Cultural Appropriation of Names?

This is kind of a more serious topic, but I think it's important and would like to know other name enthusiasts' thoughts on it. Where do you draw the line between acceptable use of a name and inappropiate use?

I'm thinking in terms of names that come from a certain culture/religion and may have a significance within that culture but are taken and used by cultural outsiders. Do you think there is even a clear line between a-okay and no-go for names?

I know I've seen references on here to the use of the Jewish surname Cohen being inappropriately (and offensively) used as a given name. Are there other Jewish/Hebrew names you've seen or heard used inappropriately? What about names from other cultures and religions?

Also, being Native American myself, I can't help but grimace and groan whenever I see a name listed on a baby name site or in a naming book that is said to be of "Native American" origin, usually with some stereotypical meaning ascribed to it, too, like "Soaring Falcon" for a boys' name or "Graceful Deer" for a girls' name. There's a lot wrong with this, but here's just a couple problems I have with it. First of all, there are hundreds of indigenous peoples and languages of the Americas, so there aren't any names that are generically of "Native American" origin. Secondly, in many Native cultures, names, name meanings, and/or naming practices are incredibly important. Traditionally, names are not something taken lightly or just chosen because it "sounds cool" or "has such a pretty meaning." Specific naming practices and the significance of names depend on each specific Native culture, of course, but in many it's very important.

So what are y'all's thoughts? Any specific examples? How do you deal with this if you come across it in real life? For example, how would you react if you met a boy (or man) named Cohen? Or expectant parents considering the name Aiyana for a little girl and claiming it means "forever flowering" in Cherokee. (It doesn't.) I'd love to hear what people have to say on the matter!


June 12, 2016 4:33 PM

I'm in Spain and I believe there are no restrictions any's just a more traditional naming environment. The names people are giving their kids now are different (Martina and Lucia instead of Anna and Marta), but you still don't find very many people with really unusual names. And creative spelling doesn't seem to be a thing here, perhaps because the language is more phonetic so there's less room to interpret how to spell a certain sound.

In the Latin American community you find a lot of names like Yesica instead of Jessica, but this really is just representing pronunciation.

June 12, 2016 5:13 PM

Thanks! It makes perfect sense that Spain would have a more traditional naming culture than America. I was just curious if it was more by choice of the parents or by government regulation that people stuck to tradition. Interesting connection you point out between the language being more phonetic and the lack of creative spellings. I wish it was like that in the U.S. because creative spellings get on my nerves!!!

June 12, 2016 7:03 PM

If you want to see a real free-for-all-anything-and-everything-goes naming culture, check out Venezuela.

June 12, 2016 10:18 PM

You're not kidding! I love reading the comments that my Venezuelan family members' friends make on Facebook for the names alone. They are wild. Jackniry (female) and Wladimir immediately come to mind.

June 13, 2016 3:00 PM


Looked it up and apparently they tried to pass a law banning such names:

I couldn't find if the law passed or not, but since that was back in 2007, I'm guessing it never went through...

Here's another article just about Venezuelan names that explains some of the "rules" involved- apparently it's not just random:

June 14, 2016 10:05 AM

Great article (I read the second one).

“Their names will make them special in this life.” -- a Venezuelan hot-dog vendor voicing a common aspiration of naming parents the world over.

June 16, 2016 3:19 PM

I noticed some of the naming patterns that were mentioned are used in the U.S., too. Not just wanting an individual or aspirational name, but also the invented names. It mentioned spelling backwards (Rotceh from Hector), and that's how we've gotten names like Nevaeh. There were also names created by combining the parents' names (Nelmar from Nelson and Marta), and I know people who have created a combination name that honors more than one family member, usually grandparents rather than parents, but the pattern is still there. The only one that seems to not fit current American trends at all is naming after a political figure. That was common practice in the U.S. at one time, but not anymore.

June 17, 2016 11:31 AM

There's no doubt the Latin Americans are on top of the game when it comes to creative naming. I'll have to ask my friend the neonatal nurse if these kinds of trends also hold true in Latin American immigrants to Spain.

Not so much creative, but she says that she comes across a fair few baby Shakiras and Beyoncés in her working life.

June 9, 2016 11:09 PM

My children and I recently had the privilege of a regular pig sitting gig for friends' abandoned-by-mom tiny preemie piglets. The girl of the trio is named Banshee!! Very appropriate name for her, given her terrified squeal when you'd pick her up, before she figured out the bottle was coming soon... And even then!

June 15, 2016 4:47 PM

The idea of "Banshee" as a name helps me grasp the problem with Cohen a bit better.  Banshee is so emphatically not a name that I have immense trouble even picturing it.  The derivation could kind of work for a name, but it just sounds so strange to me.  In fact, probably because I am rather familiar with the legends, it doesn't even sound plausible as a name.

