feeling the pressure of what to name this little boy—give him his father’s name (the preferred name voiced by members of the extended family on both sides) or give him the other name on the list. (He ended up with the other name on the list.)

Add to that pressure the fact that the act of naming is significant in my own family, in our church culture, and in society at large: In my family, certain names and initials have been passed down for generations. In our church culture and scripture, prophets have carried certain names and have been given new names to

signify their faithfulness, scriptural accounts detail how some have been guided in choosing particular names for their children, all are given new names to serve as a key word when entering the celestial kingdom (D&C 130:11), and all are invited to take upon us the name of Christ. In society at large, Web sites and books list the etymologies and meaning behind baby names, and parents pour over these, hoping that giving their child a certain name might endow him or her with particular characteristics.
In fact, one of the reasons why I didn’t like my name when I was younger was that it means “pure,” and I have rarely felt pure. The meaning of my name, which was emblazoned on a 9×13 framed picture on my bedroom wall when I was young, always seemed to mock me and encourage guilt. (I thought of this years later when I read Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation, or hailing, when I was in grad school. Althusser described hailing as the act of naming someone such that they accept, and become subject to, a particular ideology.)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking of this naming of children lately as my husband and I are expecting our fourth child in a month and have finally begun discussing name possibilities for this little girl. So, how about it, Segullah readers. What’s in a name? Do you like your name? Why or why not? What do you take into consideration when choosing names for children? Is naming as loaded of a process for you as it is for me?!
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About Catherine

(Prose Board) has worked as a cherry sorter, file girl, piano teacher, writer, editor, and college professor. She currently works full-time as the art director, events planner, chauffeur, and referee for her four children. She spends a good deal of her time running—be it down the supermarket aisle after an escaped child, around the living room in a heated game of flag football, or on early-morning runs/therapy sessions with her neighborhood friends. She earned her BA and MA in English from BYU and her PhD in English from UMass Amherst.

27 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. We ended up legally changing two of our children’s names (and didn’t do it soon enough after their births so it cost us big bucks and a lot of hoops to jump through — long story), so yeah, loaded is a pretty good word for it. It’s sort of a family joke now, but it was pretty stressful when it all happened.

  2. The hardest names for us were for our adopted children. Both of them had names that were very difficult to pronounce and spell. One of them had a name that means something pretty unpleasant in Japanese (and we have quite a few Japanese people in our area). If they had been given these names by a birth mother, I would have been more tempted to keep them as their first name, but both were named by orphanages. My daughter was only 11 months old at adoption, so the name change was very easy and natural with her (and we kept her Chinese name as her middle name and use it often as well), but our son was nearly 4 when we met him. Even though we had an American name on his citizenship papers, we weren’t using it at all. In the midst of all that was changing for him, it felt wrong to call him something different too! So, he was just XiXi. But very soon after coming home, he realized that people had to ask “what?” every time he said his name and that Americans didn’t say it quite right, and he quickly switched to his American name. We actually still call him his Chinese name at home, but he goes by his American name everywhere else.

    Thankfully, all 5 of my kids have said that they like their names. We just framed our daughter’s name, along with the meaning, and put it on her wall…..Abigail–her Father’s joy. She loves it.

  3. I’ve always hated my name and now that I’m 18, I’m saving up to get it legally changed. It’s unusual and has some unpleasant associations for me. It’s also sort of hard for me to pronounce–especially when I’m nervous–since I have a slight speech impediment.

  4. Having no children of my own, the only thing I’ve ever had to name were pet goldfish. There’s rarely even time to get accustomed to a name with them, let alone to tire of it, before they’re off to the big fishbowl in the sky, so no time for regrets there. But the task of choosing a name does seem daunting!

    Although I like my first name, I’ve never liked that my first and last name are alliterative–more than alliterative, really–they’re derivatives of the same root. That just seems a little lacking in variety to me. And both of my brothers have family names that were used multiple times in each generation–to the point that there’s lots of confusion when one tries to tell stories with the extended family. To be honest, I wouldn’t give my parents very high marks in the naming category. One thing they did that I do like is gave my brother and I each an unusual/uncommon middle name that has some sort of significance. To me they gave my grandmother Elzina’s name, to my brother, my father’s best friend Arvo’s name. It feels kind of special to have a name that so few people have heard before, but that has some history. I don’t think I’d be as enthused if it was my first name, and I had to constantly hassle with telling people how to pronounce and spell it, but as a middle name, it’s a fun little surprise.

