How do you name a baby girl after her Grandpa Charles? No problem. You have plenty of feminine forms of Charles to choose from, including Carla, Charlene, Carol, Carly and Caroline. Even Charlie has some history as a girl's given name.
That was your warmup. Now try Grandpa Ethan.
As our name culture swings away from the traditional English men's names, it sets up namesake challenges for future generations. Few of today's hot names offer a menu of cross-sex options the way Charles does. In some cases, the creative naming landscape will offer its own solutions. Grandpa Kyler's granddaughter, for instance, can simply be Kyler. But Ethan? Landon? Wyatt?
Why should you care? One word: Aaronisha. I came upon this name when I was tallying the rise of Aa- names over the past decade. It's very rare, but it's out there -- and it's unlikely anyone would dream up Aaronisha without a beloved Aaron to honor.
Here's another for you: Joshlyn. And throw in Joshlynn, Joshalyn, Joshelyn, and Joshalynn. At least 5 girls by each name were born in the U.S. last year. While these names take the form of current trends, they're hard enough to say that it's a good bet a dad or grandpa named Josh factored into many of the name choices.
Are there better options? What female variations would you suggest for Aaron and Joshua, or these popular male names?
I love to watch the curious and evolving relationship between names and their meanings. Many parents dream up names that they like, then go digging for a traditional origin to lend the name extra roots. Some even invent a meaning, just as they invented the name. Namipedia receives many submissions of brand-new names with "meanings" like "wished-for child," "god's angel," and "beautiful princess."
Once in a while baby namers will go even further, claiming the newly created definition as the name's reason for being. I just learned a handy word for one form of this: backronym. An acronym is a word formed from initials of a phrase, like laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). A backronym is a false, after-the-fact acronym. Take the letters in a word, find a suitable phrase where the words start with those letters, and call it an origin. For example, the word golf is erroneously said to come from "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden."
In the naming world, consider Mabel. In the '90s sitcom Mad About You, the main characters' baby girl was named Mabel after a saying of her grandmother's, "Mothers Always Bring Extra Love." Sorry sitcom writers, but I'm not buying it. Surely the cute, retro-hipster name came first and the awkward, unlikely catch phrase was built out of it. In fact, I picture a roomful of writers brainstorming acronymic "origins" for suitable names.
I'm starting to see more and more backronymic name stories in real life, too. You'll hear, for instance, that Lyla comes from "Love You Lots, Always." It's a sweet tale to tell your child about her name, but an origin? That distinction rests solely with a name like Ily, where the acronym actually came first.
Way back in 2005, I wrote about the role of names in online privacy. My focus was on how the trend toward unique baby names left children's lives more traceable. Parents want their kids to stand out, I suggested, not considering the downside of being so identifiable: "No new parent ever dreams of the future and thinks, 'I want to make sure my child will be able to hide his tracks!'"
A lot has changed in the past five years. As social networking makes more and more personal aspects of life searchable, parents are starting to think about covering tracks. It's also becoming clear that we all have plenty to hide -- that "even innocuous aspects of your life can be personal, and over the long run you might not want everyone you meet to be able to learn about them with a single click."
But the role of names in privacy hasn't grabbed much attention, until now. The Wall Street Journal recently reported a startling suggestion from Google CEO Eric Schmidt that one long-term response to privacy concerns may lie in names:
"He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites."
Abandoning our names to prevent privacy violations? What's next, abandoning our possessions to prevent theft?
Yes, our legal system does give some "teflon" status to minors, such as allowing them to void contracts and deleting youth offenses from criminal records. But you don't get a total life do-over at 18. Your youthful grades, for instance, still count. You're still you.
Names and selves are inextricably linked in our history, our language, and our psyches. Your name is synonymous with your reputation and your character, as well as your identity. Think of "clearing your name," or the Biblical proverb that "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches."
Names link us not just to our personal past, but to family and cultural traditions, too. The United Nations even recognizes forced renaming as a human rights abuse. In sum, names aren't throwaways. A name change is a meaningful life event: a shift in our private and public identities, not just a convenient way to avoid ugly prom pictures.
Yet while the suggestion of disposable names may be absurd, at least it shows that people are thinking about the role of names in privacy. Facebook and its kin have turned our real names into user names. That changes the whole landscape of online identity: "defending your good name" is now a very literal objective. Some individuals have taken to obfuscation, trying to disguise their online selves, but that can only go so far. We're all going to need new strategies to protect our good names, not erase them.