These times of ours

Jul 20th 2006

I recently read a newspaper article that summarized many of the complaints I hear about contemporary baby names. Too many parents are naming their kids after movie stars, or making up "weird" names without meanings. The new names are unfamiliar and impossible to pronounce. The traditional, beloved names of past generations seem to have disappeared overnight.

One woman quoted in the article, marveling over the names of her own nieces and nephews, said she was glad she didn't become a teacher: "I am struggling to pronounce the mere six 'weird' names, imagine my plight as a teacher calling out at least thirty odd such names everyday." A name expert claimed that parents today are determined to be unique and "believe that a name should have an identity as well as an ability to be exceptional among others."

And the author of the article wistfully concluded that the common, classic names of her youth were long gone. "Kusumas and Chandimas will never stand a chance with the present generation of Shanudhas and Sathsaranjanis."

Oh, did I mention that the article was from Sri Lanka?

This lifestyle piece in the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer was an uncanny mirror of attitudes in the United States. The details may differ -- celebrity names come from Bollywood rather than Hollywood, grandparents despair that names are selected without consulting astrological charts -- but the core concerns are the same. Some of the causes, too, sound the same to me. Globalization comes up again and again, from the cultural clout of the Indian entertainment industry to the possibility of migration to the West. Names, as usual, reflect the changing world around them.

A coda at the end of the article, though, puts the whole thing in perspective. Three terse paragraphs summarize 2000 years of Sri Lankan name history: from the short ethnic names of the early kingdom, to the later blending with Sanskrit, to 450 years of shifting European-based styles as first the Portuguese then the Dutch then the English ruled the country, to the past century's gradual ascension of Sinhalese names in a series of changing styles.

So those old, familiar names that are disappearing were often one-generation wonders themselves. In an ever-changing world, "traditional" is a relative term.


By Christiana (not verified)
July 20, 2006 2:39 PM

Absolutely fascinating that all over the world - no matter what the "traditional" names are used, people are having this "need to be unique" with their baby names. I love that the aunt in the article is complaining that she can't pronounce her own niece's and nephew's names. My grandmother is always commenting on the names of other peoples children - "why can't they be named something normal?"

By Dana (not verified)
July 20, 2006 3:40 PM

And isn't it interesting that Indian and other east Asian names are becoming popular here? The world is getting smaller.

By Anonymous (not verified)
July 20, 2006 8:04 PM

I admit I gave my daughter an unique name. It wasn't made up and in fact, the name appears in the name book that I had. I just couldn't stand the thought of giving her the name Emma or Olivia. Although I love those names, I just didn't want her to be just another Emma with three others in her classroom. At times, I've had thoughts such as "oh my god, what did I just do to my daughter?!" But for the most part, I like that she'll be pretty much the only person with her name. However, I recently read an article about this designer who just became famous with his line of children's wear and he said he was inspired by his son who had the same name.

By Audrey (not verified)
July 21, 2006 1:59 PM

Interesting how each generation, no matter where you live, complains about names not being normal. My parents changed my name from what the selected (Samantha) because both sets of grandparents didn’t want their granddaughter to have a boy name. Now my husband and I are grappling with finding names that will satisfy my U.S. mutt family and his Indian family. Fortunately there are Gaelic names that are also Indian (Tara and Kiran). They’re not names I would use were I married to anyone else but that is also the great thing about living in such a multicultural society.

By wendy (not verified)
July 21, 2006 3:55 PM

In my experience, grandparents are rarely fond of names. Either they have never heard of it before, or they don't like because the older names which sound fresh to the younger generation still have the "old lady" sound to the grandparents ear.

My mom was pleased with 2 of her 9 grandchildren's names (both were family names). 4 of the names she HATED and actively lobbied the parents to choose different names. The other 3 she kept silent...guess she figured that if she complained that we would choose something worse! ;)

By Dana (not verified)
July 21, 2006 4:22 PM

Anonomous--I'm curious about what your daughter's name is now!!

When my brother was born he called my grandmother to tell her and that they had named him Studley LeRoy. My grandmother just tsk tsk'd and said, "what a lovely name." Now that's diplomatic. His name is actually Christopher but she was going to claim to love whatever they named him.

By julie (not verified)
July 21, 2006 4:45 PM

I agree that grandparents are often less than enthusiastic about names. Does anyone have experience with great-grandparents? My daughter's great-grandmother has never liked Emily ("Such an old name!") so I assume she feels the same about Amelia. (She is too polite to actually say anything, though, thankfully!) The other set of great-grandparents said something like, "Amelia? Oh, that will be Amy soon enough!"