  5. And all along I thought my sister and I were the only ones who circled the board having, and naming, bunches of little children! Brings back lots of good memories.

    I have the same name as three great something grandmothers and grew up loving that legacy, so it’s important to me to pass that feeling of belong along to my children. I feel a lot of pressure to make sure the name fits them and reminds them of their heritage. We’re just a few months shy of #4 and are struggling to find that perfect name! I think I may have missed the mark on our last one: her name means “serene”, but she’s FAR from it. Or maybe giving her that name was wishful thinking on my part. :)

  6. Having a name of a month with no abillity to shorten it to anything but Ape, Apey, for me was aweful. Not to mention the creepy old men who would sing April in Paris at the mention of my name, and the football player, in high school, who called me every other month but April, soured me for life on unconventional names.
    As an adult I appreciate my name now, but I gave my children all solid traditional names that could be shortened easily. Christopher Thomas, Megan Elizabeth, Allison Kate, Joseph Kent, Samuel Elliott! Chris, Meg, Alli, Joe and Sam. This works for me, but I often find people with traditional names like to pick names that are more unconventional.
    All of our names have reference back to God or family which I like and think my kids will enjoy if they ever look up the meaning, but it is not something we talk about.
    I think a name should sound good when pronounced all together out loud. Think of all the important times in their life, for example when they are blessed, receive ordinances, church callings, graduate, receive awards, get married, apply for a job. It shouldn’t be something too hard to pronounce or that doesn’t sound good together.
    Finally spelling, just go with traditional if you can, for example a family member named their daughter Emma-Lea pronounced Emily, that drives me crazy! She will forever have to spell that for everyone new she meets.
    These are the rules I follow which helps me narrow down a name quickly, then I have to get them past my husband.
    Good luck picking a name for your new little one.

  7. As a young child, I loved not having a middle name because it made me unique among all my (mostly not Mormon) friends and neighbors. Then I went to BYU and discovered it is not at all uncommon for daughters to not be given a middle name so that when they get married their maiden name becomes their middle name (part of my parents’ own reasoning).

    Fast forward several years after graduation and I am still unmarried and have grown increasingly discontent with this reasoning for not having a middle name. I’m sure my parents did not intend this, but the feeling of – you are not a complete person, you don’t even have a complete name until you are married – is not a good feeling.

    It makes me especially sad because there are so many beautiful girls names to choose from! I know many girls and women with middle names that are full of beauty or meaning or family history or all of the above. I’m happy that many of my nieces are among those girls.

    Someday, my sons and daughters will have middle names with meaning. In the meantime, earlier this year I was lamenting this with friends, so we brainstormed middle names for me, and the name Petunia stuck. Some of my friends now call me by that unofficial middle name and I love it.

  8. I love baby names–my sister and I used to check baby name books out from the library in HS just to read them (our favorite was Beyond Jennifer and Jason–it’s newest iteration is Beyond Ava and Aiden). The authors also have a blog (nameberry.com) that’s one of my favorite baby name blogs, partly because they have a good idea of what names are trending right now.

    I’ve always loved my name. I don’t think I’ve actually met someone with my same name: Rosalind is the closest I’ve come. I like that it sounds classic and unique at the same time.

  9. I had to laugh at this post – both because my little brother and I played Life in exactly the same way (and also made up detailed stories about the people in our cars), and because my husband and I recently went through the naming process for our first child. Luckily it was a girl, and we mostly had picked out a girl name already – but even though we’ve had this name in our minds for many years, I was surprised at the level of nervousness and angst I felt at actually committing to give A NEW HUMAN BEING a name. What a responsibility! What if she hated it? What if it held her back in some way?

    And, ironically enough, one of our daughter-to-be’s names does in fact mean “pure.” Here’s hoping she won’t feel scarred by the choice? (My first and middle names mean “Moon goddess” and “Waterfall”, and I always sort of wished for something a little more noble as a kid!)

  10. Ah, names. My husband leans more towards funky, names-of-mythical-creatures or ancient-Roman type of names, while I tend to prefer classic names your great-grandparents would have had. There have been several compromises along the way, but so far my kids seem to like their names. That’s all that matters in the end.

    I can’t help but silently blink at people who name their kids things like “Imagine” (pronounced Ih-MAH-ji-nay) or a girl “Charlie” (like, really? You couldn’t have at least given her the name Charlotte so she had something to work with?!).

    We use the judge test. If you can announce your child’s full name as Judge Firstname Lastname without it sounding completely ridiculous, then you pass.