June 16, 2016 3:09 PM

That's kind of what I meant about not being able to think of Banshee as a name for a person. If I just focus on the sound of Banshee and try not to think about any of the legends or the meaning of it, I do like the sound of it. If I just saw something that said it was Irish and meant "woman of a fairy hill/mound" that doesn't sound like a bad meaning or association at all. However, knowing the legends of the banshee keening to herald a death in the family and all the rest, I couldn't possibly think of it as a name.

June 16, 2016 3:47 PM

This is one of those things where the meaning and the sound are difficult for me to disentangle.  To me, the "nshee" part sounds like the banshee's keening getting started.  The word almost sounds like the beginning of the shrieking that is associated with banshees.  And as such, it is very difficult for me to look at it just as a sound.  But the derivation (bean si) is kind of pretty, and in fact I think the word bean (which is not pronounced like a legume) is rather pretty.  But somehow the meaning has seeped into the sound of the English term for me.

June 17, 2016 11:27 AM

I agree that the word reflects the keening sound, but I think it only is so evocative for you because you know the meaning of the word.

For comparison, Sheena contains the same sound, but while it's not to my taste, it doesn't make me think of shrieking banshees either.

June 18, 2016 2:44 AM

I know: these things are very subjective but at the same time feel objective.  Sheena is a little bit different though: I think that the inclusion of the "n" before the "shee" sound makes it more whining and shrieky.  Then again, if the word "banshee" meant something more pleasant I probably wouldn't feel this way about it at all. 

June 17, 2016 5:00 PM

I see what you mean about the word suggesting the shrieks of the banshee. And I know a bit of Irish, so I know bean is not pronounced like a legume, just as I know fear is not pronounced like being afraid. ;)

June 10, 2016 6:06 PM

Apropos of our discussion of the inappropriateness of Cohen as a given name, I just came across this:

"The Anti-Defamation League added a new symbol this week to Hate on Display, its database of prominent white supremacist imagery. It’s called the “echo,” and it is used online to call attention to Jewish names in the news."

The echo is then the cue for the alt.-right anti-Semites to vilify those whose names have been so marked.  It then occurred to me what if those who were so foolish as to name their children Cohen were also foolish enough to refer to their children online by their names.  What if the Stormfront types scraped up these children's names when they were out looking for trouble on the web, marked them with echoes and unleashed horrifying harassment on these young innocents and their families?  When malice, stupidity, and ignorance converge, look out.


June 10, 2016 7:46 PM

Interesting thought... I wonder how often the echo is applied by hate groups to names that aren't even Jewish, but they, in their hatred and ignorance, assume are Jewish for one reason or another. Also, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the parents refer to their kids online by name, since so many people do nowadays.

Thanks for sharing. It's scary and saddening how much hate people can hold in their hearts.

June 10, 2016 9:04 PM

I happens.  In the mid-70s I taught at a small college with a large percentage of Persian students.  They constantly attacked a colleague of mine whose name was Kuhn, which they confused for Cohen.  Professor Kuhn was a former Benedictine monk....

June 11, 2016 7:50 PM

Not just an eyeroll.  Those were the days of the Shah and the Savak, and the Persian students attacked each other with swords which they claimed were necessary for slicing cucumbers.  Not kidding about that....People disappeared.

June 11, 2016 9:00 PM

I'm very sorry if my *eyeroll* came across as trivializing a very serious matter. I did not intend it that way at all! I apologize if it came across wrong over the internet.

June 11, 2016 10:42 PM

Not to worry.  Point was that the people who mount attacks because of what they think certain names connote don't factcheck, and they can be very dangerous.  Of course, they are also dangerous when they do interpret names correctly.

June 12, 2016 4:59 PM

So true! Hate groups and the like don't factcheck anything, though, names or otherwise.

June 16, 2016 11:33 AM

RosieLea's comment in the name laws thread about UK laws against using a title as a name made me wonder whether it would actually be illegal to use Cohen as a name there. It appears that an adult would NOT be able to change their name to this, but it probably wouldn't be censored for a baby.

The rule about titles is, I think, a good example of why power matters in questions of cultural appropriation--those who have power are able to pass laws preventing the use of "their" names if they want to, or to decide that it doesn't matter to them if the "hoi polloi" want to "ape their betters." (I take it here that the law came about primarily to prevent people calling themselves Earl or Bishop if they weren't, and was incidentally extended to non-BofE religious titles. There's some rather scathing language about how the impossibility of purchasing "a genuine British title of nobility.")

It's a separate question from cultural appropriation, but it's interesting that the laws for adults re-naming themselves are stricter than for naming of babies. Also, the UK Deed Poll Service's discussion of "Fun Names" (in the link above about adult name changes) is worth reading. Names they have approved include Jellyfish McSavaloy and Huggy Bear. And in a vein similar to cultural appropriation, out of only eleven listed "fun" names, two are Hong Kong Phooey and Ting A Ling.