For the record, Amelia is still Amelia!

By CHristiana (not verified)
July 21, 2006 6:14 PM

I'm with Dana - I'm curious, too! Also about Wendy's children/neices and nephews names.

My mother was named Alexa in the 1950s. She is absolutely flabbergasted that it is in the top 100 now and has been for several years - no one was named Alexa back when she was growing up! She was astounded when Christie Brinkley named her daughter Alexa in the early 90s. Of course, she's lobbying for me to name her first granddaughter after her (my husband says NO WAY).

By Cheryl (not verified)
July 21, 2006 7:59 PM

When I had my first daughter in 1994 we decided on Charlotte for a girl, Marcus for a boy.

Not wanting to listen to criticism, we told everyone that it would be Ethyl Lyn for a girl and Abraham for a boy (my last name is close to Lincoln). They, of course, knew we were joking, but we figured anything we chose would sound like an improvement.

We only told TWO people our real picks. One was my grandmother. Who said "Well, let's hope it's a boy then(!)") It didn't impact our name choice, and I figured she just still had 'old lady' conotations with the name Charlotte.

My girl is 12 now and I was hanging out with my grandmother a couple weeks ago. I mentioned what she had said way back then. She was shocked! And now loves the name (trust me, if she didn't she would let me know).

So, moral of the story: just give the baby the name that you like.

By Gina (not verified)
July 21, 2006 8:29 PM

As the mom of an Elizabeth, a Katherine and an Anne (nn Annie), I don't understand the drive for trendy or 'made up' names - or names that mean nothing to ones culture. With a German last name, I could never give my child an Asian/Indian name in good conscience - nor would I name her Helga (no offense to all you Helga's out there but there aren't many 'pretty' German names). And believe it or not, in my family it is the child with the *shortest* name who has been given a nickname! Unless, of course, you count Katherine being called "Kathleen" by my father-in-law.

By Valerie (not verified)
July 21, 2006 9:43 PM

Gina, I know what you mean about German names, but I was trying to think of some pretty ones and remembered that when we were researching our German ancestors, there were some nice names back in the 1700's like Sophia, Amalia Elisabeth, and Anna Catharina. However, one was called Wilhelmina Konradina, and there were lots of Adolphs! I don't think that name will make a comeback somehow...
Amalia is still known N. Europe, but I've never seen it used here.

By Christiana (not verified)
July 22, 2006 12:51 AM

Gina and Valerie - one of the prettiest German names I know is Loralei, if that gives you a suggestion!

Also, Gina, I think it's interesting that all your daughters names were queens of England! Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen (daughter of Henry), Katherine of Aragon, henry's first wife and Anne - of Anne Bolyn fame, the second wife of Henry. You're pretty much just short a Jane or a Mary and you'd have Henry's whole family tree.

By Valerie (not verified)
July 22, 2006 4:12 AM

Yes, the name Lorelei definitely has a pretty sound, but she was famous for luring sailors on the Rhine to their deaths, which I'm not so keen on!

By sls (not verified)
July 23, 2006 7:23 PM

Valerie--I was looking for German girl names too--had two boys who have very german names. Liked Lorelei, but knew a mean one in high school. The prettiest one I know is Anneleise, but there are already two in my husband's family. Also really liked Adelaide. Most of the names you mentioned aren't even specifically German, just European in general. We ended up with a biblical name that is also popular in Germany (as well as a big Hispanic name, no doubt for the biblical thing), Magdalena, nn Lena (pron. layna). My husband's family is very Catholic, so they liked this. A suggestion, in fact for good German names is the book The Lives of the Saints. Many saints were German and had cool names.

By jb (not verified)
July 24, 2006 11:22 AM

My husband and I have an Italian surname that is difficult to pronounce. We are debating what to do about first names for our children. Should we give our children Italian first names so they sound consistent with our last name and their cultural heritage? Or, should we give them English/American names? My in-laws, both immigrants, gave their children English/American names so they would fit in and avoid prejudice. I am interested in what others have to say on the subject. Any thoughts?

By Christiana (not verified)
July 24, 2006 11:39 AM

JB - If your last name is hard to pronounce, I would go with a simple, classic first name, even if it has Italian roots. (ie Natalia which could be either slavic, latin or italian) If your last name would be easier to pronounce if you knew it was Italian (the accent or rhythm) then go with a very Italian name, but one that is not too difficult. You don't want your kid to be having to pronounce and spell both first and last names all his/her life if you can avoid it.