  11. I’m ever-so-slightly obsessed with names (I LOVE Nameberry, Rosalyn!) and ever-so-slightly resentful about my own. My brothers were both named after family, friends, and even prophets, and my sister and I got some of the most popular names of the time, “Because we just liked those names!” according to my mom. It hurts a little. Being one of SIX girls with my name (Jennifer + incredibly common last name) at my middle school didn’t help in the least. It’s hard to feel special when your name isn’t.

    Needless to say I feel a lot of pressure about naming children, too. My husband uses the “it sounds good and we don’t know anyone with that name” rule, while I favor meaning and family ties and other significance factors. Here’s hoping we can reach another compromise by April. Baby Girl v 2.0 is the best we’ve got so far!

  12. Bill Cosby, or maybe Erma Bombeck said that you should open the front door and try screaming the name out the door. If it doesn’t sound like the name you could shout every day at dinner-time, then don’t use it. (“Imagine” Ih-MAH-ji-nay) is a case it point.
    I like the judge test, too. Judge Candy Finklestien just doesn’t work.
    Also, just because your maiden name is boring, you shouldn’t get creative on the first name. I had a friend who was Utahna Brown, only to become Utahna Yokum. (She named her baby Cimmaron!)
    My personal method with some of the kids was to find out a baby’s sex, and then name the baby before, and refer to him as that name throughout the pregnancy. This was a great idea until “Baby Jake” became “Baby Anna.” Oye. Poor baby had 7 brothers and sisters who kept forgetting who she was.
    It doesn’t matter what name you choose, there will still be some snotty kid who will find a way to torment your angel by sing-songing the name or changing it subtly to make it embarrassing.
    Every kid has stuff that he/she has to forgive his/her parents for. You can give them what you think is the most beautiful, meaningful name in the world. They get to choose whether to embrace or despise it. Either way, the baby will grow up anyway. I’ve found that the only way to overcome this is to save up for their therapy.
    Good luck. I think you should name her Jeri. Tee, Hee.
    Jeri

  13. I like my name. I was oft upset when I was child when people misspelled it, but as I grew up I realized no offense is intended. I just automatically spell it now when someone is recording it it.

    I too was not given a middle name by my parents – a maternal tradition of five generations. I never felt that it made my in someway “incomplete” nor “not whole.” Rather, I feel it confirmation that my birth family and I would always belong together regardless of what other surnames and families I might adopt or join in the future.

    It was a much more difficult decision to name my own child than I expected. DH and I chose a boy name and a girl name long before we were even hoping for a child in our family. When I was pregnant and we learned the child was a boy we felt that our selected name just wasn’t “this” child. I sometimes accuse my little cherub baby of being a “line jumper” because he wasn’t the boy child I had anticipated as my first son.

  14. Naming is stressful! It seems like a lot of pressure to assign something so permanent on such a small little person. I always thought that it was weird when people said, “he/she just didn’t LOOK like that name” until I had my little peanut and “Emma”, though lovely, just wasn’t her name. With the next one, it took us a day and a half after he was born to settle on my son’s name, but now I can’t imagine it any other way.

    My biggest hold up at the time was that it meant both of my children’s names ended in “son” which was unintentional but sounded really, I don’t know, theme-y. (If themes are your thing, that’s fine. It just wasn’t my thing.) I stopped worrying what other people would think, though, especially since what we call them every day (Addy and Ben) doesn’t sound similar at all.

    Anyway, this was sort of a long comment to say, Michelle, how long after your kids were born did you change your childrens’ names? I bet that’s an interesting story!

  15. Well, I guess I’m at a different place on baby naming than many here. We purposely tried to avoid any family names; didn’t want to deal with people who felt slighted because the baby wasn’t named after them. Plus my husband’s family is chock-full of horrible names. We accidentally named all of our kids names that can’t be shortened; that’s just how it ended up. But we purposely gave them middle names that CAN be shortened. We frequently call them by their first name with the nickname-middle name: Ellen Betsy, Abbie Kate, Evan Mack, and Mason Sam. I am not a fan of made-up names or weird spellings or pre-naming your baby and calling it that thru the whole pregnancy (see Jeri’s post for why). But, then, we also didn’t find out the babys’ sex beforehand and looked forward to the ‘big reveal’ at birth. I’ve always loved to look through baby name books. Still do, even though ‘the shop’ is now closed.

  16. My father knew a man who had nine daughters and wanted a son. His wife became pregnant,and he said if he had one more girl, he would name her “hallelujah.” She did, and he did.