June 16, 2016 12:03 PM

If I read the Deed Poll Service's policies aright, it would be illegal to change one's name to Mary Jane or Molly.

June 16, 2016 4:38 PM

Hah, yes! Also, my uncle's name was Toku, nn Toke--it has been on my list every time, but I've never been able to pull the trigger due to the slang connotations, and it seems in the UK it would be verboten.

February 12, 2018 10:54 PM

I'm getting rather tired of the whole "cultural appropriation" battle cry of late, and I do realize this was written a couple of years ago.  That said, I'd like to chime in here as an ESL teacher.  I teach people from Jordan, from Finland, from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Honduras, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, and China.  I have students in German and Japan and Russia-- ALL over the world.  You know what group routinely culturally appropriates names?  Chinese.  The Chinese culturally appropriate names.  What's more, they call them "English" names-- when in reality, as I've tried to explain, these are more aptly described as Western names.  They have no notion of the hundreds and sometimes thousands of years behind a name, how it changed and came out of use and back into use over time and in many Western countries.  They don't know the religious connotations-- and spare me all the Jewish hooplah over names-- what about all the borrowing of Christian names and pagan names? 

The truth is, if you don't value your Western culture-- you can say "goodbye" to it.  Why is it that the Chinese, who give reasons from "hard to pronounce," to "you will mangle my name," to "it's fun" when answering why they borrow Western names--- why is it that it's acceptable for them to do this, but I can't borrow a Cherokee name or a Sioux name or a Navajo, a Persian, or a Japanese name?  I'm not saying I want to.  I don't.  I like my family heritage, I know where generation upon generation of my ancestors hail from-- and I have more than enough lovely names to choose from.  My question is rather, why is it okay for everyone else to protect their cultures, but it isn't okay for those of us of European descent?  My answer is-- it's not.  Or it shouldn't be.  Europeans and their descendants come from diverse (white and diverse) places and lands and histories. 

All that said, RosieLea-- I loved your reply about the name Brooklyn.  The truth is, the most snobbish and me-centric people I've ever met are in New York.  *Or on the Eastern Seaboard (New Jersey, Maryland, etc.).  They don't seem to know where any other place in the world is outside of New York.  Well-- they can keep it :)  I lived there a short time... I wasn't impressed then-- and I'm not impressed now.  They can also keep the name Brooklyn.  That said, it IS of Dutch origin-- as is Harlem-- as are most places on the EAstern Seaboard as they were created by EUROPEANS. :P

February 13, 2018 6:19 PM

Wow, so much to unpack here. Keep in mind that I'm doing this not as a moderator, but as a regular poster who happens to be a German lady who immigrated to the US as a gradeschooler, married into a mixed European-/African-/Native American family and is now raising a bunch of kids with Jewish ancestry. Also relevant to this conversation, I teach in a university setting where a substantial fraction of the hundreds of students in my classes each year are first generation immigrants or international students, most of whom are East Asian. 

First point, I picked up English quickly enough that I dispatched with ESL after the lesser part of a school year, but I sincerely hope this attitude isn't broadly representative of ESL teachers. 

I'm sure by this point everyone can recite the whole "racism = prejudice + power" thing, but as a recap, the idea is that for something to be racist not only does there need to be prejudice but that it needs there to be a power imbalance for it to qualify as racism. I think we need to extend that to cultural appropriation. Just like white people can't complain that something is "racist against white people" when it is simply bigoted against white people (which I'm sure exists), I think the cultural appropriation of names cannot be complained about in the same way when you're in the historically empowered group. I realize that the definition of who gets included under the "white" umbrella has shifted, such that now most people would include the Irish and Italians, but I think historically oppressed groups are the ones who get to complain about cultural appropriation of names, and not the bearers of privilege. 

The whole reason that Chinese and other immigrants feel pressure to give their children an English name is that they are a minority whose naming culture is not being recognized or accepted. As a new lecturer, one of my first difficult acts was confronting a student (who was substantially older than me) about the fact that mocking Asian names as all sounding like Ching-Chong-Ching was not okay. To me it is patently ridiculous to complain about cultural appropriation when immigrant parents pick names from outside of their culture under some degree of duress. I definitely have posted in the past on this forum about how the names that immigrants choose are often out of sync with the choices made by the rest of the culture that they are trying to fit in with (I had a lot of adult Asian students named Esther and Vivian and -bert names way before those became hipster-cool)... but this in no way means they should be exposed to ridicule and certainly not maligned as being appropriative, when their intent is to accommodate. (To be clear, I think in no way should Chinese parents feel like they have to give a name to their American children other than from their own linguistic tradition. Chinese names are just as American as British ones or German ones. But the sad reality is they are accepted less, responded to less in emails to professors, etc.)  Calling it an English name reflects the fact that English is the language in which a lot of international business is conducted, among the "West" and Europe as elsewher. In a desire to not inconvenience the Western cultures with whom they are conducting business in English, many people in non-Western countries are finding pseudonyms to make things easier for the English speakers. This is a convenience and accommodation, not a requirement, which should be accepted graciously  when it is chosen.