By akkp (not verified)
July 24, 2006 12:10 PM

jb, I'd go with a neutral first name, unless
your ancestry is completely Italian. In an
international context, I'd find it bizarre to
meet someone with a fully Italian name who wasn't
actually Italian. It would seem like the Italian
ethnicity was being imposed upon the child, to the exclusion of all other ingredients of their heritage. But
I understand the sentiment of wanting to counteract choices made out of fear of prejudice.

By Elizabeth (not verified)
July 24, 2006 12:21 PM

Lots of the Italian American families I know named their children things like Maria, Joseph, Tony, and Angela. Those names sound Italian without standing out like Giovanni.

By Megan (not verified)
July 24, 2006 6:00 PM

My maiden name was very, very Italian. My parents gave my siblings and I names that weren't Italian... but they weren't "plain" names, either. I ended up with the most telling Gaelic(ish) name of the bunch, and I grew up with people regularly (and accurately) guessing my ethnic background.

If the Italian name is lengthy I'd go for a shorter name. Overall, I'd vote for giving your child a name that you both like - your child will handle it just fine. :)

(Oh - and once I married, my lengthy Italian name became a short Jewish name. Now people continue to comment on my name, but less so. I still enjoy it.)

By Jamie (not verified)
July 24, 2006 8:31 PM

I love love love the German name Gretchen, I also like Gretta and Heidi...Liesl's cute...but I always think of the girl from Sound of Music for that one...the Von Trapps were actually Austrian now that I think about it...

By Abi (not verified)
July 24, 2006 9:35 PM

Gretchen sounds like the noise a cat makes when bringing up a hairball. My full name is Scottish / Anglo-Saxon, which pretty much sums up my actual ethnicity. Do people think it's alright to pick names from a culture that you are deeply interested in and passionate about, even if you're not actually part of it? I've always liked Nordic names, like Jonas and Freyja for example, and been obsessed with Icelandic history/literature/culture but as far as I know am not connected to Scandinavia at all. Maybe I was Icelandic in a former life...

By Christiana (not verified)
July 25, 2006 12:35 PM

I looked up Laura's list of German girls names in her book last night - Anneliese and Lorelei are still my favorites, but there is something to be said about the cute Heidi. I like Gretchen (remember Pacey's sister on Dawson's Creek?), but it has such a harsh sound, that it feels out of place in today's trends.

If you are actively passionate about a culture, I see no problem choosing a name based on that culture. I think that as long as it's not so far out removed from yourself and you're not just following a trend (like the Gaelic/Celtic trend right now) then pick the name you like based on the fact that you like it and could spend the next 70 years calling your child that name.

By Debra (not verified)
July 25, 2006 1:04 PM

We are german and chose a Japanese name for our blond haired blue eyed daughter. It fits her perfectly and kids love to say it. I think its is fine to choose a name that isn't related to your culture in todays blended society. I want to encourage diversity and acceptance in my children and what better way than to expose them to differences. Her name is Mika (pn Mee-ka, like Nina). I've also seen it listed as Finnish and Russian in heritage, but we chose based on the Japanese meaning of new moon.

By akkp (not verified)
July 25, 2006 1:28 PM

I'm all for multicultural names from outside one's own ethnicity, as long as they're reasonably phonetic in American English. Jonas is great but Freyja is going a bit far. There's lots of this kind of thing in my own family, going back many generations.

By Char (not verified)
July 26, 2006 1:35 AM

Gina said
Unless, of course, you count Katherine being called "Kathleen" by my father-in-law.

Heh, my grandmother thought her name was Katherine for the first 20 or so years of her life. At that time her dad applied for something or other from the government in which he had to list his children-and was told he had no daughter named Katherine Elizabeth. Here someone had written Kathleen on her birth certificate in error.

The same grandmother has two great grandaughters whose names she cannot pronounce. It's kind of amusing to hear her trying so hard and totally butchering them. :)

Cultural names are not bad, provided they are easy to understand. My mom was going to name me Siobhan. I have to admit to being grateful she couldn't remember how to spell the name when it was time to take me home and so changed her mind.

By Jen (not verified)
July 26, 2006 10:35 AM

The name Freyja (more often spelt Freya)is becoming very popular in the UK. I think it was about number 40 in the name charts last year.

For those who don't know - Freyja was the Norse Goddess of Love.

I went to school with a Freya - it was unheard of back then and then a couple of years ago, there were sunddenly tons of baby Freyas everywhere!