    I like my name–don’t live it, and like the names I gave each of my four children: Melanie, Amy, Stephen, and David. (They don’t abbreviate their names, nor do I.) I think they’re happy with them as well.

  17. Michelle, like Krist, I’d love the story of why you changed your children’s names! We had friends who chose to change the spelling of their child’s name after she was 2 years old.

    Eileen, I think I would feel double the pressure/stress of naming an adopted child. Glad you found what works for you.

    Kelsey, Thanks for linking to your blog! I was also very conflicted about changing my name when I married. In fact, I think I would have kept my maiden name had I not realized that to my fiancee, his family, and my own family, that act would have represented my putting something ahead of our union. Still, wasn’t an easy thing.

    Valerie, I also have no middle name. I hated that as a child. I’m glad about it now (because I have kept my maiden name very much a part of who I am, which was/is important to me), but I wonder if I would feel differently had I stayed single. Thanks for your perspective.

    Rosalyn, I like your name too! It’s unique but not weird. Thanks for the link!

    Sarah, Love the judge test!

    Jeri, Love the front-door test too–and thanks for helping me keep things in perspective :)

  18. I’ve always liked my name, mostly because it’s not common, at least among my generation. When I was in my twenties we were in a ward with two other Colleens, so it certainly was in vogue once! I do wish it had a more significant meaning (“girl,” really?) but it rolls off the tongue nicely, so I can live with that.

    My husband and I really like traditional names. I definitely roll my eyes at all of the creative naming that goes on these days. We named our children shortly after we found out their gender. It was never a stressful process for us. We both had total veto power and narrowed things down that way.

  19. I like my name. Traditional name but not the traditional spelling, without be a ridiculously creative spelling. I, like several others here, was not given a middle name because it was assumed that my maiden name would become my middle name when I married. (This was tradition in my mom’s family, but not my dad’s. My parents planned to give middle names, but my sweet-but-pushy grandma pretty much guilt-tripped them out of it.) Elementary school was *rough* because of it–I can still feel the anxiety of it almost 2 decades later. No one had ever heard of someone who didn’t have a middle name, and none of the other kids would believe that I did not, in fact, have a middle name. They thought I was just too embarrassed to tell them what it was. (When my mom was expecting my sister, I was just getting over it. My parents considered giving her a middle name and legally changing mine to include one at the same time, but by that time I decided it was okay if we both only had one name. Thankfully, my sister’s experience has been nothing like mine!) It was a relief to go to BYU and meet lots of other ladies who did not have a middle name. My daughter, however, does have a middle name, and future daughters will as well! (Fun side note, my grandma tried to give me the same lecture she gave my parents, but I simply shared my experience and stated that because of it, my daughters will have middle names. She didn’t push the issue.)

    The same grandma, incidentally, only recently revealed to the family in her personal history that she was originally named Ann, but her name was changed to LuAnn at the age of 18m-2y because there was another Ann M— in her town. I thought that was interesting.

    We have two children so far. We use family names for middle names, and so far we’ve only used biblical names for first names. My husband’s side has some truly awful names (e.g. Wayman, Chaukley, Sparrel) so that makes things interesting. Our son is Joshua Heath (my father-in-law’s middle name). Joshua was on our list, but pretty far down. When he was born, though, that was his name. We never questioned it.

    Between pregnancies, I had a dream about a baby boy whose name I remember but won’t share here (except that the middle name was my dad’s middle name). My husband doesn’t like the first name, but if it turns out that this dream was about an unborn child of ours, he’ll get used to it. (It’s not a strange name, he just knows people with that name that he doesn’t like.)

    When I was expecting my daughter, there were only three names on the table. One was knocked out quickly. Another was a name I’ve been planning to use since high school, and the last was a fairly obscure biblical name I’d heard years ago and been drawn to since. That’s the name that felt best to me throughout the pregnancy, but we didn’t decide for sure until after she was born. And that is a special story for another day. But her middle name is Rose, for my husband’s grandma Rosalie.

  20. I’ve always liked my name (even when kids made fun of it…only in Utah sadly. When I lived in Ca the kids didn’t tease me). I also liked not having a middle name, but choose not to use my maiden name as my middle name. It’s not even on my facebook. I might have issues still with my father).

    My daughters do have middle names. And each kid was named thinking of the meaning…and from the Bible, but also unusual. My oldest son is also a family name: Silas David, Noah Wilson, Eden Sophia, Chloe Esther and Ella Paisley.