The fact that you, like I, can trace my ancestors back 500+ years back on both sides is a reflection of tremendous privilege. Many Americans do not have that privilege, many of them because the institutions of slavery deliberately severed people from their linguistic traditions and their cultural origins. Many black Americans don't even know what country in Africa their ancestors came from, and turn to genetic analysis to try to fill the void. It is not surprising that in that situation, parents are inventing new names and appropriating existings ones (e.g. reimporting African names and also for taking on French names often with altered spellings to signal the transfer). 

Lastly, this has thus far has been a nuanced and intelligent thread in which many difficult issues have been unpacked with sensitivity and a desire to understand perspectives other than our own, but I have honestly no idea what you mean by "spare me the Jewish hoopla over names." Christian names have been part of an aggressively missionized global marketing campaign, so to complain about their use seems ludicrplus. Likewise, Pagan/Neoclassical names were given to slaves by their owners to signal their otherness and their being less-than.

February 28, 2018 12:58 AM

This is such a dicey subject, and I really don't think there are any right answers. What's unforgivably offensive to one member of a minority group may be funny or insignificant to another-there's no decision making authority on what's acceptable and what isn't. 

On the one hand, I think there should be a reasonable amount of tolereance for any name that's given with love, as the vast majority of names are. I'm sure most people choose Cohen without knowing that it's controversial. Some may know the controversy, but feel that the personal significance of the name (perhaps it was a surname of a beloved friend or the name of a significant place) outweighs the pitfalls of the controversy. There are also TONS of secular Jews who identify as Jewish culturally, but aren't particularly religious and wouldn't be offended by the name's use; I imagine that there are a few Cohens out there who belong to that type of family. If a family is misinformed and thinks Aiyana is a beautiful name with a lovely meaning, I don't think it's really fair to criticize them for that. There is clearly no bad intention on the parents' part, and I don't think it's useful or kind to make an issue of it.

That said, these issues point out the importance of thoroughly researching a name prior to choosing it. There are so many bad baby name books out there- I don't know why, but it's the only branch of etymology that seems to have absolutely no standards. I've seen books that list "Dijonaise" as a name (Dijon + mayonaise) or say that Declan means something like "Little Warrior" when in fact NO ONE knows the meaning of Declan. Those terrible books contribute to the ignorance of parents choosing names. Additionally, I've seen people who believe that because they had, for example, and Italian great-great-grandparent, they know everything there is to know about Italian names. Then they choose a name like Giavana, which is a misspelled, mispronounced Italian name. I think that comes across as ignorant- even though that isn't the parents intention- and it's a dead giveaway that the parents did very little research before they chose the name. 

I think another issue that contributes to the problem is the fact that shockingly few people realize that different cultures have different naming customs. In some cultures, babies are named based on their birth order and the parents have no say in the child's name. In other cultures, a baby is named for situations that relate to their birth, so while parents may technically choose the name, it's chosen based on events beyond their control rather than a personal preference for one name over another. Some cultures, like ours, have words that are exclusively names (like "Katherine" or "Jonathan") while others don't have any such words and instead only use regular words as names (like "Hope" or "Daisy" or even something like "Dew on a Leaf in the Morning"). The Yanomamo tribe of Venezuela and Brazil has a name taboo where it is a sign of great disrespect to address someone by their given name. Ancient Hawaiians would sometimes rename children something unpleasant, like "ugly," in the belief that it would ward off bad luck. Some cultures have only unisex names, some only gender-specific names, and some a combination. I guess what I'm saying in this very long tangent is that there are a lot of different ways to name a baby, and I don't think everyone realizes that, which can lead to misunderstanding and accidental misuse of names. 

So overall, I don't think it's necessarily wrong to use a name from a culture that isn't yours, but it is tricky and possibly a bit odd. You have to be very careful that you fully understand the cultural context of the name you chose and expect that people from that culture may find it strange that you named your Irish-American daughter Auli'i. The world is shrinking, so your child will almost certainly run into someone from that culture, and you don't want it to be awkward or uncomfortable.

February 28, 2018 1:28 AM

Many, many cultures had the "name the kid something unpleasant to ward off evil" custom. Even as late as the 11th century, you can find names like "Nemel" = "isn't alive" in Hungarian records.