By Jen (not verified)
July 26, 2006 10:42 AM

About Asian names becoming more popular - same pattern in the UK.

Alisha and Ayisha are popular for white girls and I once met a 10 year old Chandra (blonde and blue eyed).

I think this may be the area I live in though, there are lots of Bengali and Pakisatani families and I think people hear a name they think is pretty and just use it. I've got no problem with using names from other cultures, it's made-up names I can't stand.

I have noticed that there are no little boys with Asian names who aren't actually Asian round here, though

By Cheryl (not verified)
July 26, 2006 3:07 PM

I think parents tend to be more conservative naming their sons. There is a bit more freedom to choose exotic names for daughters.

Also, I knew a 10-year-old Chandra in the late 70's. I didn't know it was an Asian name. I thought it was maybe Sanskrit?

By Dana (not verified)
July 26, 2006 6:36 PM

Freyja or Freya is a really cool name!!! I say go for cultural blend. The US is, afterall, supposed to be a melting pot.

By Valerie (not verified)
July 26, 2006 7:37 PM

"I've got no problem with using names from other cultures, it's made-up names I can't stand."

You know, I completely aqree with you Jen, but I do have this nagging thought at the back of my mind going," Hmmm... all names were made up at one time or another!"
For me, I much prefer a name with a history and a pedigree, and I'm open to names from any culture. My husband is much more conservative though...

By Debra (not verified)
July 26, 2006 9:26 PM

We almost named our daughter Phaedra (pn Fay-dra) which is Greek. I forget the exact story, but it is from Greek mythology, which always ends tragic. I still think its a beautiful name, but since my sister named her cat that, we opted for something else.

By Christiana (not verified)
July 27, 2006 12:07 PM

Debra - I love that name - I've heard it before, but I'm not sure where (probably from Greek mythology in school) - too bad your sisters cat got it first. What was your alternative?

I like the name Freya - but I'd stay away from the more difficult spelling, I think. Of course, i remember reading a book 12 years ago where there was a character named Chloe and I had no idea how to say that, either, so maybe people will get used to the scandinavian spellings. Expect that she will forever have to spell her name out for people though.

By Bonnie (not verified)
July 27, 2006 9:01 PM

How about people who take a "normal" name and instead of making up a name, just make up a random spelling? I was watching a documentary about a child with dwarfism the other day and when they kept calling her "Kennedy" I assumed it was a typical (if pretentious) last name being used as a girl's first name. I believe there was an MTV "journalist" who went by the name, prompting the parody character called "McGovern" to be cast on "Murphy Brown" (that's three examples right there).

But sadly, this little girl's name is spelled Kenadie.

By Christiana (not verified)
July 28, 2006 1:36 PM

Sometimes i look at the weird spellings of names and wonder "were they trying to be different, or do they really not know how to spell?" I once knew a woman (much older) whose mother heard the name Eileen on a radio program and liked it, but didn't know how to spell it. She spelled it Aileen on her daughters birth certificate. Is that what happens to these other parents? I've always collected unusual spellings, but if you take an unusual spelling for a very common name, there are still likely to be a dozen people turning around when you call your daughter from across the room at school. (I.e., If you name your kid Madalynn there were more than 10,000 babies with that pronunciation last year.)

By Robyn (not verified)
July 28, 2006 6:35 PM

about great-grandparents: my friend (japanese-american) gave her kid a japanese name. i think the great-grandma likes it. but i found it amusing that she can't really pronounce it in the japanese way either. not sure about the non-japanese side of the family. but i think this is one solution: if you choose these names from your heritage that are fresh and unusual now but the older generation may see it as proper or something.

about names from other cultures, i wouldn't do something too obvious. i fear charges of appropriation.

By Mary (not verified)
July 29, 2006 3:04 AM

I have a blended culture extended family and think that parents should just pick names that they like and will fit the child once he is grown up. Having a multicultural name like Juan Smith, Colleen Garcia, Tatiana Panjabi, or Adawale FitzGerald is really not unusual anymore.
Also, Aileen is not an uncommon spelling of Eileen. I think it is just the more british spelling of the name. Which is the Irish version of Helen.

By Tansey (not verified)
July 31, 2006 4:12 AM

Cheryl - I had to laugh at your Ethyl Lyn - believe it or not its my grandmother's name - albeit Ethlyn. Since my father was 48 when I was born and he was the youngest in his family, she was actually an 1860's lady who I never met.