    Ella was supposed to be Paisley Jane, but she wasn’t! It took us 3 days to figure out her name. (And Ella’s name appears in the Spanish Bible! :-))

    I think my oldest didn’t love his name for awhile, since even though our 20,001 Baby Name book said it was a name couple’s of the 90′s would love, he’s yet to know anyone else personally with his name. But like me, has grown to love being uniquely named.

  21. I just wanted to share an interesting family naming story:

    My husband’s great grandparents lived in Idaho and during a particularly bad winter, his great grandfather was helping some people in a storm and got very sick and died. His wife was pregnant with their 7th child and the day before she had the baby, she had a very vivid dream, so vivid that she woke up and wrote it all down. In the dream, she saw her husband, holding a beautiful baby with bright red hair and perfect porcelain skin. None of their other children had red hair and she asked him, “Who is this child?” He said, “She is our daughter. Her name is Marguerite.”

    The next day, she had their baby—a gorgeous baby girl with bright red hair. Of course, she named her Marguerite, a name they’d never discussed or considered.

    We have a photo of my husband’s great grandparents on our wall and I’ve had the opportunity to tell this story many, many times. Without fail, people say, “ahhhh,” and love the story. However, my friend, pregnant at the time and deep into naming negotiations with husband, said, “How annoying. Even dead, the husband gets to pick the name!”

    So funny.

  22. I love my name. I don’t have a middle name, which never bothered me one way or another — yep, grew up in Utah.

    My husband is a junior and I refused to saddle my son with a III title. I also didn’t want to give him any names he would outgrow, like Thomas shortened to Tommy, so he is Ryan. We gave him a long middle name, which is funny because our last name is really long, so when I use all three names, he knows he better be standing in front of me by the third syllable of his middle name.

    I loved a pretty, flouncy name for my daughter, but my husband really wanted Jaycen. It’s unusual, it fits her, and had I named her something girly, it would have been a huge mistake. She has a boy cousin named Jason (same pronounciation) and he gets a kick out of it. She has a feminine middle name, though, in case she grows up and wonders what we were thinking. Right now, though, she likes it.

    We stopped at two, because we ran out of names!

  23. Kris,
    #1 was almost 3, #2 was 18 months old, and we’d just had #3, who ended up getting #2′s first name. (We waited for a week to name her after the drama with the other two, and the name we thought we would use just didnt fit, but her sister’s original name did. It’s still confusing to look at original records like blessing certificates, and because the last two’s baby pics look so similar, it’s a wondering haven’t mixed up their life history photos!

    Imagine the judge’s face when he was just trying to make small talk (yes, we had to go to family court to do this) and he asked the baby’s name and I sheepishly told him. I’m sure he thought we were insane.

    There’s a lot more to the story but there’s a glimmer of it.

  24. I was named after the most famous Australian Bushranger (outlaw), on the request of an alcoholic Irishman my Mum was friends with during her pregnancy. Though she spelled it “Kellie” which is really uncommon spelling in Australia, so I’ve spent the last 30 odd years saying “With an i-e” and now just go by Kel with my friends.

    I hated having to spell my name for so long, all the time, so I’m still baffled that we chose Steven for my second son considering it can be spelled several ways. But I knew his name was Steven, so the spelling was a minor (and to be honest, totally unexpected and not-thought-about) issue.

    I know people who have flat out refused to name their child/dog/fish a name “Because I knew a fat/mean/scary person/dog/fish with that name”. Funny what a name can evoke.

  25. I think my name is o.k. but it has taken me decades to accept it as being part of me. I was given the name of Jacqueline but when my dad went to register me he couldn’t spell it, so he went for a drink to think about it before returning to the registry office. He went home drunk with a certificate that called me Kay instead. I thought Kay was plain and boring, but now I think it is o.k.
    My siblings and I didn’t have middle names either and all felt that we had missed out on a little part of ourselves. All of our children have middle names though.
    My eldest daughter is named Juliet because I love Shakespeare. Never name your child after a person with spirit, you may live to regret it!

  26. My name is Miriam and I love it. I don’t meet people with my name very often, and I’m glad of that. I also think my nickname, “Miri” is lovely. My mom actually named me after the mother of Jesus and not the sister of Moses.
    As for my naming preferences, I’m all about staying unique. I’ve decided to never use a name in the top 100 social security list. I won’t even name my children after ancestors! Doing so might sound good and respectful now, but I want my children to be individuals and I don’t want to confuse people who do our family history in a few hundred years!

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