What I don't get regarding inappropriate borrowing of names is, most cultures have sooo many names to choose from already. Why make it even harder by going further afield? (Same goes for the ubiquitous surname-as-given-name trend: are there really no given names in the family tree that those parents could use?)

March 1, 2018 1:28 AM

Interestingly enough, while I agree with your central argument that a lot of name books are terrible, Dijonnaise actually IS a name (usually with two Ns, not one).

Dijon is a fairly regular feature for a while starting in the 80s through to the present day, but Dijonnaise debuts in the SSA data in 1993 with 23 girls born. Yes, that's the year after the product debuted. As the product became more popular, the girl variant shifted to Dijonnae and Dijonnay.

To be fair, it *is* a very pleasant sound, and it was indeed an insanely catchy jingle. (For those too young to have been exposed, it featured singing "deej-deej-deej-dee-jon-aise" to the tune of "the Duke of Earl", one of my top earworms.)

March 6, 2018 8:36 PM

We recently decided on a name for our first baby, due in July. We chose a name that we arrived at through tossing around various similar names, trying out sounds with the last name, etc., and that my husband was acquainted with through work-related associates. Based on his experience and the sound of the name, we thought the name was pretty global (that is, versions of the name appear in various cultures). It sounds familiar to the American ear but is not common, it sounds lovely with the last name, and my husband's Balkan relatives wouldn't have a hard time pronouncing it. We've had a short list up on our kitchen cabinet for a while and this one rose to the top. Hooray! So last night I googled it, and it turns out it's a common South Asian name...apparently quite common, and pretty exclusively connected to the region. I had no idea of this—and it's not like we're isolated, we live in a giant metropolitan area and have been acquainted with plenty of South Asian people and enough aspects of South Asian culture to not be TOO ignorant...I thought.. Is it appropriation if we're not fetishizing the culture the name came from, but rather were taken by surprise by the clear association of the name with a specific set of cultures? Except--you know, now we do know. And I can certainly appreciate the argument that it really doesn't matter what our intent was, what matters is the effect on marginalized/formerly colonized groups, and here we are, about to name our half-Jewish half-Balkan daughter a common Indian name out of ignorance. After all, a definition of privilege is that you can do stuff others can't because it doesn't matter to you; you can afford to stay ignorant and not be affected at all. 

The name is Nisha. I'm interested in your thoughts on this.

March 7, 2018 9:29 AM

Does Nisha have any particular cultural or religious significance? I think that the label of appropriation applies more if the answer is yes. Would you assume cultural appropriation if a South Asian named her children Olivia and Mason? I'd just assume that she had some connection to the US or the West and liked the names. Names like Bodhi or Cohen fall into thornier territory because they have deep religious and cultural meaning to certain groups of people. If Nisha is the Indian equivalent of Olivia, I'd have no hesitation using it. Just be prepared to have the occasional conversation with those in the know--it will be an opportunity to make new friends!

March 7, 2018 5:03 PM

I agree with Elizabeth: cultural appropriation is a label that applies to names with particular religious or politico-cultural significance, such as Bodhi, Cohen, and Dakota. You'll also notice that almost all of the names so labeled aren't used as personal (given) names in the source culture.

I think using Nisha without other southeast Asian connections is no more appropriative (or inappropriate) than using László without Hungarian ancestry: it'll certainly cause some surprise and lead to conversations, but no reasonable person will be at all offended by the choice. Just make sure you're pronouncing it reasonably close to how they say it. :-)

By EVie
March 7, 2018 8:13 PM

I've actually known a Nisha of mixed Indian/Caucasian ancestry. It's pronounced NEE-sha, in case there was any uncertainty. 

I agree that it probably isn't appropriative unless there's some religious significance that I don't know about. I believe there ARE a few Indian names that are sometimes used inappropriately by white people (e.g. Krishna for a girl), but I'm not totally confident about. I do believe that Hindu deity names are used as personal names in Indian culture, but I don't know if it would be offensive for non-Hindus to do so. The info that I found on Nisha is that it comes from Sanskrit for "night," no indication that it's a religious name.

March 7, 2018 8:48 PM

Thanks, you all. For more context, here is a LONG but very fascinating thread about name appropriation I found on another board...someone wanted to name their child Sakura ("cherry blossom" in Japanese) because she loved the name although she had no connection at all to Japan or Japanese language or culture, and what followed was a really interesting discussion about what does and does not constitute appropriation, and how important it is or is not to consider. 

Different people do seem to define "appropriation" differently, and as some of you have pointed out, it's true that in this case there is nothing sacred, religious, or especially meaningful about the name. But many people define appropriation more broadly than that, as a person or entity of a dominant culture using themes, activities, and other cultural signifiers from a minority or oppressed culture without regard for or understanding of the original culture. That is more my concern-- sort of blithely adopting a cultural trope well known to another culture and clearly outside of my culture, just 'cuz it's pretty.