By Mandy (not verified)
July 31, 2006 9:26 PM

My husband and I want to name our daughter Hudson but have had a number of people respond with "Isn't that a boy's name? Also, we will be working along the Hudson River for the first few years of her life, do you think that is corny?


By Christiana (not verified)
August 2, 2006 12:52 PM

Mandy - Isn't it the trend to name girls boys names? There are a couple of actresses named hudson that I can think of, so it's not like you're the first one! (Hudson Leick is the first name that pops into my head).

And as far as the Hudson River... if you know you won't be staying there forever then it will be a good way to remember that time of your life (bryce Dallas Howard was born in Dallas TX, thus her middle name).

By Christiana (not verified)
August 2, 2006 12:52 PM

Mandy - Isn't it the trend to name girls boys names? There are a couple of actresses named hudson that I can think of, so it's not like you're the first one! (Hudson Leick is the first name that pops into my head).

And as far as the Hudson River... if you know you won't be staying there forever then it will be a good way to remember that time of your life (bryce Dallas Howard was born in Dallas TX, thus her middle name).

By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
August 2, 2006 9:08 PM

It reminds me of Chelsea Clinton, who was named "Chelsea" because her parents were in Chelsea, England when she was conceived (apparently after a long period of infertility).

By Christiana (not verified)
August 3, 2006 2:43 PM

I'd never heard that about Chelsea CLinton - interesting.

By Christiana (not verified)
August 7, 2006 6:44 PM

Cheryl, I love the name of your daughter - Mika - it's adorable. I think there is a young actress, also blonde haired and blue eyed named Mika who is popular in Hollywood these days. (played the little sister is Blue Crush and Dirty Dancing: havana nights). I'm sure you're right that kids love heaering those sounds and saying it.

Laura mentioned in her book about the Bell sounds - the sounds that are pleasant and how one trend is to just jumble several of them up and make a new name. While frustrating to those of su who love the history of names, the names are still pleasant to the ear.

By Lorelei (not verified)
August 8, 2006 4:31 AM

I was reading a few of the comments on the name Lorelei, and so many people thought it was a beautiful name but were afraid to name there children it because the meaning has something to do with a german myth of a beautiful woman luring sailors to their death. My name is Lorelei and so very often when my name is asked people always generally say how beautiful it is-I was named after the song LORELEI by Styx-the words are great and complimenting. I have never met another Lorelei, but if it sounds beautiful to you, you can have your own meaning.

By Christiana (not verified)
August 8, 2006 12:59 PM

Lorelei - Cool! I've always loved the name Lorelei/Lorelai (from Gilmore Girls) and I've always liked the idea of having a song with your name in it, so thanks for telling me about the Styx song - I'll have to look it up. It's a great name - so lyrical and romantic sounding. Maybe I should put it back in the running.

By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
August 8, 2006 5:12 PM

When you do have a child, I think you're going to be disappointed that you can only use two (or maybe three names)! You will have to keep us posted on what the name ends up being, much as Harmonie did.

By Christiana (not verified)
August 8, 2006 7:29 PM

I know it's crazy, huh? Maybe it's actually a good things that I'm in line to have twins (scary thought!)

By Medbh (not verified)
August 9, 2006 3:02 PM

Julie: I love Amelia and had it picked for a future daughter, except that it's suddenly become popular in these parts. I would have shortened it to Millie, rather than Amy. An aquaintance shortened her Amelia to Mia. But of course you don't have to shorten it to anything at all.

As for great-grandparents, I have a funny story. We named our son Fergus, after the town where my mother was born and my grandmother and great-grandmother lived. My grandmother (Fergus's great-granny) was mortified (though she never told me... just my mum). She couldn't imagine why we'd name our son after a TOWN! The town was, of course, named after a man named Fergus.

By Kelly (not verified)
August 11, 2006 3:59 AM

I'm finding this thread so interesting!

I named my kids with fairly traditional names, Anna and Eli. No problem. Even explaining that Anna's name (AH-na) is pronounced like it is in the rest of the world has gone okay. But...

...their last name--Ivanov--causes such difficulties here in the ol' USA. Ee-VA-nof. THE MOST COMMON Russian last name. Doesn't work here at all. I feel really bad about it.

So, my comment is...don't pick a foreign name. Doesn't work in the USA at all.

By Kelly (not verified)
August 11, 2006 4:01 AM

Oops! I forgot to mention that this post was inspired by the intro to this thread, in which a teacher complained about "weird names."

When your name is a "weird" surname in the US, you're in trouble.