March 8, 2018 9:05 AM

I understand the distinction and your worry, but as a name enthusiast, I am all about expanding the pool of names! I love names and learning about names from other cultures is delightful. So I set aside any such qualms and embrace names from all over the place just because it's my thing (as long as the line of religious and/or cultural significance has not been crossed). I'd be thrilled to meet a little Nisha, especially if her parents had a good story to go along with her name. Perhaps you're asking the wrong group of people, or perhaps I need a bit of a course correction. :),

March 8, 2018 11:36 AM

I'm intrigued as to where you got the name from...does it exist outside of its Asian context? Is it being used by other groups? 

I still think to be cultural appropriation there needs to be a strong power imbalance. The first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on cultural appropriation is telling, but triggers the spam filter when I post it here.

Mod edit: Here is the paragraph in question

Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is a concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power. Cultural (mis)appropriation is often portrayed as harmful in contemporary cultures, and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating, minority cultures, notably Indigenous cultures and those living under colonial rule.Often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, cultural exchange, as well as misappropriation, can include using other cultures' cultural and religious traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and songs.

This to me makes the woman wanting to use Sakura absolutely on safe ground. Using a Japanese name when you have no connection at all to the country may be a bit strange, but it doesn't strike me as cultural appropriation in an oppressive sense. The power difference between the US and India is obviously somewhat greater, but the relationship is not particularly strong, either. If India had been under the colonial rule of the Balkan states, rather than the British Empire, that would be different.

I did once meet a Spanish baby with an Indian name. I can't remember what it was, but her parents introduced it as meaning something pleasant and vaguely new agey. This rubbed me a little bit the wrong way, as I got the sense of them being the kind of people who go on yoga retreats to India and come back "enlightened" and "mindful" (which might be completely unfair). But I don't think the name you're considering would strike me the same way. It does blend in well with Western naming sounds, and it doesn't seem to be spiritual. I would just cultivate a response to questions about the name along the lines of what you've told us here, not mentioning the Indian connection, and if someone brings it up, shrug it off as a coincidence.

March 8, 2018 11:53 AM

I do appreciate this concern. As a hapa Sansei with an authentic-ish Japanese middle who has continued that tradition, I've worried myself about how fraught it is to pick names without understanding the full cultural context, and I definitely find the manga-inspired naming trends a bit disconcerting. However, I think there are a few considerations that distinguish your particular situation.

First, Nisha really is a genuinely international name, not entirely tied to one single culture the way Sakura is. You're right that the bulk of women with this name are South Asian, but that's partly because about a quarter of the world's people are South Asian, so any name that is common there is going to be dominated by those results, even if there's also a long history of use in itsy little European countries. In among the Google Images results for "Nisha" I also see a little girl from Malawi and a young woman from Anguilla, as well as quite a few non-South Asian women in the US (mainly the Southwest and South). It's also a common element in African American names (I grew up with a Monisha). And there are also other spellings for the sound of the name (I'm assuming you're pronouncing it something like NEE-shə) so you may not be finding some of the other origins in your Googling. Specifically, Niesje is apparently a Dutch name with the same pronunciation, and Naoise is a (male) Irish name, also pronounced like Nisha. It also shows up with spellings like Necia and Neesha; some of those are probably Anglicizations for existing names or alternate spellings of the Sanskrit name, but some may be nicknames or coined names or could have some other origin. (Note that "necia" means "foolish" in Spanish, though.)

Second, you aren't picking the name because of how "exotic" it sounds or because you fetishize the culture it comes from. I do think intentions matter here; I'd be completely comfortable with someone naming their baby Sakura because it was their beloved neighbor's name or similar, and I think picking a name because it is beautiful to you and broadly appealing across cultures (as evidenced by its existence in different traditions) is totally legit.

Finally, I also think there's a question of the specific relationship between cultures, both historically and currently as well as specific to the individuals involved. If you are in the Americas, rather than the UK, quite a bit of the power dynamic with South Asian names is diluted because there's not as direct a history of oppression; the US wasn't the imperialist power that occupied India, and there's nothing equivalent to internment (let alone slavery or genocide) for South Asian Americans. Similarly, I think it's easier to use the name Jemima in the UK than in the US; I don't know if there are any Italian basketball fans, but I'd find it somehow less problematic for an Italian to pick up on the name LeBron than a White American.

TL;DR: I think it's fine to use Nisha. If you're still bothered, you might consider choosing a different spelling, a similar name, or a name that could nickname to Nisha. Nissa, Nyssa, and Nessa all have similar sounds and are similarly cross-cultural; if your Balkan relatives end up pronouncing it more like Nisha, well, now you've got two names in one. Something like Natasha or Annaliese or Benicia or Anaïs could get you to Nisha as a nickname. Unless you really fall in love with one of those options, though, I'd stick with Nisha.

By EVie
March 8, 2018 3:16 PM

I was curious how you'd weigh in on the Sakura question. I read through the whole linked thread, and it was a fascinating mix of responses, from people who seemed extremely well-informed about Japanese culture and its attitude toward appropriation, to people citing inaccurate etymologies of their own names and claiming false equivalencies.

I did find myself coming down on the "yes" side of "Is Sakura cultural appropriation?", in large part because of what you just pointed out -- that Sakura is very strongly tied to one culture, and even going a little further, because it's such a common representation of Japan that it has almost become cliché. As I think one of the posters in the thread pointed out, it's almost the default choice for sushi restaurants in the U.S. In that way, I think it's more analogous to a name like Bodhi, which basically comes down to fetishizing Buddhism and/or reducing it to a hippie New-Agey stylistic choice rather than a fully realized respect for the religion. (Note that I don't think the same applies at all to actual Japanese families using the name Sakura).

Nisha, to me, reads more like Leila, another name that means "night" and has been fully absorbed into Western culture without accusations of misappropriation (to my knowledge). Like Leila, it spans a number of linguistic and cultural traditions (it's Sanskrit in origin, but Behind the Name lists its use as Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Nepali -- all South Asian, but diverse within that region), plus the other traditions that nedibes lists. And it's not associated with any romanticized or fetishized elements in the culture that I know of. I would definitely hesitate over names like Kali, Shiva, etc. that are strongly associated with Hinduism, but more secular names like Nisha, Pallavi, Sarita seem safer.

March 9, 2018 3:22 PM

That's a good point about the icon-ness of Sakura; there's even a TV Trope for it (maybe that's mentioned in the thread?). I might analogize it to the names India and Asia, which always feel just slightly uncomfortably exoticizing to me, though one difference is that Sakura is actually used as a given name in Japan. So maybe more like Paddy for Ireland or Mei for China?

March 9, 2018 5:30 PM

I am an occasional lurker rather than a regular poster, who has been sporadically following this conversation, but I've also thought about this issue and this particular name. I married into a mixed-faith family from India, so through interactions with family and friends (and pondering names for possible future children) I've become a lot more familiar with South Asian naming traditions (though they are diverse and I would not claim to be an expert!). One of my spouse's relatives, the 30-something American-born daughter of a mixed-faith immigrant couple from India, has this name, and from the first time I heard it, it struck me as a beautiful and inspired choice: elegant yet approachable, a name that can travel the world while still honoring culture and tradition (as EVie says, much like Leila). Since then I have encountered (IRL and virtually) many more Nishas of South Asian heritage. Clearly, this name has become beloved with good reason for its ability to cross cultures, especially among the South Asian diaspora. If it weren't already claimed in the family, it would absolutely be on my own list.

If I met a Nisha, or saw her name on a byline/resume/etc., I would expect her to have some family connection to South Asia and would be surprised to learn that she did not. I think that many if not most people with South Asian heritage would share that expectation. For people who don't make that direct association, the name may still ring slightly exotic and bring up questions about your daughter's heritage. Those who do know her family background may ask (or assume) it comes from Yiddish, Croatian, or whatever other languages may be in the mix. It sounds like you're in a cosmopolitan area where a not-insignificant number of your daughter's peers/teachers/acquaintances might have some prior familiarity with the name - and who knows where your daughter may one day end up wanting to live and work.

It's worth thinking carefully about how your daughter (and you as parents) may feel about navigating questions of identity, particularly mistaken identity. Some people easily laugh off confusion, but for others this may be more awkward or even fraught. Depending on the circles she/you travel in, she may find it aggravating or tiring to field comments, even harmless ones like "Oh! I thought you might be Desi too!" but particularly ones along the lines of "Ooh! Exotic! But I can't quite figure it out: what ARE you?" (Whatever your daughter's actual appearance, unconscious expectations can really color what other people see: another relative is regularly told by strangers how much she looks like her adoptive mom despite their different races.) I'm not trying to predict this would be a constant problem, but I wouldn't be surprised if it came up occasionally. It's not like you'd be signing your daughter up for a lifetime of racist reactions - and in any case I don't think it's entirely a bad thing for people who normally go through the world with race privilege to get the occasional taste of what people of color deal with on the regular - but I do think you'd want to be prepared to help her process those experiences.

Also, if you are hoping your daughter finds meaning and a strong connection in her half-Jewish, half-Balkan background (and given that you mention non-English speaking relatives I imagine it might be), choosing a name that connects her to an altogether different culture could potentially undermine that, depending on how you frame it. It's one thing to be able to respond, "Oh, I know it's an Indian name too, and my parents liked that meaning also, but they chose it because it means ---- in Balkan!" versus "Yeah, I get that a lot, but it's just a pretty name my family liked the sound of." Being able to have a good, positive story for the choice - "It was the one your dad and I and even all your grandparents loved the best!" - could go a long way, as could balancing it with a middle name and/or Jewish ritual name that honors her cultural backgrounds and perhaps connects to the first name in some holistic way. (As a white "Euro-mutt" American, I probably wouldn't have worried much about choosing European names that are less familiar, thus more distinctly ethnic, for white kids that don't come from that culture, but as I imagine naming potential half-Marathi kids, I'd hesitate to select, say, Saskia over Sonali. That's particularly the case because building and maintaining links to their father's culture will always be harder in the U.S., and that may not be such an issue for your family, but I wanted to mention it.) If the possibility that your daughter's name causes her to develop an interest in South Asian culture(s), and perhaps at some level identify with them, sounds like a beautiful and positive thing for your family, rather than one that detracts in a zero-sum way from other traditions you want to emphasize, then you should be fine.

As far as potentially stepping on religious sensibilities, I'm pretty confident you're in the clear with Nisha: it seems to be a popular choice in interfaith families precisely because it doesn't have any religious "baggage." In terms of general charges of cultural (rather than religious) appropriation, this always seems a little murkier to me, though I share the general impression that South Asian diaspora cultures in the U.S. don't express as fierce a need to claim and protect their pool of traditional names as some other minority-in-the-U.S. cultures (very legitimately) do. I also agree with others that intent matters and with you that privilege means not having to question your intent. Overall, I tend to feel, if you (generic you, not Keeks specifically) don't know, you should ask people from the culture, people with whom you are close - but that comes with the caveats that 1) being asked to speak on behalf of one's culture can become a burden so the request should be a serious and thoughtful one, and 2) any individual's answers - or even several - may not end up giving you a very clear answer anyway, other than in very clear-cut cases (like Cohen or Dakota). If you (generic you) don't know anyone from the culture with whom you are close enough that you feel comfortable asking the favor of their counsel, that's probably a sign you should step away. Any chance one of your (Keeks) or your husband's South Asian co-workers is a name nerd who would have fun hashing out different angles on the question with you two?

I think Nisha is a gorgeous name, and it sounds like it may yet be the right one for your family. It also sounds like you have a little time to sit with this decision, ponder, research. My humble opinion is that you seem to be asking the right sorts of questions, so whatever you decide will be considered and thoughtful. 

By EVie
March 9, 2018 5:49 PM

Hey Kalmia, it's nice to see you back! I've always enjoyed your thoughtful posts and perspective on South Asian names, so always happy when you decide to de-lurk :)

March 9, 2018 5:56 PM

What a beautifully nuanced, kind, thoughtful, and helpful response! Should you ever decide to transition from occasional lurker to regular poster, you would be an asset to this community!

March 12, 2018 10:03 AM

Thank you all, so much, for the thoughtful and nuanced discussion. I have some South Asian acquaintances but not good friends, which is why I'm hesitant to be the jerk who asks them to speak for their entire community :-) but I am curious whether, as with you, Kalmia, it would be surprising to them to hear the name and see a little white kid.

To reflect on some other musings Kalmia and other folks have expressed...this whole process has made me realize how culturally adaptable I want her to be, and sort of by extension how culturally rootless I feel...not in a bad way, to be honest, but more like, I understand better why I want this kid to have a global name. I am not the least bit practicing as a Jewish person, neither religiously nor "culturally," and yet I definitely feel out of the mainstream of sort of White-Christian-America (as, I think, does my husband, the son of immigrants), and I want this child to feel that difference, and feel comfortable wherever she may end up, and be open to all kinds of cultural experiences and expectations, and be able to easily put herself into others' shoes. I was also surprised to find (though I shouldn't have been, I guess) that I was not comfortable with the notion of my own visibility as her parent completely disappearing, which I was associating with the fact that she'd take my husband's name and mine nowhere to be found. Because of that too I wanted her first name, at least, to not be particularly Balkan, because then I feel completely disappeared—but not super mainstream American, either, because that doesn't seem fitting—and not Hebrew or Yiddish, because that'd be just weird, for me. 

Anyway, I just heard this morning an interview with a YA author writing about an Indian family and the young protagonist's name was Nisha. Gah! :-)

Leila is actually a beautiful name and has the benefit of being global in use and in origin, with Hebrew one of its origins--but unfortunately it sounds really weird with the last name (way too many L's)!

Anyway, thanks very much, all of you, for all this interesting food for thought and perspective. 

March 13, 2018 3:25 PM

And yes, in regards to the Sakura thread, I, too, think that name is an appropriative choice for the same reasons EVie noted...but in my mind the oddness of that choice was compounded significantly by that particular poster's story behind it, with having wanted the name for the first child and so on. Seems like kind of bad juju for kid #1!